February 24, 2014

Jonathan Merritt, Christian Artistic Expression and the Preferential Option for Caesar

– by Keith Pavlischek

Jonathan Merritt , a blogger and journalist, who I’m told is associated with the progressive wing of Evangelical Christianity, recently published a blog post,  MLK[Martin Luther King] would agree with Kirsten Powers on serving same-sex couples.

The upshot of Merritt’s blog is that Christian photographers, bakers, and florists and the like should, (1) as a matter of Christian ethics and morality be willing to offer their services at gay weddings or other such events, since that, according to Kirsten Powers,  is what Jesus would do; and  (2) Christians and others should be required by law to serve at “gay weddings” or some similar type event, even if it would violate their conscience to do so.

These are two related although distinct questions. I will leave (1) to others. My focus will be on (2).

Now, I’m generally not concerned with asking questions such as “What would Jesus do?” A resort to that type of  rhetorical question is typically evidence of an immature theological mind, whether the appeal comes from the left or the right.  But since Powers played the “what would Jesus do” card, and since Merritt endorses and defends it, I’ll play along.

The precise issue is whether Jesus would take the job if he were an artist and was offered cash to photograph and paint a picture of a gay or lesbian wedding,  or–just to make sure we have the entire LGBT spectrum covered– a special type of bi-sexual threesome ceremony, or a ceremony solemnizing the friendship of the transgendered or whatever other kind of sexual-identity ceremony you can imagine.  I confess to finding the affirmative answer to question  not entirely compelling, but evidently Mr. Merritt and Ms. Powers seem to think it is.  So, for the sake of argument, I’ll concede their point.

In any case, Merritt is not content with simply denouncing Christian photographers and such who do have moral objections to photographing events that would violate conscience. He is after bigger game. He  seems to believe that as a matter of social justice Jesus would have Caesar force his disciples (at least those who are artists) to photograph or paint these events. “When it comes to the American marketplace,” he concludes his commentary, “the ocean of religious convictions stops at the shore of public service.” Merritt clearly approves and endorses this view.

According to Merritt (and Powers) then, not only would Jesus paint or photograph the  gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender “wedding” ceremony, he would call upon Caesar to force his recalcitrant disciples to do so if they refused.   And since there just be some kind of sanction for a refusal to do so, Merritt(and Powers) must believe that Jesus would support some kind of penalty–fine, or imprisonment –were his disciples to refuse to paint or photograph those events. Jesus, according to this line of argument, believes that they deserve, as a matter of justice, to be punished by Caesar. (We’ll leave to the side questions related to the degree of the punishment–fine, imprisonment, forcing the business to close, etc.)

Now, one of the most obvious objections to Merritt’s position is that there is something fundamentally different  between laws requiring the owner of certain public accommodations, such as restaurants, gas stations, retail stores and so forth and, on the one hand, and laws that burden a person’s fundamental First Amendment rights to free speech and expression on the other. Those who would recognize this distinction might agree that if Jesus was selling photographs  or paintings in his craft store in downtown  Jerusalem, he would probably sell them to all sorts of sinners passing by as well as to his disciples. He would sell them to Samaritans as well as the “real” Jews, to women taken in adultery as well as the most pious law abiding Jews.  But there is something relevantly different, the argument goes,  between that and forcing someone to participate in,  a gay, lesbian transsexual ceremony or a bi-sexual-threesome ceremony or similar type events.

This distinction was suggested by one comment on Merritt’s blog:

Respectfully, I have to disagree with the entire premise. We’re not talking about refusing gays service at a lunch counter, or even serving them cake. It’s about compelling someone to use their artistic gifts in a way that violates their sincerely held beliefs. Whether or not you agree with those beliefs, it’s chilling that government may be participating in such coercion. It’s also bothersome to me that those of us who believe in defending the traditional view of marriage are now characterized as bigots. Since MLK didn’t support SSM, was he a bigot as well?

Now, I must confess that I find this distinction to be relevant and important. But Mr. Merritt rejects it entirely:

The “artistic gifts” argument is a bit of logical gymnastics used by those who know how flimsy their arguments here actually are. It’s an attempt to carve out a special category that has never existed for certain types of business. Never before has their [sic] been an “artistic gifts exemption” or anything like it been a part of the discussion about whether a public business has a right to offer goods and services to certain classes of people and not others.

