A Better Way
I see in the news that another major “religious liberty” battle appears to be brewing (actually multiple are currently brewing of which the subject of this essay is only one facet). As reported in the press, a Christian photographer named Emilee Carpenter filed a lawsuit in New York in April claiming that non-discrimination laws in the state were forcing her to create work “against her beliefs” or face numerous fines. Carpenter sued the state for violating her First and 14th Amendment rights after being asked to photograph same sex couples. As of a few weeks ago, Carpenter’s lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. District Judge in Western New York, stating the nondiscrimination laws “simply seek to guarantee that businesses purporting to serve the public truly do serve the public.” I have little doubt that Carpenter and her backers in this litigation will file an appeal and perhaps try to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, particularly given the current conservative inclinations of SCOTUS to show preference particularly for Christians pressing these types of issues (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/12/17/ny-photographer-nondiscrimination-lawsuit-dismissed/8937589002/ ).
Carpenter’s lawyers specifically framed this case as being analogous to the well-known case of the Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake to celebrate the marriage of a same sex couple because of a religious objection. That case went all the way to SCOTUS and was decided in favor of the baker, but on narrow grounds regarding the attitude and disposition displayed by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission toward the baker rather than the substance of the Colorado law itself (https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/04/politics/masterpiece-colorado-gay-marriage-cake-supreme-court/index.html ). Interestingly, that same baker is back in the news again after being sued for refusing to bake a birthday cake for a transgender woman with pink on the inside and blue on the outside to symbolize her transition from male to female (https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/18/us/jack-phillips-colorado-baker-discrimination-trnd/index.html ). This time around, at least for the moment, a Denver district court judge has upheld the case filed by the transgender woman, but I again have little doubt that the plaintiff will likely appeal the ruling.
In a pluralistic free society such as ours, the freedoms of one individual or group are bound to collide at times with the freedoms of a different individual or group. That’s one of the reasons that nondiscrimination laws have been established — to create a legal and fair framework under which such collisions are to be assessed and arbitrated at least with respect to issues of potential discrimination. Let’s set aside for the moment the issue of how questions of “religious liberty” or “freedom of conscience” should be prioritized within such a framework (which in my experience always include provisions to protect from discrimination that might be directed against individuals or groups based on their religious beliefs).
Core to both cases appears to be a claim that the “creativity” or “artistry” involved in the specific business activity (e.g., custom photography or custom cake design) is an essential component of the reason the “artist’s” conscience is being compromised in a material way. As a Christian believer and a person who considers freedom of conscience to be one of the most fundamental freedoms, I can appreciate the difficulties here for a person of conscience who truly believes that the exercise of their creativity in carrying out a business request would cause them to present a message that goes against their beliefs (whether I agree with their particular beliefs on a given matter or not). However, also as a Christian believer, I think there is a deeper commitment to conscience that is being ignored and even bulldozed over by the behavior of these Christian business owners.
Before I get to a discussion of that deeper commitment, I think it is appropriate to comment on a related claim to “persecution” that I have found to be common among conservative Christians. To illustrate, I’d like to share a story that took place a number of years ago for which my own family was a direct witness. At the time of this event, my oldest daughter was running cross country for the team at her public charter high school. The coach of the team was a teacher from the school who happened to be of the Catholic faith, and one of the local Moms who was an outspoken conservative Christian was helping out as a volunteer assistant coach for the team. At the end of practice one day, the volunteer Mom gathered the team around her and decided to lead them in prayer for a tragic event that had occurred. She did not make this a voluntary activity, but instead clearly compelled all the girls to circle around and participate (as reported by my daughter and as perceived by other girls on the team). As one might expect, some of the girls on the team who did not share the Christian faith felt very uncomfortable about this and reported the incident to their parents who subsequently complained to the school administration. As a result, the volunteer Mom was barred from participating in any further team coaching activities because her actions specifically violated written school policies of which she was well aware.
At a subsequent youth event held at a local church where my daughter was present, this same Mom got up front and presented this circumstance to those in attendance in a strident and offended manner as an example of being persecuted for her Christian faith. Sadly, this overall incident also led to a personal falling out between the volunteer Mom and the coach, because the Mom accused the coach of being a bad Christian for not trying to defend the Mom’s actions. My wife and I were appalled by all of this given that to us this was a clear-cut example of a believer using coercion and behaving in an obnoxious and overbearing manner with a public platform of responsibility and authority within which she could have invited the girls to voluntarily participate or opt out at their discretion, which would have made all the difference in the world. Is it a good thing to pray for those injured or affected by tragedy? Of course, it is. But it is not okay to compel those who don’t want to pray to do so, particularly in the context of a secular public setting. Unfortunately, the poor witness and improper angry response of the volunteer Mom was very well received by the broader local Christian community and served to reinforce general feelings of indignation and persecution that tend to be deeply ingrained within that community. From my own observations, this type of occurrence and sentiment is sadly not at all uncommon in the current context of conservative evangelicalism.
