Two stories have been in circulation. One concerns a subpoena issued in Houston demanding all sermons and memoranda that touch on homosexuality from a group of pastors. The other involves Donald and Evelyn Knapp. Ordained ministers of the Four Square Church, they run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Local officials have informed them that anti-discrimination laws require them to perform same-sex weddings.
Both indicate the coming pressure to conform to the new regime of gay rights. Both are complicated, though. It’s worth thinking about why we see them as the beginning of a much broader and more brutal campaign.
First, the complications. The Houston subpoena did not come out of the blue. Houston’s City Council passed a gay rights ordinance. Some local pastors were part of an organized effort to put forward a petition to repeal the ordinance. More than enough signatures were collected, but city officials disqualified enough signatures to lower the count below the level needed to put it on November’s ballot. Petition backers litigated.
A big-time law firm took on the case to defend the city of Houston. It then used the usual shock-and-awe tactics of Big Law, which in this case meant subpoenas designed to beat the adversary into submission. Thus the insanely broad demand for all sermons, memos and so forth that mention homosexuality. In short, this is not a city-initiated fishing expedition. Instead, it’s a “how-dare-you-challenge-the-Establishment” punch in the gut.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Donald and Evelyn Knapp’s faith, but they were running a marriage chapel, not a church. It’s not clear if the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel is a for-profit operation. That doesn’t mean they don’t have an entirely legitimate claim to religious freedom. (See Hobby Lobby!). But it’s not the same as requiring a church to host same-sex weddings. Nor does it require priests or pastors to perform same-sex weddings.
In this case, what the Coeur d’Alene officials are saying is this: Insofar as you run a public wedding chapel, you’ve got to welcome all comers. Again, that doesn’t mean the demand isn’t a violation of religious freedom (again, see Hobby Lobby), but it’s limited in scope.
Viewed objectively, these two recent controversies represent skirmishes rather than major invasions of religious freedom. But all of us view them with dark thoughts about the future. Our foreboding is justified. Progressives have long dominated an important American subculture: the university. It’s their church and they have run it with ruthless intolerance. The supposedly fair-minded liberals and moderates in today’s universities very rarely speak against the politically correct status quo. This same intolerance now characterizes many establishment institutions such as Big Law and professional organizations responsible for licensing and accreditation. They are becoming more and more like the university culture: intolerant and punitive of dissent.
We’re also intuitively aware that gay rights today plays an important emotional role in American secular culture. It’s become the Great Cause, and progressivism needs Great Causes to justify its claim to power. Moreover, this Great Cause is especially dangerous because it is so artificial. There is no crisis of discrimination against homosexuals in America. As a result, the Great Cause of stamping out what for the most part does not exist becomes highly ritualized and detached from reality.
It is always dangerous to use the coercive power of law to achieve almost entirely symbolic victories. In the 1960s American government used its power to neuter a pervasive racist system of voting, education, employment, and housing. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 was not a symbolic victory. It was a reality-based legal initiative designed to counter real injustices that profoundly deformed the lives of millions of Americans.
Now we’re in the midst of a gay rights campaign that is not reality-based. What, exactly, is achieved for gays and lesbians when Christian photographers are compelled to take pictures at their weddings? Or in securing the right to be married in the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel? Is the Great Cause of our time to be found in securing the right for confused men to use a women’s bathroom or vice versa?
Ideologues press for symbolic victories designed to demonstrate a complete and total triumph. Ideologues destroy civic institutions (such as marriage) for the sake of symbolic victory. Ideologues destroy lives for the sake of supposed principles. We have foreboding about the future because we sense, rightly, I think, that unlike the civil rights movement the gay rights movement is deeply ideological.