Since  Merritt rejects the distinction as a matter of principle, it is hard to see how he could escape the conclusion that Jesus would have his disciples be forced by Caesar, as a matter of social justice, to paint or photograph that bi-sexual threesome ceremony  I’m not sure I can persuade Mr. Merritt to re-think his outright rejection of that distinction. Maybe it is the kind of thing you either get or you don’t. But  perhaps looking at a real-life example of where his views lead, might persuade him to reconsider.

Take, for instance, the fundamental issues at stake in the New Mexico Elane Photography case. The background and issues are nicely summarized in their Petition for a Writ of Certiorri to the Supreme Court.

Petitioner Elane Photography, LLC, a small photography business owned and operated by a husband and wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico, tells stories and conveys messages through its photographs and picture-books. Elane Photography serves all classes of people, but its owners object as a matter of conscience to creating pictures or books that will tell stories or convey messages contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs.

Elane Photography declined to create photographs and a picture-book telling the story of Respondent Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony because those images would convey messages about marriage that conflict with its owners’ religious beliefs.

Respondent Willock promptly found a different photographer, and then filed a complaint alleging that Elane Photography violated the state public-accommodations statute. The New Mexico Human Rights Commission concluded that Elane Photography violated the statute, and the New Mexico Supreme Court agreed.

The logic of Mr. Merritt’s argument seems to lead straightaway to the conclusion that these “Jesus followers”–as they are called by “progressive Evangelicals these days– should, as a matter of social justice, be required by law to photograph these ceremonies. He also seems to be implying, by his appeal to Martin Luther King and so forth,  that their refusal to take photographs at this gay wedding ceremony is morally equivalent to the racists and bigots who defended Jim Crow segregation.  If a Christian were to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” with respect to the Elane case,  Merritt would be compelled, by the logic of his position, to side with  Caesar . I confess that I find this rather counter-intuitive and odd for three reasons.

First, one  would think that rather than dismissing the claim of Elane photography as flimsy, mere sophistry, or as tortured logical gymnastics, a self-identified Christian “progressive” or “liberal” such as Mr. Merritt, might find their claim at least somewhat reasonable. After all, liberals and progressives have typically embraced a very broad understanding of First Amendment  rights of free speech, including (especially) artistic expression.  This liberal and expansive view is often encapsulated in the old phrase, which paraphrased,  goes something like this: “I may not agree with what you say, or write, photograph, or refuse to say, write or photograph, but I will defend to my death your write to say, write or photograph it.”

Since Mr. Merritt is associated with the “progressive or “liberal” wing of American Evangelical Christianity, or so I’m told,  and  clearly does not want to be associated with the conservative religious right, I find it odd that he would reject this traditionally liberal or progressive understanding of free speech and expression. All that counts it seems is the willingness of a “client” to offer sufficient cash, and the rights of artistic expression are defeated. I’m not sure I understand what makes this “progressive” or “liberal.” Perhaps Mr. Merritt can explain it to us.

Secondly, I’m entirely perplexed at Mr. Merritt’s “preferential option for Caesar.” Not to put too fine a point on it,  Mr. Merritt would prefer to see his brothers and sisters in Christ be fined,  have their business and livelihood destroyed, and even serve prison time, than having the law recognize a broad right of freedom of speech, expression and religious liberty. I’ve always been given to understand that “progressive” or “liberal” Christians stressed the “prophetic” strand of Christianity in which Christians would “speak the truth to power.”  It seems rather clear to me who has the “power” in this case. It isn’t owners of  Elane Photography.

Moreover, this “prophetic” stance was often contrasted with the “priestly” side of Christianity that all too often uncritically embraced “civil religion,” or “civil religious idolatry” as the Sojourners crowd used to put it. One wonders how one squares the “progressive” emphasis on being a “prophetic voice,” with the defense of the Caesar  in the Elane case. Maybe Mr. Merrit is being prophetic in some sense by siding with Caesar here. I confess that I don’t see it. So,  maybe he isn’t, maybe this is a modern version of “civil religious idolatry.”