In this same vein of thought, I’d also like to comment separately on very divisive public circumstance in the state of Kentucky that was highly publicized back in 2015. Most readers will recall the scenario in which Kim Davis, a county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky decided that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which was the duty and obligation of her office under the law, was a violation of her conscience as an individual whose personal religious convictions led her to believe same-sex marriage to be morally wrong and that her issuing of a marriage license was tantamount to asking her to personally sanction such unions. Davis took this issue to the point of choosing to defy a US Federal court order commanding her to comply with the duties of her office, which led to her being jailed for contempt of court. Ultimately, Davis was released after five days in jail with instructions to not interfere with the efforts of her deputy clerks to issue the certificates, but still felt the need to modify the content of the certificates to remove her name as the certifying official. Davis was later voted out of office in Kentucky, but she and her allies continued to appeal her case until it was finally rejected by the US Supreme Court in 2020 after nearly five years of on-going legal battles (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/supreme-court/supreme-court-rejects-appeal-county-clerk-who-wouldn-t-issue-n1242124 ).
Many in the broader evangelical movement were up in arms about this case, considering Kim Davis to be a hero taking a courageous stand for what was right and holding the entire circumstance to be yet another egregious example of Christians being persecuted for their beliefs and having their religious liberties violated. As an outside observer of this and a fellow Christian, I felt that Davis had done a very poor job of intermingling her personal convictions with her professional office and duties. Anyone in a professional role or elected office who finds themselves in the position of being asked to conduct perfectly legal activities that may go against their personal moral convictions has the option to choose to leave their position if they feel sufficiently strongly about the issue at hand. That might have been a courageous and appropriate thing for Kim Davis to do under the circumstances, but she instead chose to be derelict in her legal duties as an elected official for the sake of her personal convictions (and perhaps a personal axe to grind) and to create a major national public uproar in the process.
I don’t find that to be courageous; I find it to be both wrong-headed and wrong-hearted. In the case at hand, I can’t imagine how painful and injurious her actions and the associated national spotlight and outpouring of anger and vitriol from like-minded Christians around the nation must have been to the very real human beings who were simply seeking to exercise their rights to be married under the law, but found themselves instead subjected to what I am certain they felt and experienced to be hateful personal attacks. Not to mention the adverse impacts all of this must have had on their plans for marriage gatherings and celebrations and their having to explain and deal with the associated schedule delays and disruptions with their many friends and family members. So, who was being persecuted here? Who is being injured? And how should the collision of conflicting individual rights of belief have been resolved? Regardless of what one’s beliefs about same-sex marriage might be, we live in a pluralistic society comprised of individuals and groups with widely varying beliefs, all of whose rights should be fairly and equitably upheld to the degree possible. That’s a paradigm that I think aligns well with God’s ways as presented in Scripture.
From my perspective however, the paradigm I see active in both these stories and in conservative evangelicalism at large is not one that seeks to uphold the rights of all people and groups in a fair and equitable fashion, but rather one that holds Christians and Christianity to be deserving of preferential treatment vis-à-vis other individuals and systems of belief. This is all part and parcel of the Culture Wars militant mentality that prevails among evangelicals to such an extent that it has contributed to leading many Christians to abandon core commitments to character, integrity, and truth in favor of allying themselves with corruption, conspiracy, and lies for the sake of gaining the upper hand of political influence and coercive power. Much of the power politics of the Christian right dating back to the 1980s has had this aim and effect, all culminating in the emergence of Trumpism as the dominant force among Culture Warriors and far too many conservative Christians.
