Jonathan Merritt, Christian Artistic Expression, and the Preferntial Option for Ceasar (by Keith Pavlischek)

27 Feb

From Keith Pavlischek:


– by Keith Pavlischek

Jonathan Merritt , a blogger and journalist, who I’m told is associated with the progressive wing of Evangelical Christianity, recently published a blog post,  MLK[Martin Luther King] would agree with Kirsten Powers on serving same-sex couples.

The upshot of Merritt’s blog is that Christian photographers, bakers, and florists and the like should, (1) as a matter of Christian ethics and morality be willing to offer their services at gay weddings or other such events, since that, according to Kirsten Powers,  is what Jesus would do; and  (2) Christians and others should be required by law to serve at “gay weddings” or some similar type event, even if it would violate their conscience to do so.

These are two related although distinct questions. I will leave (1) to others. My focus will be on (2).

Now, I’m generally not concerned with asking questions such as “What would Jesus do?” A resort to that type of  rhetorical question is typically evidence of an immature theological mind, whether the appeal comes from the left or the right.  But since Powers played the “what would Jesus do” card, and since Merritt endorses and defends it, I’ll play along.

The precise issue is whether Jesus would take the job if he were an artist and was offered cash to photograph and paint a picture of a gay or lesbian wedding,  or–just to make sure we have the entire LGBT spectrum covered– a special type of bi-sexual threesome ceremony, or a ceremony solemnizing the friendship of the transgendered or whatever other kind of sexual-identity ceremony you can imagine.  I confess to finding the affirmative answer to question  not entirely compelling, but evidently Mr. Merritt and Ms. Powers seem to think it is.  So, for the sake of argument, I’ll concede their point.

In any case, Merritt is not content with simply denouncing Christian photographers and such who do have moral objections to photographing events that would violate conscience. He is after bigger game. He  seems to believe that as a matter of social justice Jesus would have Caesar force his disciples (at least those who are artists) to photograph or paint these events. “When it comes to the American marketplace,” he concludes his commentary, “the ocean of religious convictions stops at the shore of public service.” Merritt clearly approves and endorses this view.

According to Merritt (and Powers) then, not only would Jesus paint or photograph the  gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender “wedding” ceremony, he would call upon Caesar to force his recalcitrant disciples to do so if they refused.   And since there just be some kind of sanction for a refusal to do so, Merritt(and Powers) must believe that Jesus would support some kind of penalty–fine, or imprisonment –were his disciples to refuse to paint or photograph those events. Jesus, according to this line of argument, believes that they deserve, as a matter of justice, to be punished by Caesar. (We’ll leave to the side questions related to the degree of the punishment–fine, imprisonment, forcing the business to close, etc.)

Now, one of the most obvious objections to Merritt’s position is that there is something fundamentally different  between laws requiring the owner of certain public accommodations, such as restaurants, gas stations, retail stores and so forth and, on the one hand, and laws that burden a person’s fundamental First Amendment rights to free speech and expression on the other. Those who would recognize this distinction might agree that if Jesus was selling photographs  or paintings in his craft store in downtown  Jerusalem, he would probably sell them to all sorts of sinners passing by as well as to his disciples. He would sell them to Samaritans as well as the “real” Jews, to women taken in adultery as well as the most pious law abiding Jews.  But there is something relevantly different, the argument goes,  between that and forcing someone to participate in,  a gay, lesbian transsexual ceremony or a bi-sexual-threesome ceremony or similar type events.

This distinction was suggested by one comment on Merritt’s blog:

Respectfully, I have to disagree with the entire premise. We’re not talking about refusing gays service at a lunch counter, or even serving them cake. It’s about compelling someone to use their artistic gifts in a way that violates their sincerely held beliefs. Whether or not you agree with those beliefs, it’s chilling that government may be participating in such coercion. It’s also bothersome to me that those of us who believe in defending the traditional view of marriage are now characterized as bigots. Since MLK didn’t support SSM, was he a bigot as well?

Now, I must confess that I find this distinction to be relevant and important. But Mr. Merritt rejects it entirely:

The “artistic gifts” argument is a bit of logical gymnastics used by those who know how flimsy their arguments here actually are. It’s an attempt to carve out a special category that has never existed for certain types of business. Never before has their [sic] been an “artistic gifts exemption” or anything like it been a part of the discussion about whether a public business has a right to offer goods and services to certain classes of people and not others.

Since  Merritt rejects the distinction as a matter of principle, it is hard to see how he could escape the conclusion that Jesus would have his disciples be forced by Caesar, as a matter of social justice, to paint or photograph that bi-sexual threesome ceremony  I’m not sure I can persuade Mr. Merritt to re-think his outright rejection of that distinction. Maybe it is the kind of thing you either get or you don’t. But  perhaps looking at a real-life example of where his views lead, might persuade him to reconsider.

Take, for instance, the fundamental issues at stake in the New Mexico Elane Photography case. The background and issues are nicely summarized in their Petition for a Writ of Certiorri to the Supreme Court.

Petitioner Elane Photography, LLC, a small photography business owned and operated by a husband and wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico, tells stories and conveys messages through its photographs and picture-books. Elane Photography serves all classes of people, but its owners object as a matter of conscience to creating pictures or books that will tell stories or convey messages contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs.

Elane Photography declined to create photographs and a picture-book telling the story of Respondent Vanessa Willock’s same-sex commitment ceremony because those images would convey messages about marriage that conflict with its owners’ religious beliefs.

Respondent Willock promptly found a different photographer, and then filed a complaint alleging that Elane Photography violated the state public-accommodations statute. The New Mexico Human Rights Commission concluded that Elane Photography violated the statute, and the New Mexico Supreme Court agreed.

The logic of Mr. Merritt’s argument seems to lead straightaway to the conclusion that these “Jesus followers”–as they are called by “progressive Evangelicals these days– should, as a matter of social justice, be required by law to photograph these ceremonies. He also seems to be implying, by his appeal to Martin Luther King and so forth,  that their refusal to take photographs at this gay wedding ceremony is morally equivalent to the racists and bigots who defended Jim Crow segregation.  If a Christian were to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” with respect to the Elane case,  Merritt would be compelled, by the logic of his position, to side with  Caesar . I confess that I find this rather counter-intuitive and odd for three reasons.

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