Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Perhaps it is the natural result of social evolution but as a nation, our understanding of what the word “tolerance” means or how it is to be lived has shifted within our moral GPS. We have been detoured away from the broad two-way street called Live and Let Live and are now traveling a narrower road that goes only one way, and offers few exits. It’s called the My-Way Highway.

Same-sex marriage has become a judicial juggernaut; seventeen states now recognize same-sex unions, with couples in Idaho and Kentucky currently petitioning the courts to extend that number. This has prompted legislatures in Kansas, Arizona, and other states to advance unwieldy bills that seek to balance a newly-acquired right to marriage against the rights of others to follow their religious or moral consciences.

The question is no longer whether couples may marry, but whether a baker may refuse to sell them a wedding cake on the strength of his religious or moral conscience, without risking a lawsuit.

Anyone can walk into a kosher or halal butcher’s shop and buy a chicken, but if asked to cater a party with bacon burgers, the butcher will refuse. Should that invite a lawsuit? People understand that you don’t bother religious butchers with requests they cannot honor. Should we be permitted to demand services of a cameraman, or a florist or baker that tread upon their religious sensibilities?

It’s too bad that laws and courts must become involved with what used to be the simplest of lessons: Not everyone thinks the same way, but everyone is entitled to their opinions; if that kid won’t play with you—or that baker will not make your cake—someone else will, so just kiss them up to God, and move on. Or, as Jesus told his apostles when he sent them off to preach the good news, “Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet, in testimony against them.”

The right to honor one’s individual conscience is no small thing to be shrugged off, or misconstrued as an excuse for ignorant behavior in the face of prevailing law. Who among us would blame a launderer (of any creed or background) for refusing to clean the sheets of a KKK member? Would anyone suggest that Rosa Parks had no business thinking for herself when a bus driver told her to get up from her seat?

People need to weigh their passionate feelings with careful thought before they chip away at the inviolability of individual conscience, and those who believe it can be legislated against should beware of hypocrisy; they are often the same people who argue that when it comes to abortion, a woman’s own mind—her individual conscience and reason—outweighs what used to be called “conventional morality.”

Writing in USA Today, last week, Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers compared what some call the “anti-gay marriage” bills to “homosexual Jim Crow laws.” That may be a rhetorical bridge too far. More worth consideration is her claim that “Whether Christians have the legal right to discriminate should be a moot point because Christianity doesn’t prohibit serving a gay couple getting married. Jesus calls his followers to be servants to all. Nor does the Bible call service to another an affirmation.”

Well, yes and no. While Jesus socialized with those the temple priests would condemn, and healed the “unclean” lepers, he used those opportunities to teach about the love of God and the wideness of God’s mercy. A soul opened to God’s love begins to love God in return, and—for the sake of that love, and in honor of that mercy—eventually conforms life and manner to God’s will.

Jesus’ service, then, was a means to gentle evangelization and that is perhaps something these Christian businessmen and women should consider, even if it seems counterintuitive to the character of evangelization, as Americans understand it.

Powers ends her piece writing, “Maybe they should just ask themselves, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I think he’d bake the cake.”

Perhaps he might; it seems to me that baking a cake for a same-sex wedding, even if one does not agree with the concept, may well come under the heading of walking along a road for two miles with someone who “presses you into service” for one.

But perhaps he wouldn’t; all we can do is make our best guesses. True, if the road is heading toward that nebulous region of “tolerance” that has become so difficult to locate in American society, we should all be willing to walk a ways with each other, but eventually we will reach departure points that can and should be respected. Many can travel as far as Powers’ “he’d bake the cake” exit, but then must get off, before the road reaches “Jesus would officiate at a same-sex wedding.” That is the logical next stop, and a place we simply cannot get to, if we are following Jesus’ map.

Jesus is the source of articulated doctrine on both marriage and divorce. The world may disagree—it clearly stopped listening about divorce some decades ago—but the churches are and will remain bound to his teachings.

Meanwhile, if we lose the ability to respect that people can only go as far as their consciences will allow, we risk becoming mired in a muck of illusion, imagining hate where none exists, equating compelled behavior with authentic love, and losing sight of the fact that traveling together sometimes means that we walk the extra mile on one challenging road, and they walk it on the next. Everyone spares a bit of shoe-leather for the sake of the other. This is how love travels.

Jesus observed the law and fulfilled the law. He did not throw the law away, for the sake of love. For the sake of love, he threw himself away. That’s another counterintuitive lesson he gave to us, as we all proceed together, slouching toward “tolerance” and carrying our consciences along the way.

Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles can be found here.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things onTwitter.

More on: Religion

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles