Let Them Bake Cakes (Part 1)?

Posted on February 25, 2014 by


To bake the cake or not to bake the cake? That is the question.

It seems simple, but this query is generating a fair amount of controversy within the Christian community. The question is not really about whether our cakes should be from scratch or a box, but it is about gay marriage and the obligations it may or may not create for Christians.

The “cake” refers to the Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado. Charlie Craig and David Mullins asked Jack Phillips, who owns the shop, to make a wedding cake for their wedding reception. Citing religious beliefs, Phillips declined. Mullins later referred to the refusal as “offensive and dehumanizing.” Craig and Mullins sued Phillips. A judge, in December, ordered Phillips to cease the discrimination. Similar legal controversies have ensnared florists in Washington and photographers in New Mexico.

In light of the conflicts, Kristen Powers, of USA Today, argued that Christians ought to bake these cakes (or snap the pictures or clip the flowers) without complaint because it is–wait for it–what Jesus would do. Powers compares these choices, to NOT bake a cake, to the Jim Crow Era’s discrimination against African-Americans, essentially equating lunch counters with wedding reception cakes. Jonathan Merritt, left-leaning Christian author/blogger, embraced Powers’ conception, to a degree, and added Martin Luther King, Jr.’s distinction between purely private property and private property that is dependent on the public for economic interaction. King found the former beyond government’s reach and the latter open to regulation and closed to discrimination by the owner. Both Powers and Merritt seem comfortable with government enforcing the non-discrimination. Unsurprisingly, this inspired a rebuttal by Keith Pavlischek, who makes a key distinction between the ethics of the matter (what should we do by choice) and the legality of the matter (what should government be able to coerce us to do).

Perhaps most critically, as Pavlischek says, even if we think Christians ought to bake the cake for a gay wedding when it opposes their moral convictions, should we, as Christians, seek to use government to force our fellow believers to do the same? In a sense, should we beg the state to enforce an arguable conception of Christian morality upon fellow Christians who disagree? This is an interesting approach to piety. And the idea, that where Christian conceptions fail the state must ride to the rescue, is a persistent theme among the new Christian Left. For instance, if Christians fail in their duty to care for the poor, the appropriate solution is to use the state’s coercive taxation system to make them do it and then pretend, at the end of the day, that is what Jesus really wanted.

There are several lurking matters I want to address, but let me tackle one for now and then another in a later post. I agree with Pavlischek that there is a significant difference between providing a public accommodation, like a hotel room, and painting a portrait for a client. There seems to be little, from a Christian perspective, to support the idea that we, as believers, are obligated to discriminate against the “sinful” when offering a public service. This would be akin to Chick-fil-A refusing to sell chicken sandwiches to adulterers. Even if the restaurant could determine who is, or is not, an adulterer, why choose adulterers as compared to liars or thieves or the gluttonous? (Oh the fun of a restaurant telling someone, ‘sorry, sir, you’ve had enough…’)

Let us be clear on this point–if Christian business owners refuse to offer goods and services to sinners, they would first need to stop selling to fellow church members. We are all sinners in desperate need of God’s grace. While I do not pretend that all sins should be treated equally as it relates to the body of Christ, especially when we consider church membership and discipline, I think all sins earn God’s condemnation. Granted, a critic might argue that a gay couple is living an openly sinful life, but I fear that distinction is only the result of camouflage. Some of us are just better than others at hiding our sins.

The difference, then, is not the recipient, but the nature of the provision. There are activities that are more like affirmations as opposed to providing a service. I would say that painting a portrait is one of those. The artist spends time and talent to immortalize a subject, generally attaching a signature to the portrait. This is a public statement that is hard to neutralize. (Granted, one could paint a condemning portrait of judgment to illustrate the artist’s view of the subject, but I cannot imagine the patron would approve or pay for it.) In this way, I am sure that Jack Phillips, from the Masterpiece Cakeshop, sees creating a cake as a public pronouncement, as an expression. This is, as Pavlischek notes, closer to artistry than accommodation. The rub of the question, then, at least as framed so far, is should government have the ability to coerce this kind of activity?

Pavlischek quotes Frank Beckwith’s formulation of the conflict and I think it is quite apt:

In Nye County, Nevada, prostitution is legal. So, imagine a local photographer in Parumph is asked by the local brothel, the Cherry Patch Ranch, to take photographs of the employees and staff for the establishment’s “Happy Holidays” card.

Suppose the photographer is a devout Christian, who not only believes that prostitution is immoral, but that the Season that brothel intends to celebrate by sending out its card is sacred.

Should the photographer have the right to turn down the brothel as a client?

I think this formulation is much harder to handle, at least from a legal perspective, for those who seek to use the state to coerce economic activity out of those who have religious objections.

(Part 2 is forthcoming.)