Finally, I wonder how far Mr. Merritt’ preferential option for Caesar extends. Does it extend beyond cases related to gay lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered events?  Baylor Professor Francis Beckwith offers for Mr. Merritt’s consideration the following hypothetical (he has yet to respond):

In Nye County, Nevada, prostitution is legal. So, imagine a local photographer in Parumph is asked by the local brothel, the Cherry Patch Ranch, to take photographs of the employees and staff for the establishment’s “Happy Holidays” card.

Suppose the photograph is a devout Christian, who not only believes that prostitution is immoral, but that the Season that brothel intends to celebrate by sending out its card is sacred.

Should the photographer have the right to turn down the brothel as a client?

Given the legality of prostitution in the case, Mr. Merritt’s rather categorical rejection of appeals to “artistic expression,” and his preferential option for Caesar over conscientious religious objections, it is next to impossible to see how he could avoid concluding that Jesus would side with Caesar in this case too.  What Would Jesus Do? — He  would defend Caesar’s right to his force his disciples to accept the job.

This, I suppose, is what counts as “prophetic” Christianity, and “social justice” among young “progressive Evangelicals” these days.

32 Responses to Jonathan Merritt, Christian Artistic Expression and the Preferential Option for Caesar

  1. Daniel says:

    If you want to see how serious Mr. Merritt is about his stance, please-please-please, find a LGBT couple who needs their wedding photographed and please-please-please send them to a photography studio run by a devout Muslim (preferably somebody like a strict Wahhabist) who will refuse to provide photography services to said wedding. Then lets see what happens.

    • Jim Fletcher says:

      Brilliant example. Merritt is on a witch-hunt where conservative Christianity is concerned. He has a nasty disposition toward those he considers right-wing. He is a classic leftist.

    • Gary says:

      If they live in a state where discrimination is not accepted, are you suggesting there won’t be a lawsuit? That LGBT people accept anything from Muslims but not from (phony) Christians? Any for-profit business that breaks anti-discrimination laws should be held accountable. Don’t you people love ‘states’ rights’? If a state passes an anti-discrimination law, isn’t it sacrosant? Or is that only when you’re able to enshrine your particular flavor of “religion” and “G-d”? As a price to pay for your “religious freedom”, are you willing to expect businesses to be transparent in their position and to have (require?) them to advertise in all formats (their ads, online media, their store windows, etc.) who they want to serve and who they do not want to serve? I’ll promise to not expect them to accept my custom and I won’t sue them, if they post “No Homosexuals” in their store windows (figuratively and literally, physically and in print/online). Let the market direct if the company succeeds or fails. And, of course, I will also have the right then to serve no dominionists, no corporate- or church-owned politicians politicians, etc. Deal?http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/02/22/congressman-religious-freedom-legislation-needed-to-protect-marriage/

      • Arimathean says:

        I would certainly accept your proposed deal. I think nearly all anti-discrimination laws should be abolished as violations of Equal Protection. There should be no “protected classes”. My First Amendment rights should not be trumped by the more-than-equal rights of politically favored groups.

  2. Kirby Johnson says:

    What if the tables were turned?

    Suppose gay photographer is asked to photograph little Billy’s Catholic christening. The parents tell the photographer up front that they’d like a memory book that includes pages with the text: “Our little Billy will always be taught that any form of sexuality outside of male-female marriage is an abomination to God.”

    Should Caesar be allowed to force the gay photographer to create something that presumably horrifies his deeply cherished belief in sex outside of heterosexual marriage?


    That’s my question.


      No, Caesar should not force the gay photographer to photograph the Christening. But Merritt does seem to believe he SHOULD be forced to do so.

  3. DJAnderson says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for you thoughtful response to Merritt. I am so tired of Christians defending homosexual behavior and/or marriage. It reminds me a liberal churches defending abortion when that became legal. Hmmm….should Christian photographers be required to do a photo shoot of that? If Merritt did his homework, he would know that homosexuals activists have targeted churches and Christians businesses to force them to accept their lifestyle. It is a sinful, sad lifestyle which needs to be redeemed by Jesus.

  4. Walter Willis says:

    My experience with the liberal/progressive left is they are tolerant of everything – as long as you agree with them. As soon as you disagree out comes the name calling. Sure, they are very willing to be very broad in their free-speech parameters, as long as it is not pro-Christian or Biblically based truth.

