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Cake and Cosmology

Thinking through pastries and gay rights as orthodox Christians

My friend Chris Roberts, a Catholic theologian in Philadelphia, and someone who is fairly liberal in his politics   describes himself in an e-mail to me thus: “I wouldn’t call myself a conservative, but neither would I own to liberal. I’ll take just plain old “Catholic,” thanks” — writes with the following thought experiment:

Imagine a gay male couple who have been together for 20 years. They live nearby. You know them well, having a friendly non-political neighborly relationship. You borrow the odd egg, watch each other’s pets when somebody is on vacation, maybe chat at the annual 4th of July party. You are an orthodox Christian who runs a bakery business. Now apply the following scenarios:

A) One of the gay guys has a birthday. His partner asks you to bake the cake. Would you?

B) One of the gay guys dies. His partner asks you to bake the cake for the reception after the funeral. Would you?

C) Marriage is suddenly legalized in your state. They marry and ask you to bake the cake. Would you?

Seems to me that if the answer is no, no, and no, then you ought to examine yourself for homophobia.

But if the answer is yes, yes and no – that’s my answer – then you are arguably simply being principled. I can say “yes” to A and B because I can honor their friendship and loyalty to each other, their faithful service to each other over years. However, I say “no” to C because marriage is not an institution that can be defined entirely in terms of affection, loyalty and service. Or even eros or heartfelt private romantic feelings. Marriage includes all those things, but it exists is a social institution because the fertility of male and female potentially creates uniquely public consequences (children).

The left disputes my premise for saying no to C. Fine, let’s have that debate. People of goodwill can disagree.

But we are not even allowed to have that debate. My side’s case is dismissed by the liberal elite because they think people like me are haters.

Given that I want to say yes to situations A and B, I think it’s demonstrable that I’m not a hater or homophobe. I am not frightened of gay people and I do not hate them. I just do not think that what they are doing is marriage, and I think calling what they’re doing “marriage” will obscure what marriage is. If we say that marriage exists to give public blessing to the romantic feelings of consenting adults, then, over the long term, I and my Church believe that there will be more divorce (feelings are fickle) and children will be harmed (as their primary role in marriage is pushed aside). My Church and I may be mistaken about that, but, given the damage heterosexuals have already caused marriage through our divorce rate and ubiquitous contraception, I think we are at least within the realm of the arguable and plausible.

But today’s mob will not listen to my argument, will not listen to my attempt to make my case plausible, because they are convinced I’m a homophobe. My openness to situations A and B are not allowed to count. That is part of the problem with all the hate directed towards Indiana this last week. The inability to see the “yes” to A and B does not necessarily entail “yes” to C. The inability to imagine that my “yes” to A and B is real and heartfelt, but my “no” to C is principled and not prejudice.

I appreciate Chris’s e-mail. His “yes-yes-no” describes my position too. Ross Douthat, in his Sunday column, also discusses nuances in this debate. The format he chooses is a self-interview. Excerpt:

Q: I think discrimination is discrimination. What about you? Would you bake the cake?

A: Honestly, since so many of my friends aren’t religious or conservative, I’ve always taken for granted that being part of their lives meant accompanying them through life choices that belong to a different worldview than my own. (And I’m very grateful that they’ve accompanied and tolerated me.) My family has its share of divorces and second marriages; my friends’ romantic paths are varied; my closest friend from high school just exchanged vows with his longtime boyfriend. I’m going to a party celebrating them next month. If they asked me, I’d bring a cake.

Q: So why can’t other believers do the same?

A: First, these issues are difficult and personal, and I don’t presume that my approach is always right. Second, details matter. My closest gay friends are fairly secular. But I would be uncomfortable attending same-sex vows in the style of a Catholic Mass — or being hired to photograph such a ceremony. I don’t think that discomfort should be grounds for shutting down a business.

Q: Well, that discomfort may seem religious, but segregationists felt justified by Scripture, too. They got over it; their churches got over it; so will yours.

A: It’s not that simple. The debate about race was very specific to America, modernity, the South. (Bans on interracial marriage were generally a white supremacist innovation, not an inheritance from Christendom or common law.) The slave owners and segregationists had scriptural arguments, certainly. But they were also up against one of the Bible’s major meta-narratives — from the Israelites in Egypt to St. Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”

That’s not the case with sex and marriage. The only clear biblical meta-narrative is about male and female. Sex is an area of Jewish law that Jesus explicitly makes stricter. What we now call the “traditional” view of sexuality was a then-radical idea separating the early church from Roman culture, and it’s remained basic in every branch of Christianity until very recently. Jettisoning it requires repudiating Scripture, history and tradition in a way the end of Jim Crow did not.

Emphasis mine in that last sentence. This is something that most supporters of gay marriage, including within the Christian churches, either fail to understand or refuse to contend with. They accept, in most cases unconsciously, the view that there is nothing teleological about male-female sexual relations (and no, I’m not talking only about baby-making), and nothing essential (= in essence) about masculinity and femininity. This is profoundly, fundamentally contrary to Biblical teaching, going as far back as Genesis. If you are going to say that homosexual sex and same-sex marriage is in every way equivalent to the heterosexual version, you accept a cosmological disharmony. That’s a fancy way of saying that the Biblical view of creation, and of the role of men and women in mirroring the divine life “on earth as it is in heaven,” makes no sense if this is true. To equate this with racism is a profound category error.

Many American Christians accept this anyway, severing themselves from Christian orthodoxy at a level far more profound than I think they understand. Be that as it may, same-sex marriage supporters ought to at least understand why orthodox Christians in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions have to stand firm on this issue. It is not blind prejudice. If there is no room in your world for intelligent Christian men of goodwill like Chris Roberts and Ross Douthat, then we are in bad shape.