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Mission to the West: “Isn’t Someone’s Refusal to Provide Services for Immoral Celebrations Just Bigotry?”

‘Bigotry’ is intolerance of those holding a position other than one’s own.  Such a definition belies a paradox: the person who claims another is a ‘bigot’ is in danger of being intolerant him or herself in making the charge and becomes a bigot when enacting restrictions of one sort or another on a person who holds a contrasting viewpoint.  The issue boils down to power—as Friedrich Nietzsche would readily have pointed out were he alive today.  Whoever has managed to control the moral high ground as far as society is concerned gets to call the other a ‘bigot’.

Examples multiply by the day.  The insistence that a baker bake a cake for a homosexual’s ‘wedding’ is presented as a morally superior act to allowing the baker to choose to participate or not based on his or her conscience.  The baker who refuses is said to be a ‘bigot’: not the one forcing the baker to bake a cake against his beliefs but the baker refusing to bake the cake is said to be the ‘bigot’.  The issue is merely one of social power.

In a moment of unusual clarity of thought in the West’s redefinition of ‘freedom’ in a postmodern and post-Christian context, the Appeal Court of British Columbia has ruled in favour of Trinity Western University’s right to insist that its students abide by the conviction that the only appropriate place for sex is within a marriage between a man and a woman.[1]  In their ruling, the court tackled the question of bigotry and its relation to freedom (without mentioning the problematic word):

"A society that does not admit... and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society, one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal…. This case demonstrates that a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in, [sic] itself, intolerant and illiberal."

As I have argued elsewhere, the underlying issue is the relationship between conscience and freedom.[2]  The development of a politic that affirms freedom is dependent on a defense of conscience.  Enforced freedom is not freedom.  The West’s defense of conscience, as I attempted to argue earlier, was dependent on a Christian perspective—even against practices in so-called ‘Christian’ nations where anything but freedom of conscience was permitted.  Nevertheless, the Christian perspective that morality is based on faith—on belief—requires a perspective that defends the freedom of conscience.  Christianity has to do with witness to the Good News—proclamation—and the response of faith.  An enforced faith is not a faith; an enforced morality is not moral.  People need to be persuaded to the faith.

This does not mean that laws cannot be enacted to hold back the evil of society.  Such laws need to be enacted, as every society has recognized.  This is the role of government (Rom. 13.1-7).  The challenge of society is to balance the freedom of conscience with the rule of law.  Where this becomes imbalanced is precisely where the West has increasingly gone in its judgements that override conscience; and this is where the requirement to support others’ views and practices opposed to one’s own becomes intolerance and, if one wishes to use the word, ‘bigotry’.[3]  Such persecution of the righteous because of their consciences is described in apocalyptic terms in Daniel and Revelation (cf. Esther).  Lot’s refusal to go along with the men of Sodom’s customs made Lot out to be the bigot: he was considered to be intolerant of their time-honoured practice of same-sex acts (Genesis 19.9).  Yet, on another reckoning, the men of Sodom were the bigots in their intolerance of Lot and his morality.

Christians call for a faith-based moral life—not simply freedom of conscience.  They advocate a particular, Biblically based ethic.  Yet, to live this way, they affirm freedom of conscience so that they might live according to God’s Law above all else and even at times over against society’s customs and laws.  They do not hold freedom of conscience above their ethics, as though a society that permits infanticide or abortion, e.g., is moral simply because people have the right to choose.  Instead, they recognize that the inclination of human hearts is wicked (Gen. 6.5): giving such people unrestrained freedom is destructive and inevitably falls under divine judgement.  God calls for holiness and righteousness, not human freedom per se.

Thus, the challenge is to call for righteousness behaviour while affirming that morality is not just a matter of actions but willed actions (as Immanuel Kant argued).  The moral act is a willed act that is moral.  Where the line is crossed is where society makes it impossible without reprisals to live a moral life, where people are required to engage in immoral acts against their consciences.  Just here, people’s consciences are oppressed in the name of freedom, and they are coerced to do immoral things against their will.  When Sodom reached this stage of its immoral slide into turpitude, trying to force Lot to act against his conscience in conformity with its socially approved practices, Lot had to flee the city.




[1] James Macintyre, ‘Christian University Wins Legal Battle Over Ban On Sex Outside Hterosexual Marriage,’ Christian Today (2 November, 2016); online: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/christian.university.wins.legal.battle.over.ban.on.sex.outside.heterosexual.marriage/99588.htm (accessed 17 November 2016).
[2] Rollin G. Grams, ‘The Changing Meaning of Freedom: From Conscience to Coercion’, BibleandMission Blog (http://bibleandmission.blogspot.com/2016/09/christian-mission-to-west-changing.html).
[3] Cf. European attempts to limit freedom of speech, e.g.  See the recent article on this by Judith Bergman, ‘Let’s End Free Speech!  Are European Countries Now Police States?” Gatestone Institute (17 November 2016); online: https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/9311/europe-free-speech (accessed 17 November, 2016).