    As far as “I may not agree with what you say, or write, photograph, or refuse to say, write or photograph, but I will defend to my death your write (should be right) to say, write or photograph it.” – I have usually heard this from more conservative folks, not liberals.

  5. Moldcat says:

    All well and good, but….

    What if a “Kinist” photographer was asked to photograph, or bake a cake for, an interracial wedding? Kinists are a particular type of Calvinist who believe, as a matter of religious dogma, that racial segregation is mandated by God. You could say they believe Jim Crow was handed down from on high. “Christian Identity” is another theology that teaches similar views.

    I, of course, find Kinism and Christian Identity every bit as disgusting and un-Christian as I find Wahhabism, or Bolshevism, or Kahanism. However, if an evangelical or Catholic baker wants to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, does that imply that Kinist bakers have a right to not bake cakes for interracial weddings? Did the Waffle House owners in the South have a right to ban blacks from their restaurants if their pastors told them it’s what God wanted them to do? Should the federal government have intervened (as, historically, it did) in that case?

    This is a case where there’s a _two-sided_ slippery slope. On the one hand, if you argue for unconditional “religious liberty” you open the door for Kinists, Identitists, polygamous FLDS, Wahhabists and Kahanists to practice blatant discrimination or cruelty in the name of religious conviction. On the other hand, if you argue that religious liberty has its limits, people are at the mercy of Caesar (as the article points out) and Caesar can intervene (or not intervene) as he wishes.

    It’s really a choice between two equally bad options. Perhaps the First Amendment dream of a government that is completely neutral with respect to religion is simply an impossibility. At least the countries with official religions don’t suffer this dilemma.

  6. Walter Willis says:

    Following up on my earlier comment, I ran across this article regarding a liberal student columnist who is proposing that the First Amendment be abolished because it hinders Liberalism.

  7. Archpriest Alexander F. C. Webster, PhD says:

    Kudos, Keith, for cutting through all the hypocritical baloney about so-called intolerance, bigotry, hate, and discrimination against “gays” in these cases. The secular progressives and their fellow travelers in the “religious community” are obviously willing to sacrifice religious liberty and freedom of conscience on the altar of sexual perversion. When the minions of Caesar come knocking at my church door, I am prepared to declare, “Over my dead body . . . but under my living soul!”


      hey Alex–good to hear from you. been a long time. Looks like you’ve been promoted— “Archpriest”. Is that like going from company grade to field grade? Or from field grade to GO

  8. Dave Gingrich says:

    Sorry, I know homosexuals despise the comparison, but would Jesus paint a portrait of a pedophile with his 10 year old victim?

    • KT says:

      I see your point, but I think both sides would hold that the whole question is transformed when one is speaking of illegal activity, wouldn’t they?

    • David Stafford says:

      Of course homosexuals would object because you slyly insert the word “victim”. Your query (sorry) would be lifted out of the realm of the imponderable if you stated that the man and boy were both grateful and happy members of NAMBLA.

  9. Rover Serton says:

    Dave, really? equating a crime scene and SSM?

    Daniel, You really think that a Muslim, having know discrimination so well here, would refuse? So far, I’ve only heard “Christians” using this tactic to make gays appear as less worthy.

    In one sad way, I hope the Arizona bill passes, BUT, a website would be up in 10 minutes with all the people/companies that decided to use this law. Any wedding planner and anyone that had gay friends would blackball the people/companies and “Melissa’s sweet cakes” closes shop and goes back home.

    Economics in action.

  10. Mark Gordon says:

    Of course, Colonel Pavlischek is more than happy to grant a preferential option to his patron, Caesar, so long as it involves war or torture.

  11. Deacon Jim Stagg says:

    May we expect, next, to buy pork at a kosher meat shop in New Yawk City, or sex toys at the local Wal-Mart?

    • David Stafford says:

      What’s wrong with being able to buy pork at a kosher meat shop. What would you do to a shop keeper who decides to provide that service. Would the world not make sense anymore? And it’s okey to sell guns, ammo, knives, machetes, axes and poison at Walmart, but not sex toys? Talk about the world not making sense anymore..

