Michael Bird doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage. I do. What I find interesting is that he is able to promote a supportive approach despite his evangelical beliefs, and by appealing to an array of biblical texts. In God, Pastries, and Religious Freedom, he writes:
“My own view is that religious freedom is for the common good and in reflex those who enjoy that freedom ought to act for the common good. Faith communities tend to be benevolent and profess to exist for the sake of others, not for the sake of themselves. At least for Christianity, that means putting the needs of others above your own, exercising love at one’s own expense, and bearing the cost of other peoples’ burdens.”
Which is great. But is it theologically credible? Or would Michael Bird simply be laughed out of the room by the vast majority of his fellow evangelical Christians? On Facebook and his blog, he has received applause, so that’s a good sign he’s not spitballing.
On the one hand, Bird affirms the necessity of religious freedom:
“I think we can agree that people’s religious freedom should be protected and no-one should be coerced into doing something their religion prohibits. It would be wrong to walk into a halal butcher and demand that they provide you with three pounds of pork chops. To demand a Jewish baker make a birthday cake for Adolf Hitler would be bastardly. To ask a Christian baker to bake a cake with the slogan, ‘Jesus Christ Superfraud’ would likewise be horrible. All of us, the religious and the non-religious, have our own sensitivities, and most of the time we can work around them without too much inconvenience to anybody. This is what it means to have a pluralistic society and a multi-cultural work-place. Secularists who insist that religious folks must leave their faith at home simply don’t understand that religion is a way of life and not just an expendable fashion accessory. It is also a mockery to fairness and tolerance if people’s religious values are not accommodated as far as can reasonably be expected in the marketplace.”
Quite right, and as I said two days ago, in half-agreement with Justice Antonin Scalia, it is unreasonable to expect rabbis and ministers to conduct marriages not in accord with their beliefs. Opposing same-sex marriage for religious reasons doesn’t necessarily imply bigotry (though it often unfortunately does).
On the other hand, Bird also acknowledges that religious freedoms have to be balanced against new covers for discrimination:
“The question remains does this commitment to fairness in the workplace and freedom of religion in the marketplace extend to the right to discriminate and the right to refuse someone your business? Does a Christian baker have the right to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding? Does a Muslim caterer have the right to refuse to cater for a Bar Mitzvah at the local synagogue? Does a Hindu taxi-driven have the right to refuse to pick up a person wearing a shirt saying, ‘Bob’s Steakhouse’? At one level, we could say that the refusal of business is their loss, but on another level, the person refused would feel more than merely inconvenienced, probably a little alienated. Think of the wider consequences too. Do we want doctors turning patients away because of their ethnicity under the guise of religious freedom? Do we want cafés refusing to serve customers because of their religious apparel, their gender, race, disability, diet, or because of their marital status? The problem is that religious freedom might become a convenient cover for new forms of discrimination and even old forms of segregation.”
Right again. So this is how Bird applies his (conservative, evangelical) faith to the common good — or how he “exists for the sake of others rather than himself”, and puts the needs of others above his own, exercises love at his own expense, etc. If he ran a bakery and a gay couple wanted a wedding cake,
“I’d bake that cake to the glory of God and be the nicest possible baker they’d ever met, not despite being a Christian, but precisely because I am one. I want to try to be like the Apostle Paul and be all things to all people so that I might save some (1 Cor 9:22). At the end of the day, the best witness Christians have to the world is the quality of their work and the compassionate character of their service… The Christian Scriptures point us towards such a position. God told Jeremiah that while he was in exile in a pagan city he was to, ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jer 29:7). In other words, seek the betterment of others and blessings for others. Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbours and their enemies, presumably even if your neighbour is gay and even if your perceived enemy is an LGBT activist (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35). The Apostle Paul could say to the churches in Corinth – and Corinth was a city full of pagan religion and sexual excess – ‘Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God–even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved’ (1 Cor 10:32-33). None of this requires being a door mat, surrendering your religious freedom, but if you are a Christian then it does entail a willingness to struggle with the messiness and ambiguity of being in the world but not of the world. Opening a stall in the modern day agora will mean encountering people from all walks of life, people of all faiths and none, and striving to be compassionate to all while remaining faithful to one’s religious convictions.”
This application of the gospel carries credible force, much like that promoted by, say, Pope Francis. What’s key is that a counsel of tolerance, accommodation, and good will can be readily derived from the Christian scriptures. One might debate and split hairs; and obviously not every Christian will applaud Bird’s theology. But large numbers of them do. I’ve often said that most of the toxic ideas found in most of the world’s major religions (save one) carry within themselves the seeds of their own transformation. Christianity has centuries of homophobic intolerance to deal with, thanks largely to Leviticus and Paul. But Paul himself can be used to extend his own ethic of charity, not to mention his savior’s.
Finally — as if all this weren’t impressive enough — Bird ends his post by firing a shot at the PC police:
“Of course, if some LGBT activist came to my bakery and ordered a cake just to humiliate me by making me do something against my religious beliefs or to find a way to seek punitive legal damages against me, then I’d agree to bake the cake, but I’d inform them in advance that I’m donating their money to either the most far right politician I could find or to some gay ministry program run by Catholics or Southern Baptists.”
Good for him. I might be inclined to do something similar in his shoes. My church (Unitarian Universalist) takes same-sex unions for granted, but I have no more use for PC hypocrites than Michael Bird does. “Be innocent as doves to genuine gay couples, and shrewd as snakes to LGBT activists trying to burn you,” is an evangelical position which I can certainly applaud from the sidelines.