by Keith Pavlischek
One would have thought it difficult to top Jonathan Merritt’s reflections on the right of Christians to refuse to participate in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, (and so forth) marriage and wedding ceremonies. (Find our critique of Merritt herehere here here) But David Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, managed to pull it off with his own jaw-dropping contribution to Christian moral and political philosophy in Religious Liberty and Gay Rights: Who Would Jesus Sue?
Mr. Merritt, you may recall, seems to believe that since Jesus hung around with sinners, it would be an evil, disobedient, Pharisaical, wrong, unChristlike (pick your favorite term of denunciation) act of invidious discrimination for a Christian photographer, florist or baker to refuse participate in a gay or lesbian wedding, or a bi-sexual threesome ceremony. Since refusing to do so is an act of injustice or invidious “discrimination” akin to Jim Crow era racist discrimination, and since Jesus is always for justice, so the line of the argument goes, Jesus would side with Caesar in forcing his disciples to participate in such ceremonies under penalty of law. This is what you get these days when progressive Christians commence to doing moral and political theory and public policy by asking “what would Jesus do.” It was said of the nineteenth-century theological “quest for the historical Jesus” that when they finally found the “historical Jesus” it turned out he looked remarkably like a 19th century, liberal, European theologian. We now know that he really looks like a 21st century American progressive Evangelical, former Fundamentalist.
But Gushee will not be outdone by his pupil. Professor Gushee proves that he too can play the “what would Jesus do?” game, but he takes it all a step further. Not only does Professor Gushee seem to agree with Merritt that Christians ought, as a matter of social justice, participate in these ceremonies , not only does he side with Caesar over against Christian conscientious objectors who refuse to participate in these ceremonies, not only does he too believe Jesus would have his disciples participate in such ceremonies, but he now tells us that, when confronted with fines, imprisonment and the loss of their livelihood, it would be wrong, immoral, unethical and otherwise against the teachings of Jesus for Christians to seek legal counsel. Gushee thus does Merritt one better. He tells us it is immoral and unethical and generally unChristian for these Christian conscientious objectors to “lawyer up.” Professor Gushee is, mind you, a “Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics.”
Gushee’s article has already been justly mocked , and the derision is well-deserved. Wheaton College political theorist, Bryan McGraw opened his short reflection Gushee and the Civil Order, by saying “This is just embarrassing. There’s really no other word for it.” He’s wrong about that, of course. Not that the article isn’t embarrassing, for it is surely that. It is just that there are a lot of other words for it, and they aren’t complimentary. Joe Carter tweeted that he was “surprised to see [Gushee] imply that Dred Scott shouldn’t have sued to get his freedom.” One guy responded by calling that a cheap shot because Gushee never mentioned Dred Scott. But, of course, that’s not the point. As Carter responded, Gushee offered up a general principle–roughly” it is wrong to lawyer-up”– and he simply pointed out its implications. Alan Jacobs quipped that Gushee evidently deplores Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. McGraw suggests that were we to take Professor Gushee seriously the possibilities are endless. “Why not say that women who are abused shouldn’t use the law to stop the abuse? Or nurses coerced into participating in abortions should just submit?” One is tempted to ask if Gushee would have advised Rosa Parks to shut up, stand up and get to the back of the bus? Or whether Christian pacifists and other conscientious objectors to military service should forgo legal counsel as well?
I concluded my piece Gay Weddings and Conscientious Objection by noting that while I would fight for the right of Mr. Merritt’s children to be exempt from military service, he can’t muster up enough Christian charity to fight for the right of my son or daughter to refuse to photograph a gay wedding. Gushee ups the ante. Not only would he not fight for the rights of my children, he would refuse them legal counsel, or at the very least would condemn them for being disobedient to Jesus for seeking it. This is what “progressive Evangelicals” call “social justice.”
One suspects, of course, that Professor Gushee doesn’t really object to Dred Scott’s seeking legal redress before the Supreme Court, or to civil rights leaders seeking legal counsel and taking legal actions against Jim Crow laws, or with abused woman seeking legal redress, or with Christian pacifists who seek legal counsel secure their right to be exempt from the draft. And I suspect he would be hesitant to advise Rosa Parks that she should head to the back of the bus or criticize her for seeking legal counsel to fight for her right to sit in the front. No, Mr. Gushee, one suspects, is all for Christians seeking legal counsel on issues that he finds himself in agreement. One suspect that when facing an unjust law, Mr. Gushee would lift his voice in prophetic outrage, would proclaim with Martin Luther King and Thomas Aquinas that an unjust law is no law at all, that would pray that “justice roll down like a mighty river” (Amos 5:24), that he would praise lawyers who “speak truth to power” and fight for justice in the courts of the land. And you can bet your bottom dollar that he wouldn’t take to the pages of his blog to denounce those who are “speaking truth to power” for seeking legal counsel or legal redress counsel from the Christian Legal Society or the lawyers at the Becket Fund.
So how do we explain Gushee’s preferential option for Caesar in this instance? The only way to make sense of Gushee’s advice to Christian believers who conscientiously object to being forced by law to participate in GLBT weddings is that they are the unjust oppressors and that when the state compels them to act against their conscience in this instance the state is acting justly. Mr. Gushee still believes that “justice should roll down like a mighty river,” he just thinks that forcing a Christian to serve at a GLBT “wedding” is an act of justice. Gushee believes that social justice requires the state to force them to participate, such that seeking legal redress is simply wrong. That is the only way to make sense of his recommendation that Christians preemptively capitulate, legally speaking, to the will of Caesar.
But that still leaves us with another issue, one that, quite frankly, I find perplexing. Even if Gushee believes that his fellow Christian believers are wrong to refuse to serve at gay weddings, even if he believes that Jesus would happily participate in a bi-sexual threesome commitment ceremony and such, and therefore his disciples should as well, even if he believes that the conscience of those Christian photographers, bakers and florists are objectively mistaken, one wonders why Gushee doesn’t at least make mention the Baptist doctrine of “soul freedom”? Baptists have appealed to that doctrine in defense of Christian dissenters since at least the time of Roger Williams.
Gushee, after all, is a Baptist, a “progressive” Baptist to be sure, a Baptist who is anxious to prove he is not a “fundamentalist” like those bad conservative Baptists at, say, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. To be sure, he’s the type of Baptist who is ever so anxious to be admired by the young cool Emergent, hipster Evangelicals. But he is still a Baptist and on matters of Christian conscientious objection Baptists, especially “progressive Baptists” always have recourse to the doctrine of “soul freedom.” On the Baptist doctrine of “soul freedom” alone you might expect Gushee to defend the right of Christian photographers, journalists, and florists to be free from coercion on matters of conscience. You might expend that a Baptist would be vigorously and unequivocally opposed to forcing them to participate in ceremonies that would violate their conscience.
But on this issue, “soul freedom” is nowhere to be found. These dissenters, it appears, must bow before the new progressive orthodoxy. For Gushee, as Professor Francis Beckwith has quipped, it is “soul freedom for me, but not for thee.” Which leads us to conclude that Professor Bryan McGraw is wrong. It is not true that “embarrassing” is the only word for Gushee’s article. Here’s another: hypocritical.
Keith Pavlischek is a retired U.S. marine colonel living in Annapolis, Maryland. He was an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Truman State University from 1989 to 1993, then serving as Program Director for the Crossroads Program and the Civitas Program on Faith and Public Life. Later he was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of John Courtney Murray and the Dilemma of Religious Toleration (Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1994), and of many articles on ethics, political theory, and public policy.