Rights Talk Fails the Christian Baker

By Armen Oganessian
September 6, 2017

G.K. Chesterton has a parable. Suppose a commotion arises on the street about a streetlight, which an influential group wants torn down. As the discussion rages, someone asks an Augustinian monk his position. The monk begins, “We must first consider the value of light. And —.” At this point, someone else knocks out the monk, calling him old fashioned. Everyone then rushes to tear down the streetlight. After congratulating each other on being progressive, they realize that each person tore down the streetlight for a different reason. One has torn down the streetlight to replace it with a renewable-energy model; another because the light kept him up; another wanted to replace it with a cheaper running model. So, there they are, discussing the value of light as the monk suggested. Only now, they must do so in the dark.

I am reminded of Chesterton’s parable during discussions about Religious Liberty. My conversations start in the middle, assuming a lot about ethics, religion and government. They approach issues of Religious Liberty as a question of the individual’s rights. Having in view “the social-contract”, they have at their core the question, “In a prosperous society, which rights does the individual keep and which must he give up?”

Conflicting Rights, Conflicting Neighbors

The question arises because rights hinder each other. For example, suppose your neighbor is having a party where he is blaring the latest Gaslight Anthem album. The music disturbs you as you try to read a Graham Greene novel. You walk over to have a conversation. He says, “I have the right to have a party.” You fire back, “I have the right to peace and quiet.” Your neighbor’s right to have a party hinders your right to peace and quiet. So, we must decide between your right to read Greene in quiet and your neighbor’s right to listen to Gaslight at a high decibel.

Today it is apparent that rights of the Christian baker and a homosexual buyer are at odds. Like the Gaslight Anthem-Greene example, when a homosexual buys a wedding cake, he disturbs the Christian baker in his worship. The homosexual buyer demands, “I have the right to service.” The Christian baker responds, “I have the right not to be part of your wedding.” So, we try to decide between the homosexual’s right to service and the Christian’s religious liberty. My conversations’ core question becomes, “Which helps a society prosper, guaranteeing the rights of the Christian baker or the homosexual buyer?”

I phrased my conversations’ question, “Which helps a society prosper, guarantying the rights of the Christian baker or the homosexual buyer?” I could have phrased it, “Which is better” or “Which is more important”. I can even phrase it, “Which is wrong to do, force a Christian baker to sell a homosexual a wedding cake or deprive the homosexual buyer the right to service?”  I can phrase it in the different ways because beneath the question is an ethical discussion. Realizing the two are at odds, the discussion is why one right should have priority. Which right is better; which offers more benefits; which is more important. All revolve around the same ethical discussion of why it is right or wrong to give priority to one over the other.

I see the fact that I am having an ethical discussion in the shape of my conversations. No one ever quotes a statistic or gives a cost analysis. Instead, there are emotional appeals, like, “Everyone should be treated the same”, “Who are you to judge”, or “It’s wrong to force someone to —”. This points to the fact that the question at hand is one of right and wrong. It points to the fact that I am having an ethical discussion.

Why Rights Talk Fails the Baker

Since the issue is an ethical matter, approaching it as a question of the individual’s rights fails. The current discussion attempts to decide between the rights of the Christian baker or the homosexual buyer. It attempts to do so ethically. Since the Christian baker’s position comes from Christian ethics, the discussion attempts to judge Christian ethics.  Like two brothers asking their father to settle an argument, there is an appeal to an outside ethical authority to settle the dispute between Christian ethics and the homosexual buyer. To be able to judge it, this ethical authority must be higher than Christian ethics. This does not work because no such ethical authority exists.

Put differently, the Christian baker thinks it is wrong to take part of a homosexual wedding. This belief comes from his Christian faith. It is part of his Christian ethics. So, to decide whether he should have the right to abstain from a homosexual wedding is to pass judgement on Christian ethics. To do so, there needs to be an appeal to another moral system. This morality must be outside and higher than Christian ethics. There is no such moral system. So, approaching the issue surrounding the Christian baker and the homosexual buyer as a question of the individual’s rights fails.

Since we cannot approach it as a question of the individual’s rights, we must approach the issue between the Christian baker and the homosexual buyer differently. The new approach must begin with the relationship between the United States’ government and Christianity. The issue is not a question of the kind, “Should the Christian have the right to worship Jesus on Sunday?” Rather, we begin with asking, “Should the United States’ legislation have room for the full expression of Christianity?” Do and should the United States’ laws accommodate Christianity’s beliefs and ethics?

So, to decide the issue between the Christian baker and the homosexual buyer, we must first consider the value of light.  We must do so with questions like, “What should the role of government in the United States be?”, “What should the government’s relationship with the Christian religion be?”, and “How can opposing worldviews interact?” Only after these questions are answered, can we approach the issue between the Christian baker and the homosexual buyer.