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Supporters of traditional marriage put away signs after a rally at Utah Supporters of traditional marriage put away signs after a rally at Utah's State Capitol building in Salt Lake City, Utah January 28, 2014. e to legalize same-sex marriage when a federal district judge ruled on Dec. 20 that a state ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. His ruling was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before about 1,400 gay couples had tied the knot. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)  

When ‘leave us alone’ became ‘bake us a cake!’

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Matt K. Lewis
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      Matt K. Lewis

      Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor to The Daily Caller, and a contributing editor for The Week. He is a respected commentator on politics and cultural issues, and has been cited by major publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Matt is from Myersville, MD and currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Matt K. Lewis on Twitter <a>@mattklewis</a>.

Would Jesus bake a cake for a gay wedding?

It’s a weird question, but we do live in interesting times. And believe it or not, this has become one of the most heated debates of the week. That’s because, this week, liberal Christians pushed the argument that legislation allowing Christian florists and bakers to decline to work for same-sex weddings is tantamount to Jim Crow laws.

The analogy is a stretch. Sexual orientation is not race — and permitting what would most definitely be a very small number of observant Christians to exercise their right of conscience is vastly different from pervasive and state-sponsored racism. (But it is perfectly understandable why anyone would want to appropriate the moral high ground that comes from comparing yourself to civil rights crusaders — and your opponents to white supremacists.)

This doesn’t mean the laws are a good idea, but it does mean this particular analogy (no matter how tempting it is to deploy) is a false one. It’s also a powder keg. If your opening volley hinges on comparing your intellectual adversaries to segregationists, you can’t expect an elevated debate.

The truth is, this is a tough issue that pits things we value as a society against things we value as a society.

We have reached a point in the gay rights debate where all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. We are now entering into the zero-sum game phase of the debate, where gay rights and religious liberty must collide. (In other words, the cake is only so big. If you take a piece, you are guaranteeing the other guy has less cake.)

So who’s right? My guess is one could guarantee public opinion is on either side of the issue, depending on how you frame the question. If, for example, you were to ask someone whether or not “businesses should be allowed to deny services to same-sex couples,” the answer would, of course, be “no.”

On the other hand, ask Americans if “government should have the right to forcefully coerce Christians to violate their convictions,” and the answer would also be “no.”

This is a much more difficult and nuanced topic than either side would care to admit. Where you stand on this issue probably comes down to whether or not you see this through the frame of Jim Crow — or through the frame of religious liberty.

And that is probably contingent on your values.

The tension between liberty and equality is alive and well in this debate.

But let’s be honest about something else. This is really a surrogate battle. A much bigger one is coming.

Opponents of these bills score points when they argue that florists and bakers aren’t exactly granting their imprimatur when they make a cake or put together a flower arrangement for a gay wedding. Additionally, they are correct in assuming that most Christians, whether they agree with same-sex marriage, or not, would still bake the cake. In fact, this could be seen as an example of Christian love.

But this is another example of how this schism cannot be easily brushed aside like so many wedding cake crumbs. In recent years, libertarian-leaning conservatives have largely sided with the gay rights argument. Proud members of the “leave us alone” coalition were apt to side with a group of people who just wanted to be left alone to love the person they love (and what happens in the bedroom is nobody’s business).

At some point, however, “leave us alone” became “bake us a cake. Or else!”

And that’s a very different thing, altogether.

The reason conservative Christians are fighting this fight today is because it’s a firewall. The real danger, of course, is that Christian pastors and preachers will eventually be coerced into performing same-sex marriages. (Note: It is entirely possible for someone to believe gay marriage is fine, and to still oppose forcing people who hold strong religious convictions to participate — but I suspect that is where we are heading.)

Think of it this way. If you were a congregant in a church, wouldn’t you expect the pastor to marry you? Why should you be treated different?

Any pastor — if he or she wants to maintain the church’s tax status, that is — had better grapple with this now.

Whether the analogy is fair, or not, refusing to officiate a gay wedding can just as easily be called “denying service.” And it will predictably also be compared to the bad old days of Jim Crow — where racist Christians opposed interracial marriage (until the courts struck down state laws prohibiting biracial marriage).

Gay rights and religious liberty are on a collision course.