Gay writer Andrew Sullivan recently wrote a thought-provoking piece on a religious freedom debate that has often provoked more heat than light. He ultimately sides with the Christian baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding, but does so more on artistic rather than on religious grounds. He finds the former to be more compelling than the latter.
While I agree with many of Sullivan’s contentions, I think his rationale here is fundamentally flawed. As a simple matter, who gets to define art and why does that category get special privileges over speech more broadly-considered? Should the Christian baker get a pass here because there is an intrinsic artistry to his work, while the non-artistic Christian caterer is subject to coercion?
When a relativistic, experientialist society seeks to establish objective norms, this is the sort of muddy thinking that ensues. Our new principles are so ill-defined and subject to exception that they are rendered practically worthless.
Yet there is a deeper flaw in Sullivan’s well-intentioned reasoning. Why should artistic freedom–or even the broader freedom of speech–be given more weight than the freedom of religion?
There is a reason why theocratic regimes are so ruthless and effective. By coercing the conscience and dictating the terms of an individual’s basic beliefs, divinized despots are able to subsequently suppress every other freedom. Religious freedom is the first freedom.
What is the freedom of speech, but the vocalization of an individual’s religious worldview? We all have basic beliefs concerning why the world is the way it is and how we should live as a result. Our speech often takes the form of affirming or denying principles, policies, and practices based upon our worldview. Even our economic freedom–our use of money–is a form of speech that is reflective of our religious worldview. Every dollar we spend consciously or subconsciously reflects the way we view the world.
To put it another way, religious freedom is not subsidiary to the freedom of speech–like artistic freedom. It is the fountainhead of all forms of speech and the foundation of every other freedom. For Sullivan to imply that religion in itself is not a sufficient ground for a baker to refuse to participate in a gay wedding is to imply that there is really no ground at all. The faux flooring of artistic expression will quickly collapse.
Not only is religious freedom at the essence of individual freedom, it is the essential bulwark for preventing and thwarting tyranny. Despite the commonly-held misconception that religion is primarily responsible for war and tyranny, it was atheistic regimes–in name or practice–that were responsible for most of the vast majority of bloodshed of the past century. And before the nationalist cult of Hitler could take root, it had to first co-opt the hollowed-out church in Germany. Before the socialist cults in communist Russia and China could murder more than Hitler, they had to crack down on the religious dissidents in the midst. These barbaric regimes recognized that the first freedom is also the final frontier of freedom and must be subjugated.
It is also religious freedom that casts the light of liberty and earthly hope upon oppressed peoples and nations. President Reagan and Pope John Paul II rightly recognized that heavily-Catholic Poland would drive a spike into the heart of Soviet communism. Over the decades, the Poles were able to maintain their inner resistance against their oppressors due to a devout and abiding faith in the God of the nations.
In the same way–as Sullivan notes–protecting a Christian baker’s right to refuse is to protect our people as a whole. Vacuous cries for tolerance and other moralities-of-the-moment lack any substance or enduring strength as an enduring call for change. Criticisms of racism and sexism ring as hollow as the foundations they are current built upon. The protection of people from one another and from the excesses of oppressive regimes is rooted in religion. To stand up to tyranny–to hold one’s hand before an oncoming tank–is not an artistic act, but a religious one.
As Americans, we will either stand upon the first freedom or we will not stand at all.