My home state, Idaho, is the latest locale for the showdown between the LGBT movement and Christian businesses. This time, it’s not a Christian bakery or photographer, but a wedding chapel. You can read the article here.
It’s tempting for Christians to think that these instances of Christian businesses being forced to acquiesce to the LGBT agenda is the result of the recent and sweeping legalization of “gay marriage”, but that conclusion seems a little too reactionary, and misses some more fundamental issues that Christians should have been aware over the past few decades. Think about it: typically, making something legal does not automatically make it illegal to decline participation in that thing. When marijuana was recently made legal in a few states, it was not simultaneously made illegal for a Washingtonian to decline a joint offered to him by his neighbor, or for a Colorado woman to tell her kids that smoking pot can be bad for them. So why then, is the legalization of “gay marriage” resulting in the criminalization of those who disagree with gay marriage? There is obviously something else at play.
If you read about these cases carefully, you’ll find that it is not (yet) Christian churches or individuals who are being criminalized for their disagreement with “gay marriage”, but Christian businesses. This is important because the legal accusations being brought against them do not even concern “gay marriage”, as such, but discrimination in general. They are being threatened with prosecution under anti-discrimination laws, and those laws are particularly applicable to businesses at the time being. And these, the anti-discrimination laws, are the real legal problem behind the current backlash against Christians. Of course, this is a lot harder for many to grasp — and much more to argue — since blaming anti-discrimination laws makes one sound, well, discriminatory. These laws were put in place mostly as an (over)reaction to the evil discrimination of whites toward blacks in prior eras. But in the hurry to prove how ‘not racist’ we all are, no one — including the Christian — stopped to think about the inevitable consequences of making discrimination illegal.
What is Discrimination?
Discrimination, strictly defined, means exercising one’s will toward a preference of one thing over another thing. When applied to society, it simply means interacting with other people according to your values — and we do this all the time. When you choose to go to McDonald’s rather than Burger King, you have discriminated based on quality (or price, or convenience, etc…); when you choose to propose to the woman you love, you have discriminated against all other women on many grounds (beauty, affection, personal values, etc…); when you choose a place to live, you have discriminated against all other options on grounds of location, affordability, amenities, etc…; when you open a business doing something you love, you have discriminated against opening every other type of business on the grounds of your personal preference. You see, discrimination is not a bad thing (in and of itself). It is essential to freedom, because it is simply the free exercise of your own ideas and values.
But what about the bad discrimination!? Choosing not to interact with people because of their skin color, or their gender, etc…? These are examples of people discriminating in a way that most of society would agree is wrong (as would I). Now here is the crucial question: should such discrimination be made illegal — i.e. should the government punish people who exercise such discrimination? The answer given by our recent forefathers who put the anti-discrimination laws in place was “yes, but…”: “Yes, people should be punished for discrimination like this, but we don’t want to go too far and violate the first amendment — so, we’ll just make it illegal for businesses to discriminate like that”. And thus, anti-discrimination laws were born.
Individuals, Yes. Businesses, No….?
On what grounds, though, do these laws distinguish between individuals and businesses? Pay attention now, because this is where the Christian (and everyone else, for that matter) is going to have to choose. Businesses, after all, are owned by individuals. A business is simply a material extension of the individual(s) who own(s) and operate(s) it. To outlaw an action by a business is no different than outlawing that action by the individuals who own that business (because the business is an extension of themselves and their values). Therefore, anti-discrimination laws, no matter how well intended, do violate the first amendment, and more fundamentally, the individual rights to property and to liberty. By all means, people should boycott businesses which practice discrimination in a way they deem unacceptable (i.e. I would never patronize a business which refused black people as customers), but don’t undercut universal individual rights by bringing the government into the equation! Since the anti-discrimination laws do undercut fundamental individual rights, it should be no surprise that they eventually reached into certain exercises of those rights that no one, 50 years ago, would have imagined: the right to refuse to use one’s own business in a way that is against one’s own religion. But here we are, and Christians are in a surprised tissy fit over it all.
Why the Surprise, brother Christian?
Why the Surprise, though? Because rather than understanding and upholding the proper role of government (the protection of individual rights) in the midst of a swath of groups who wish to abuse others with the government, the Church has by and large been playing fast and loose with the government, itself, in its irrational and reactionary defense to its opponents in “the culture war”. The Church was all too eager to use the billy-club of government coercion against the liberals, in battles over mandatory prayer in public schools and preventing gay couples from calling themselves “married”, but now the tides (i.e. majority) have changed, and that billy-club (temporarily) belongs to the liberals; the Church wants (rightfully) to call “foul!”, but has lost all credibility to do so, because of its many fouls during the heyday of the moral majority. Rather than being the referee which strictly upheld the proper use of the law, the Church chose to become one of the many thugs struggling against each other in the attempt to wield (and abuse) the law for its own nefarious advantages. Now the the Church has no moral ground to stand on when it attempts to defend itself on the grounds that the law is being used unjustly.
In spite of the fact that Christians just pathetically look like the big bully on the playground who just had the tables turned on him (and that is pretty much the case), there is still a way for Christians, and the Church in general, to move forward and resume their rightful place as objective referee (i.e. prophet) to the government: we must repent. But before that, we must understand. Christians must learn and understand the proper role of government. The state is not instituted to be a theocracy (to any degree); nor is it instituted to punish all evil. The state is meant to punish a very particular kind of evil: the evil of violating individual rights. When, and only when, the Church comes to understand this, it will be able to see why it must repent of its prior abuses of the law.
The Olive Branch (and Litmus Test)
What specific acts of repentance could, and should, be performed though? There is one which I think would function beautifully both as an olive branch (toward those the Church has attempted to abuse) and as a litmus test ( to prove that we really mean it when we say we are for individual rights), and that is: support the legalization of “gay marriage”. Not “support gay marriage”, but support the legalization of it; i.e. support the individual right of gay couples to call themselves “married” and to receive the same unjust tax breaks associated with being called “married” by the state. If Christians did this, they could gain some moral ground by proving that they are objectively for individual rights — across the board (not just when it suits them) — and that they can be trusted in the debate about the proper role of the government in society. If Christians don’t do this, then the Church will reap what it has sown politically. And it won’t be pretty.