– by Keith Pavlischek
Jonathan Merritt’s latest contribution to Christian moral theology is a piece titled “Does the Bible prohibit providing services at same sex weddings?” Joe Carter provides a devastating response in “Since Jesus ate with sinners do I have to eat at the strip club’s buffet?” Carter so thoroughly demolishes Merritt’s and Kiersten Powers’ argument that “Since Jesus [had dinner with/partied with/hung out with] sinners in the places where they congregated, we should do so too” that it would seem the case is closed.
But I want to highlight another problem with Merritt’s line of argument suggested by Bart Gingerich in his “Wedding Cakes, Evangelicals and Philistinism.” Gingerich writes:
Sadly, though, American evangelicals seem to have a new cohort of thought-leaders who believe that art doesn’t matter, or at least lacks a moral dimension. Despite all the talk to the contrary, maybe this group fails to escape a common charge leveled against Evangelicals: being aesthetic Philistines. “Don’t protect the artists and their craft,” this cadre argues, “What really matters are wedding vows themselves.”
You will notice that when Merritt takes the question to a select group of Christian Biblical scholars the game is slightly rigged. He talks about “services.” He does not ask about intrinsically immoral acts or events, or formal/material cooperation with evil and other fine points of historical moral theology. Nor does he struggle with whether there is a moral and theological dimension to ones artistic craft such that it might be morally problematic to put that craft into service of celebrating a same sex wedding ceremony that a Christian believes to be intrinsically immoral. He simply wants to know if one should “bake a cake” or “photograph a wedding,” both “services” for a gay couple, and whether the refusal to do so involves the baker and picture-taker in some sort of Pharisaical hypocrisy. You don’t even have to read the piece to guess what he and his select group of Biblical scholars concludes. The phrase “leading the witness” leaps to mind.
In any case, his working premise seems to be that to “bake a cake” is just another commercial capitalist enterprise, akin to selling box of Oreos in the supermarket. He seems to assume that taking a photograph at a wedding is more akin to snapping a selfie than art or an act of artistic expression. That viewpoint, of course, dovetails quite nicely with his rejection of any claim on the part of Christian artists claiming a right of freedom of artistic expression. As as I noted in my last post, Merritt rejects that suggestion outright.
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 there 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.
As I noted in my last post, that conflicts quite obviously with the way the Christian owners of Elane photography understand what they do as Christian artists. By way of contrast I would invite you to compare Merritt’s rather cavalier dismissal with Gingerich’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian artist and craftsman.
But the craftsman has a different issue to consider: proximity. Immediately before him stands a couple, about to engage in a social evil, asking him to bless and sanctify the very event of cultural degeneracy with his talents and gifts. “Bless?” “Sanctify?” Yes! For every man’s work is an act of worship to God. While sacred ministry in a wedding liturgy is indeed quite different, there is an element within the Genesis mandate where humanity is responsible to make the wider creation glorify its Maker. In some sense, the product of a human being’s creation can be seen as an offering to God, which can also be a means of loving one’s neighbor.
In this perspective, using ones gifts to directly further moral evil is a sacrilege of sorts. Should the photographer lay down his photographic offering before the feet of Eros?
No doubt Merritt would prefer not to look at the issue in this manner. He prefers to ask simply why, if Jesus hung around with sinners, should not Christian bakers and photographers be willing to hang around with sinners too. Fundamentalist habits of thought are hard to break, it seems, even after moving to the port side of the Evangelical ship.
But again, the question arises, why, even if he does reject Gingerich’s and Carter’s way of looking at the issue, Merritt would not want to give the benefit of the doubt to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who do look at the issue in this manner. Even if he considered Gingerich and Carter “weaker brothers” (a rather implausible claim, I admit) who cannot in good conscience put their artistic talents and gifts to use at a gay wedding, one wonders why he would not support their right to be conscientious objectors on the issue.
Maybe he thinks viewing art the way Gingerich invites Christians to view it is just plain crazy, that Christians should not think about art like that. (Or that maybe Christians should eat at the strip club buffet?) Maybe he so convinced that Christian artists who refuse to serve at gay weddings (and eat at strip club buffets) are acting in such a Christ-dishonoring and disobedient manner that they should be compelled by law to serve at gay weddings anyway. Then again, maybe he hasn’t thought about at any depth it at all.
In any case, I think it is worth noting here that disagreement over even profound theological matters doesn’t really matter in other areas of conscientious objection. For example, those of us who believe that Christian pacifism is profoundly mistaken don’t have to agree with the pacifist conviction that military service is immoral and disobedient to Christ before arguing that Christians SHOULD on the basis of that genuine (but mistaken) religious conviction, be exempt from the generally applicable law we call “military conscription.”
This is where it gets personal. Not only will we gladly support the right of Merritt’s son or daughter to be exempt from the draft (if it is re-instituted), but will take their place when the fighting starts. So, how is it, one wonders, that Merritt and his ilk can’t seem to muster up enough Christian charity to fight for the right of MY son or daughter to conscientiously object to taking photos at a gay wedding?
This is Christian charity? This is what they call “progressive” Evangelicalism”? This is “social justice”?