Is this in line with Christian teachings? I find nowhere in the Bible anything to indicate that the ends justify the means or that the way of God is coercive relative to humanity. Rather I find a God who freely offers the grace of His sacrifice to all and under whom the exercise of human will represents an opportunity for human beings to make freely determined actual choices of real significance. Whether one comes from an Arminian or Calvinist perspective or somewhere between or beyond, I am of the understanding that all historical orthodox Christian systems of theology have held these facts to be true relative to the mysterious paradox of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. God’s ways are not those of domineering power or forced coercion. God’s ways are not those of grasping for worldly political power in the person of a lawless authoritarian leader willing to show preferential treatment to white conservative Christians. His ways do not seek to pack the Supreme Court with partisan judges selected specifically for their personal ideological and interpretational biases to show favoritism toward one group (i.e., Christians and conservatives) over all others. I see nowhere that God indicates that the freedom and liberty we have in Christ (including any rights which He allows us to enjoy under the authority of any system of human government) is ever to be wielded as a club to punish or oppress those who don’t believe as we do. Rather His ways are those of a Savior who came into the world as a baby born into the humblest of circumstances and who purposefully and lovingly set His face toward a cross on which his life would be poured out on our behalf. God’s ways are expressed in Scripture in verses like the following:
Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. — Zechariah 4:6
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. — Romans 13: 8–10 [emphasis added]
In 1 Corinthians 12:31, the apostle Paul introduces this critical theme for all believers as he leads into the core teachings on love found in 1 Corinthians 13, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” In some versions this is translated “a better way”, but the point is the same in either instance. God’s way is the way of love; He does not force His ways on humanity, but has revealed Himself to us in meaningful ways and has graciously invited us to His table. But the choice is ours. We are called not only to love those who agree with us or those who love us in return, but to love those who disagree with us and even hate us. As it is written:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:43–48 [emphasis added]
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus explicitly identifies our neighbor in a manner that encompasses those who are most reviled and ostracized and excluded among religious circles. At a minimum, this includes all people outside of the church that we may encounter anywhere in our communities and public spaces (including our public schools), regardless of their status or beliefs. In our day, would this not even more clearly and directly apply to those in the LGBTQ+ community? Absolutely. And yet how have these individuals, who also bear the image of God and for whom Christ also died, too often been treated by the church? In the manner exhibited by the volunteer coach, the Colorado baker, the New York photographer, and the Kentucky county clerk. And this should not be so. The deeper commitment to “love our neighbor as ourselves” is the deeper commitment to conscience that is being ignored and even bulldozed over by the behavior of these Christian examples and many others like them. As I said before, even if the moral convictions of these believers are Biblically correct, their approach and response does violence to the higher call of Christians to follow the “better way” of love toward friend and foe, insider and outsider. As it is written:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” — John 13:34–35
And yet, what are evangelical (and most conservative) Christians best known for in our day? For judgmentalism. For condemnation. For being the first to cast the largest stones (even at one another). For hypocrisy. For hatred, anger, vitriol, malice. These are not the fruits to which we have been called, but they are the manifest fruits of conservative Christianity that have been most visible to the watching world and most characteristic to their eyes over the past several decades in America. And when the world responds to the church in negative ways because of very public Christian attitudes and behaviors such as these, Christians again claim to be under persecution. Not so, my brothers and sisters. In all such instances the Church is simply reaping a natural response to our own bad fruit, which reflects the rotten state of the contemporary conservative Christian tree. A Barna poll taken in 2013 did not shine a good light on the state of the Christian Church (https://www.barna.com/research/christians-more-like-jesus-or-pharisees/ ), and I have no doubt from more recent reading and observation that the highly visible alliance of evangelicals with Donald Trump and conservative politics in more recent years has done even greater damage to the general reputation of the Church and Christ among non-believers (see for example: https://www.barna.com/research/evangelicals-political-lens/ ). Certainly, there are many good works also being done by Christians, but too often they are completely overshadowed by the near ubiquitous bad behavior of believers as manifested all across our country.
Would it not have been better for the Colorado Christian baker and the New York photographer to have lovingly and graciously served those from the LGBTQ+ community who came to them and to have cultivated a relationship with them within which the love and grace of Christ might perhaps have had an opportunity to be made manifest? Would it not have been a more winsome witness for the volunteer cross-country coach to have invited those who wanted to participate in prayer for those affected by tragedy, while making no big deal about it and graciously allowing the others to opt out (or simply observe) as desired? How would it be if Christians authentically demonstrated empathy and understanding toward transgendered people and sought to develop positive solutions that would accommodate their needs and concerns in a loving (and perhaps even sacrificial) manner (such as simply providing gender neutral bathrooms) rather than demonizing them? Is this not to the greater glory of God? I certainly think so and I believe this would be much more in conformance with the teachings of Christ than the way things have actually played out.
Too many of my fellow Christians seem to perpetually walk around with a chip of entitlement on their shoulders, to the extent that they even appear to purposely create opportunities within which they can claim (often at the expense of the needs and rights of others) that they have been discriminated against or that their religious rights have been violated. In truth, when Christians behave in these ways they are obnoxiously and belligerently making much of themselves and their own worldly interests and are not truly making much of the Savior and God they purport to represent. This is the way of self-righteousness and self-seeking and is contrary to the ways of Jesus. Christ has shown us a better way by His own example and teachings. Brothers and sisters, let us follow Him and not the inclinations of our fleshly need to somehow be right or righteous (often in our own eyes). The former is the way of light and life. The latter is the way of darkness and death. The former glorifies God. The latter seeks to glorify self (and fails miserably). The former is the way of the good and faithful servant. The latter is the way of those who say “Lord, Lord” but know Him not. Dear friends, let us choose the better way.
And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13
While I may not ascribe to the totality of moral and/or theological positions represented in any of the following books, each represents what I would consider to be essential reading for Christians to better love, empathize with, and minister to the LGBTQ+ community. From all I have observed and read, the so-called “gay agenda” that has been the subject of much consternation and anger among social conservatives for the past four decades (at least) is little more than a fictional strawman purposely erected by anti-gay groups for purposes of promoting fear and misunderstanding in a manner intended to perpetuate the broader Culture Wars agenda and movement. Regardless of where you come down on moral or theological questions in this area, each of these books is well worth your time.
Torn by Justin Lee
Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu
People to be Loved by Preston Sprinkle
Embodied by Preston Sprinkle