  12. Mark G says:

    Hmmm. Does proposing other seemingly related examples in order to refute “gay marriage” betray an immature theological mind? I see no theological/biblical arguments given. Where does the Bible grant the state the right to marry anyone, or is it just another tax? Is a ceremony required for a biblical marriage? Is a muslim marriage valid, or a Mormon marriage? Is a wedding in an evangelical church required for a valid biblical marriage? Are church weddings in countries that don’t recognize Christian marriage valid? What is a theology of marriage? If people get “married” outside this theological definition is it really marriage regardless what the call it? I’m just asking, seriously.

  13. Brian says:

    I’m not being contrarian–I really want to know. How do you distinguish this wedding scenario from that of an interracial couple if the photographer thinks, as so many did in the 60’s and earlier, that interracial marriage is sinful?


      Here’s a good place to start:


      The difference: With the Elane’s, I would say that I agree with you that SSM is intrinsically wrong and therefore I oppose allowing Caesar to force you to photograph the event.

      With the hypothetical I would say that I find your racism to be odious, that you should repent, that I would never patron your establishment and maybe boycott it and that if you were a member of my Church I would possibly seek to have you disciplined and possibly excommunicated. But I would still say that Caesar should not force you to photograph the wedding.

      • brian says:

        Thanks for the reply. I’m having trouble, though, with the part of your answer in which you say that if the wedding photographer didn’t want to photograph the interracial wedding you would express your disapproval, but still wouldn’t want the government to force the photographer to accept the commission (although in reality the public accommodation provisions of the Civil Rights Act would forbid the photographer from refusing to provide services).

        You show consistency in that you are willing to say that the sincere religious beliefs in both cases should not be overruled by law, even though you yourself believe that in the first case the photographer is right about gay marriage but that the second is wrong about interracial marriage. But does this mean that every such decision, however repugnant, must be beyond the control of the law, if based on sincere religious belief? How then can a society such as ours operate, if every person can declare himself above the law (and that’s a paraphrase of Justice Scalia’s comment in Employment Division v. Smith)?

        • KEITH PAVLISCHEK says:

          you are familiar with RFRA, right?

        • Geanine Cruise says:

          In respects to interracial marriage. Would that not be more of a personal preference rather than a Biblical command. In contrast to homosexuality and the embracing of practices that are clearly fleshed out in Scripture as sinful?

  14. Ed says:

    Daniel absolutely nails it.

  15. Adolph says:

    What would Jesus do? May I suggest to imagine the scene in John 8:1-11 but instead of “woman” replace ” two women” or “two men” and instead of adultery replace “sodomy”. All the rest stays the same. Jesus’ last words in this passage are: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

    Yes, Jesus would have forgiven, but the operative words are: “And from now on sin no more”.

  16. David Stafford says:

    According to Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, James, Paul, and Silas, one should go to jail for one’s beliefs, shouldn’t one?

  17. David Stafford says:

    The answer to this apparent dilemma is succinctly put by Jesus as, “Be ye prefect even as your father in heaven is perfect.” No?

  18. Boethius says:

    I think Brian has an acute point. Either:
    a) Any private business must be allowed to refuse service to anyone as a matter of conscience, broadly construed. (Thus, racists may refuse to photograph mixed-race marriages.) I call this the libertarian option.
    b) No private business may refuse to provide any customer service as a matter of conscience. (Thus, Jewish bakers may be forced to bake cakes with “The Holocaust Never Happened” across the top for the local Holocaust-deniers.) I call this the “statist” option. Or
    c) “Freedom of conscience” only applies to certain religious groups, perhaps Christians and Jews, and with some qualifications, Muslims, but not to “worldviews” or “philosophies” broadly understood, if for no other than historic reasons.
    I would include a fourth option:
    d) This is a Christian nation, and so the conscience of an orthodox Christian cannot be imposed upon, with allowances for Jews, since they’re God’s Chosen People (y’know, Will Herberg and all that).
    But Hugo Black and the Supremes seem to have convinced Christians otherwise.

  19. Jasper Crane says:

    Okay so Muslims can refuse to drive a person in a taxi cab if they have alcohol or a dog (including a blind person with a seeing eye dog) or refuse to handle pork in a grocery store or restaurant….but

    God forbid…if a person who labels themselves as a Christian should refuse anyone anything….why that is a hate crime!

    What BS!

    Christians are the most picked on group in the USA truth be told. It’s because they tend to be passive and the common sadistic bullies in the so called USA justice system have a fun time picking on those who won’t fight back.

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