The Gay Rights Cake Case and Evangelicals’ Self-Defeating Last Stand

I have long been fascinated by a  seeming conflict between New Testament verses that advise turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies, on the one hand, and modern evangelicals’ approach to perceived persecution, on the other. Take the evangelical campaign against gay rights, for example. If you listen to evangelicals, they are the ones being targeted, they are the ones losing their rights, and they are willing to throw their every political dollar into defending their rights.

Given all this, I was interested to see well known evangelical thinker Ed Stetzer write the following in a recent Christianity Today article about the cake case currently before the Supreme Court:

These cases should demonstrate to Christians (and Western democratic culture, in general) that we need to find a balance between religious liberty and LGBT rights.

Throughout the final chapters of Acts, Paul repeatedly utilizes his rights as a Roman citizen to both protect himself from harm and to enable his platform to preach the gospel. Reflecting on Acts 21, John Chysostom notes, “When [Paul] argues with those from the outside, he does not hesitate to use the help of the laws.”

Christians do not need to be ashamed of advocating for justice as the laws of a just society have proven to be vital tools for the proclamation of the gospel.

Yet the difficult (but essential) nature of justice is that it demands consistency. If Christians are going to advocate for justice, we need to also care about the rights of LGBT persons. More than doing so simply as fellow citizens, our faith calls us to value justice for all. That LGBT advocates are speaking in the language of justice means that we need to take seriously the judicial implications of the debate, thinking critically on how we can both protect our own rights and recognize the rights of those with whom we disagree.

What’s interesting here is the acknowledgement that evangelicals have been focusing only one one kind of justice—or in another parlance, one set of rights—theirs. In fact, this focus has been so strong that Stetzer feels the need, here, to defend it even as he calls for softening it, arguing that Paul stood on his rights as a Roman citizen “both to protect himself from harm and to enable his platform to preach the gospel.”

The New Testament is a collection of often complicated and sometimes contradictory historical books and letters, and the Jesus we find there is one who can be (and is) understood in many different ways. While many evangelicals talk the good talk about learning the original Greek and studying the culture of the period, in practice study of the New Testament often involves a very real of ripping out of context.

After I read Stetzer’s piece I did some googling and quickly found that his argument—that evangelical cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings are standing up for their rights as citizens in the same way Paul did—is a common one. This still strikes me as a thin theological foundation for the sorts of legal campaigns evangelical Christians are currently waging, but hey, at least they do have a proof text.

What Stetzer doesn’t mention, however, is perhaps as interesting as what he does mention. Stetzer does not mention Romans 13, which calls believers to obey the laws and be subject to the authorities. Did this passage cease to apply when those laws require a baker not to turn customers away on the basis of sexual orientation?  To be clear, I am no huge fan of Romans 13—I believe that unjust laws must be resisted. I do object, however, to Stetzer’s selective picking and choosing, to his appealing to Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship while simultaneously ignoring Paul’s words about being subject to the authorities.

Stetzer ultimately proves unhelpful in another way. For all his claims that evangelicals need to consider justice for the LGBT community, and not justice for themselves alone, Stetzer can’t move beyond his belief that gay and lesbian individuals are living in sin and bound for hell. He calls on evangelicals to love the LGBT community, but his definition of love is a strange one.

We can’t look at a court case like this one and only see a battle.

It’s not about scoring points.

It’s about people.

Today, their names are Jack Phillips [the baker], David Mullins, and Charlie Craig [the gay couple]. Tomorrow it could be you or someone in your neighborhood. So as we engage, let’s do so remembering that Jesus came into this world not to condemn it, but to save it. While we were yet sinners, he died for us. And in his sacrifice, he freed us to love others.

This feels somehow empty. Stetzer stated outright that he hopes the baker, Jack Phillips, wins his case. What does love look like, exactly? In what way has Phillips shown love to David Mullins and Charlie Craig, the gay couple who asked him to bake a cake for their wedding?

Let’s return for a moment to Stetzer’s comment that Paul used “his rights as a Roman citizen to both protect himself from harm and to enable his platform to preach the gospel.” In what way do arguing cake cases give evangelicals a platform to preach the gospel? Sure, it gives them a microphone, but what they’re saying into that microphone is that they’re anti-gay, and we already knew that.

In many ways, evangelicals’ obsession with opposing gay rights is actually getting in the way of their ability to effectively evangelize others. Not only does it make them look like dicks to most millennials, it also detracts from their proclaimed focus on love. Instead, they appear to have a focus on court cases, and on minutiae like baking cakes. You shall know them by their love, Jesus said. In a society increasingly accepting of the love of same-sex couples and families, the term evangelical increasingly evokes bigotry, not love.

Stetzer comes close to hitting on an important reality when he notes that evangelicals have been standing up for justice for themselves only, and not for justice for any other group, but he fails to follow through. What would it actually mean to stand up for justice for LGBT individuals? He never says. Of the LGBT rights movement Stetzer writes that “at times, we have to protect the rights of others even if it demands sacrifice for ourselves,” but he even hints at what that would look like. What sacrifices is he willing to make?

“My hope is that the Court will rule in favor of Jack Phillips,” Stetzer writes.

So very hollow.

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