Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Progressive fundamentalism and gay wedding cakes

On July 17 on the Patheos blog Unfundamentalist Christians, a blog dedicated to repackaging Christianity for greater feminist and LGBT friendliness, guest contributor April Kelsey’s bio proclaims her goal to be “to put the final nail in fundamentalist Christianity”. Well, everyone should have a goal in life, although it’s far more probable that progressive Christians like Kelsey will cease to be Christians even in name long before fundamentalist Christians cease to be fundamentalist.

However, Kelsey is unaware that she, too, is a fundamentalist, albeit one who skews her reading of the Bible leftward rather than to the right. Indeed, the last line of her post “Your ‘Deeply-Held Belief’ Isn’t Biblical” — “… [I]f it isn’t in the Bible, I don’t have to believe it” — is the most common expression of one of the “two pillars” of Christian fundamentalism: sola scriptura, “only Scripture”.[*] I too would like to see the end of Christian fundamentalism, because I’d like to see the end of Christian disunity, which sola scriptura helps to propagate.

Now, if you want to stop being a fundamentalist, you have to reject sola scriptura (and there are many reasons you should do so). There are really only three ways to accomplish this. One is to stop being Christian altogether. The second is to regard the Bible as fallible and make Christ your ideological sock puppet, like Jimmy Carter. The third is to become Catholic, or at least Eastern Orthodox, and let the apostolic tradition guide your understanding of Scripture. Whichever way you do it, you can’t say, “I only believe what I read in the Bible,” and still pretend you’re not a fundamentalist. Fundamentalist does not equal politically conservative.

Kelsey’s article is about refusing to participate in gay weddings as a merchant or service provider. “The more I hear the words ‘deeply held religious belief,’” Kelsey writes, “the more uneasy I feel. I wasn’t sure why until I had read through the umpteenth article on the subject. And that’s when I realized that the so-called ‘beliefs’ being defended aren’t actually rooted in scripture.”

Kelsey’s focus is on Romans 1:32, which she says is the verse “nearly all of these Christians cite in support of their behavior”. Her first rebuttal, that “there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that says selling someone a product in the course of legal business shows approval of the buyer’s lifestyle or behavior”, is a little more difficult to treat, so let me get the weaker argument out of the way first.

Let’s look at Romans 1:28-32 NIV:

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. [Bold font mine.—ASL]

Kelsey’s first conclusion? “So these verses are only describing one group of people: those who commit the sin are also the ones approving of the sin.” This is not just wrong; it’s difficult to believe she offers such a construction with a straight face (*ahem!*). Saint Paul is not saying that only people who commit Sin S approve of Sin S; rather, he is saying that a sinful people — the Gentiles — both commit sins themselves and approve others’ sins. There’s no hint of specificity here, no implication that only gossips like gossip, or that only the malign indulge the malign.

Kelsey’s next angle is to portray Romans 1:32 as taken out of context. And she rightly points out that Romans 2 goes on to put the Jews, who have the Law of Moses, on a similar footing to the Law-less Gentiles. The problem is not that her interpretation of Romans 2 is wrong, but rather that her conclusion — “So Romans 1 is about hypocritical judgment, not ‘passive approval’” — isn’t justified by her argument. Or, rather, it takes nothing away from the force of St. Paul’s statement in Romans 1:32; the implication is still validly there that it’s evil to approve of evil done by others, even if you’re not directly participating in the evil yourself.

Kelsey’s fourth angle is to bring up Jesus’ teaching of returning good for evil, in Matthew 5:38-42, which she hooks up with St. Paul’s elaboration in Romans 12:20. Very well, let us turn and offer our left cheek when our right cheek is struck; let us give food and drink to an enemy who is starving and thirsty. Cudgel my brain how I might, though, I fail to see how the commandments to do these things become a commandment to, say, offer a room in my motel for a pedophile to molest a child, or to cheerfully sell a gun to a woman openly stating her intent to shoot her lying, cheating dog of a husband. And, for the life of me, I can’t see how selling a cake for a gay wedding can possibly constitute an act of mercy in any meaningful sense.

In secular criminal law, people who willingly give material assistance to a perpetrator in the commission of his crime are considered accessories or accomplices, and can face significant jail time themselves: to help someone to commit a crime is itself to commit a crime. The same has held true throughout Christian history: cooperation in sin is itself a sin.

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person — such a person is an idolater — has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. (Ephesians 5:5-13 NIV; bold type mine)

Indeed, I’m surprised that anyone would need a “proof text” to know that to approve of or assist with a sin is to sin, even in the context of the marketplace, which should never be considered a “values-free zone”. This is just so much common sense. To read Scripture like a Mafia consigliere looking for legal loopholes to exploit is to work against the spirit and intent of the gospel message.

In fact, it’s Kelsey’s apologia for unforced submission to the Zeitgeist that’s unscriptural. Nothing in Christianity requires a full investigation into each customer’s background and lifestyle to make simple transactions possible; so the hysteria of her penultimate paragraph is unwarranted. But while a motel owner might not suspect a man taking his “son” into his motel room, while a gun shop owner need not inquire too closely about a woman’s stated desire to go “hunting” with a new shotgun, putting two men or two women on top of a five-tier, white-frosted wedding cake is blatantly in-your-face. You are not being deceived; you are not left in vincible ignorance; you know full well in what you’re asked to assist.

At that point, is “Business is business” any different from “Dienst ist Dienst”?[†]

[*] The other pillar is sola fides, “only faith”; i.e., only faith is necessary for salvation. Some would say Kelsey’s stance is an extreme version, known to Evangelicals as “solo scriptura”, because of her rejection of tradition. However, besides being bad Latin, it’s not “extreme” so much as it is the logical end of sola scriptura.
[†] “Duty is duty”, a common expression or defense employed by participants in the Nazi atrocities. My point here is not that gay marriage is as morally reprehensible as genocide, but rather that business is no more of an excuse for participating in evil than is duty.