Was it the Hollywood threat to boycott Georgia or the NFL threat to withhold a Super Bowl?
Gov. Nathan Deal didn’t say as he vetoed a bill on March 28 that a chorus of major studios, sports leagues, and business leaders denounced as legalizing discrimination against gay people.
A host of governors, CEOs, and church leaders call Indiana’s new religious freedom law a backdoor opening to anti-gay discrimination, but Americans appear more divided on whether a wedding-related business should have the right to turn away a gay customer.
The law, which critics say would allow owners of small businesses to invoke their faith to refuse service to LGBT customers, applies most apparently to wedding vendors — bakers, photographers, and florists, for example — who cite their faith in opposing same-sex marriage.
Where is the American public on this debate? It depends on how the question is asked.
A February Associated Press poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe a wedding-related business should have the right to refuse service to a gay couple on religious grounds, as opposed to nearly 4 in 10 Americans (39 percent) who said that religious exemption — which Indiana’s new law explicitly allows — is wrong.
Arizona has been in the news because of an attempt to get a law on the books that would give Christian business owners the right to refuse products or services on religious grounds. Many commentators feared it would create a right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. A robust debate has ensued around the question of whether it is Christian to refuse service for any reason or more Christian to serve everyone without qualification. It’s a good debate and it has revolved around the interpretation of certain Biblical texts – the so-called “clobber texts” and whether they condemn homosexual behavior; the call to be neighborly and love our enemies and whether that includes a bit of tough love now and then. My view was well explained by Benjamin Corey – I’m on the love everyone, no exceptions side of this debate with Ben. To my way of thinking, the law was very un-Christian and I’m glad that Gov. Jan Brewer refused to sign it .
But despite Ben Corey’s eloquence and my agreement with him, we didn’t really settle anything. These verbal jousting matches about whose interpretation of Christianity is more true, important as they are, don’t go deep enough. I’d like to introduce a historical element by looking closely at what religion is and how it has functioned in human history. The question I want to ask is not whether it’s Christian to exclude someone but whether it is religious. I’d like to make the case that the answer is yes, it is religious, and propose that Christianity, and any religion that emphasizes the unity of humanity over our differences, is therefore not a religion like other religions. Christianity is therefore more radical than most of its adherents realize.
“Never in my life has my very faith been called into question like this.”
That’s what young evangelical writer Jonathan Merritt told me this week. His statement followed a media firestorm, ignited when both he and Kirsten Powers, weighed in on proposed laws in Kansas and Arizona that would have allowed business owners to deny service to gay couples, based on conservative religious beliefs about homosexuality. Merritt and Powers each suggested that justifying legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples might not be the best form of Christian outreach and raised consistency issues of whether discrimination would also be applied to other less than “biblical” marriages, or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.
Their columns in both the Religion News Service and the Daily Beast have provoked intense responses from many Southern Baptists (where Merritt has his own heritage), those who call themselves Neo or “New” Calvinists, and other assorted critics from the political right.
Neither Merritt nor Powers took clear theological positions on all the sexuality issues involved. But both have been stunned by the responses from emails, tweets, and angry phone calls. The 1,200 Twitter notifications, messages, and calls from “leaders” that Merritt has received in the last few days include, “You only pretend to worship Jesus.” “You’re not a Christian.” “You are the enemies of Christianity.” “You’re marginalized now.” “You’re damaged goods.” “You’re on the outs now.”
Merritt and Powers were not questioning the gospel; they were “just asking whether we should discriminate against a whole group of people.” Both columnists believe Christians can honestly disagree on these complicated questions surrounding sexuality, but wanted to raise a discussion about whether passing laws that discriminate based on one religious point of view was wise, especially in this rapidly changing culture.