New York Times
By Ross Douthat
April 4, 2015

AFTER watching the debate about religious freedom unfold over the past week, I decided to subject myself to an interview by an imaginary — but representative — member of the press. Here is our conversation:

Happy Easter!

Thank you.

O.K., enough pleasantries. You’re a semi-reasonable Christian. What do you think about the terrible Indiana “religious liberty” bill?

I favored the original version. Based on past experience, laws like this protect religious minorities from real burdens. As written, the Indiana law probably wouldn’t have protected vendors from being fined for declining to work at a same-sex wedding. But I would favor that protection as well.

Seriously? Shouldn’t businesses have to serve all comers?

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.

But those are issues of belief, not identity. Denying service to gays is like denying service to blacks under Jim Crow.

None of the businesses facing sanctions are saying they wouldn’t serve gay people as a class; they just don’t want to work at nuptials. This isn’t a structural system of oppression, a society-wide conspiracy like Jim Crow; we’re talking about a handful of shops across the country. It seems possible, and reasonable, to live and let live.

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

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.

So why can’t other believers do the same?

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.

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.

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 Saint 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.

Except we know now, in a way people writing the Bible couldn’t, that being gay isn’t a choice.

I take a different view of what they could have known. But yes, the evidence that homosexuality isn’t chosen — along with basic humanity — should inspire repentance for cruelties visited on gay people by their churches.

But at Christianity’s bedrock is the idea that we are all in the grip of an unchosen condition, an “original” problem that our wills alone cannot overcome. So homosexuality’s deep origin is not a trump card against Christian teaching.

I know smart Christians who disagree with you.

So do I. I just think their views ultimately point in a post-biblical, post-Christian direction. And I also know very smart gay Christians — the Anglican theologian Wesley Hill, the Catholic writer Eve Tushnet, others — who take the orthodox view, and try to live with the tension between their attractions and their faith, with (one hopes) their fellow Christians’ assistance.

They’re prisoners of a cruel delusion. I don’t see how a loving God could put them in such an impossible position.

Then you can add this to the popular arguments against Christianity. But again, the Christian idea is that God asks the seemingly impossible of all of us — and, fortunately forgives us when we fail. Nobody has to accept this idea, but if you do it’s compatible with a lot of pain, struggle and mystery where humanity encounters God.

Especially in a faith whose “Happy Easter” can’t be separated from the cross.

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