If Americans are going to pass laws that require people to do things they’d rather not, let me suggest a law that requires opinion makers in big cities to spend a couple of years in small towns. We’re all one country, but the differences between our boonies and our metropolises go far beyond scale.
The New York Times‘s Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist, wrote Sunday on religious minority bills, a hot topic since Indiana passed one and immediately lived to regret it, while Arkansas backed off in the nick of time. Douthat conducted a conversation with himself. He asked: “Shouldn’t businesses have to serve all comers?”
And he answered: “I think they should be able to decline service for various reasons, religious scruples included. A liberal printer shouldn’t be forced to print tracts for a right-wing cause. A Jewish deli shouldn’t be required to cater events for the Nation of Islam.”
I agree that they shouldn’t. In a perfect world every shopkeeper would be free to say to every suspect-looking character sidling through the front door, “Get the hell out of here.” If being your own boss doesn’t include a right to say get lost, we all might as well occupy cubicles at Pepsico and IBM.
But damn it, it isn’t a perfect world. Some of those shopkeepers have minds as broad as cowpaths. Some of those characters coming through the door can’t be suspected of anything but being crosswise with Leviticus.
And any law we try to write to address the situation won’t be a just law. It’ll work a hardship on business people whose convictions are deep and genuine, if archaic, or on upright clientele seeking essential services. I believe Douthat has looked at this conundrum though the eyes of an urbanite. In New York, and in his home, Washington, D.C.—and certainly in Chicago—there’s no real problem: if this bakery won’t bake your wedding cake, that one will. And this bakery almost certainly will bake your cake. The baker, for having set up shop in Chicago and seen a gallimaufry of human types pass by his door, is cool with just about everybody.
But his cousin, who runs the only bakery in Alfalfa, Indiana, pop. 867, is not. When he says no to Alfalfa’s only gay couple, or when the pharmacist on Main Street refuses for reasons of conscience to fill a prescription for morning-after pills, people suffer. Douthat is blasé about this suffering; the “Christian idea,” he notes, is that God asks a lot of us and “pain, struggle and mystery” attend His encounters with humanity. Would Douthat be less blasé if he lived in Alfalfa and the people who suffered were his neighbors?
But Douthat wasn’t the urbanite in the Sunday Times whom I’d call cheerfully oblivious. I often like what Frank Bruni has to say, but “Same-Sex Sinners” (renamed online “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana”) found him balmy. The conflict between homosexuality and Christianity is understandable, wrote Bruni (who is gay), because “beliefs ossified over centuries aren’t easily shaken.”
Which they aren’t. But he had good news. If Christians go on believing homosexuals are sinners, it’s on them. It means they’ve made a choice that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts,” that pretends “the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing,” that “elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observation, above the evidence in front you.” Getting past those ossified beliefs didn’t sound any harder for a well-meaning fundamentalist to do than it used to be for a homosexual guy to go into therapy and get past liking men.
The problem is that religious faith isn’t contingent on the evidence in front of it. Though repudiated in many eyes by those “advances of science and knowledge,” the “ancient texts” are still held in high regard by Christians who believe them to be inspired or written by God. It’s probably not a winning strategy to try to cure Christians who read the Bible literally by shaming them.
Harking back to the day when the New Testament was written, Bruni points out the lack of “any awareness back then that same-sex attraction could be a fundamental part of a person’s identity, or that same-sex intimacy could be an expression of love within the context of a nurturing relationship.” OK, maybe people then didn’t have those insights, but it raises an interesting question: Was God just as ignorant as everyone else? I suppose Bruni would reply well, yes! and his New York Times readership would agree with him; but folks in Alfalfa would not. These folks think in some interesting ways, and I suggest an expedition.