A Truly Tolerant Society Respects Its Conscientious Objectors
A letter to a liberal friend.
Dear Edward (not his real name),
I want to write to you about our discussion of merchants who have reservations about gay weddings and desire an accommodation.
It is really important to me that you understand the argument well, even if you don’t embrace it. I know that as a liberal who grew up in the deep south in the 60s and 70s, you see the situation as completely consistent with southern segregation.
That is, in fact, the problem.
We both agree that the segregationists made a bad moral choice. They isolated one group of human beings for no reason other than the color of their skin.
Christians believe man and woman together make a whole. That whole is the basis of the family. This belief pairs nicely with the organic reality. Only through the male-female pairing does humanity have a future. That hasn’t changed. Only in the last couple of decades has human autonomy been held to override the traditional view.
The florist or baker who does not want to provide services for a gay wedding is not in the same situation. Barronelle Stutzman, the florist in the most famous of these cases, faithfully served her gay client for years before declining to do the work for his wedding. She did not discriminate against him generally. She objected specifically to helping prepare a same-sex wedding.
This objection flows naturally from traditional Christian ethics. Christians believe man and woman together make a whole. That whole is the basis of the family.
As a side note, this belief pairs nicely with the organic reality. Aristotle didn’t identify the individual as the fundamental unit of human society. He pointed to the male-female pairing. Only through them does humanity have a future. That hasn’t changed. Only in the last couple of decades has human autonomy been held to override the traditional view.
We live in a democratic republic. As Tocqueville would remind us, the price of majority rule is that human beings sometimes confuse the strength of numbers with righteousness. Citizens may often find themselves disagreeing with the majority. Their disagreement may have a deep moral or spiritual basis.
The minority has to figure out how to make their peace with the fact that the coercive power of law is now arrayed against them. There is a tremendous incentive to submit. If they don’t want to submit, they can conform and then try to achieve a different result through political action. Only the most determined person will not conform despite the penalties and perhaps even the loss of livelihood. We must examine those individuals and their situations.
It is entirely possible that the person who refuses to act in accordance with the will of the majority is a scoundrel with a malformed moral or religious sensibility. But the florist, the photographer, or the baker who believe they cannot serve a client who wants a same-sex wedding are not scoundrels.
First, Christians (and really the rest of society for millennia) have believed in the traditional, complementary male-female model of marriage. If a change of social attitudes over a relatively short period of time could change core beliefs among Christians, the entire edifice of belief should be doubted.
Religious liberty is a strategy for social peace. The majority gets the broad social objective they want. Instead of bruising or crushing those who feel they cannot conform, they accommodate them.
Such accommodations protect the people who are unable to act in the way society demands.
Second, the conventional view is clearly not insane, given the physical realities connected to family and child-bearing. Limiting marriage to male-female pairings may be “unreasonable” in the sense that it burdens the autonomy of gay persons in ways they will not accept. But limiting marriage in the traditional way is not irrational.
Third, the specific occasions for resistance to the law are limited.
Because religious people seek to act in a way that respects their faith, their own sense of integrity, and take a position which is not irrational per se, they deserve consideration. Indeed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed almost unanimously by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton, prescribes accommodating those who find themselves in the minority-objector circumstances I have described.
It makes good sense to accommodate religious beliefs. Accommodating segregation might have left an entire system of discrimination in place. Accommodating religious dissenters to gay marriage would simply mean that individuals in certain limited circumstances (such as the wedding trades) would have some protection from the law. There may be other applications, but they would be not affect the broader society.
Used in this way, religious liberty is a strategy for social peace. The majority gets the broad social objective they want. Instead of bruising or crushing those who feel they cannot conform, they accommodate them.
Such accommodations do not create some sexual apartheid. They protect the people who are unable to act in the way society demands, despite every incentive to do so. Look at the cases. These people aren’t rebels. They are effectively conscientious objectors.
There is another angle to consider. We no longer live in a subsistence world of small farms. In order to live, almost everyone has to take part in the modern economy. If participation in the economy requires accepting every social orthodoxy, we will lose independent points of view. Authoritarians will use economic levers to eliminate dissent. We should be careful not to control people this way.
I’ve gone on too long, but I wanted to put it into print so you could consider it.
Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and university fellow at Union University. He is an affiliate scholar with the Acton Institute, a research fellow of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the author of three books on religion and politics.