When Crystal O’Connor, the owner of an Indiana pizza parlor said she wouldn’t cater a gay wedding because she is a Christian, the story went viral. Not surprisingly, one immediate response was laughter: “What gay couple would have pizza catered at their wedding?” “Wedding pizza—is that a thing in Indiana?”
But not all comments and reactions were good humored. One Indiana basketball coach tweeted an invitation to burn down the business. She was caught and suspended from her job, but daunted by an outpouring of indignation, hostility and sarcastic Yelp reviews and pro-gay anti-religion photos, Memories Pizza closed their doors, saying they might not reopen. Some on the Left relished the thought that bigotry might have a tangible pocketbook price.
But many Christian conservatives saw the situation differently. To them, the owners of Memories Pizza were simply earnest believers, exercising their religious freedom to live according to biblical principles. Conservative commentator Dana Loesch and her staff set up a GoFundMe page on behalf of the O’Connors, and the campaign received more than $800,000 in two days before it closed. Support even spilled over to the sluggish campaign of a Washington florist who had refused to provide wedding flowers to a long time gay customer.
Religion, Bigotry or Both?
Conservative commentators insist that Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act isn’t about bigotry—it simply aims to protect the free practice of religion. On the other hand, Christians who support equal rights for LGBTQ Americans have argued that it isn’t about religion—that the problem is bigotry, pure and simple. As one person commented on Facebook, “People who call themselves Christians and then discriminate and cast judgement are NOT, I repeat NOT Christians.”
But the Supreme Court, during the Hobby Lobby decision, made it clear that a religious belief need only be “sincerely held,” not widely held or factually accurate, in order to warrant protection under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And a brief sampling of supportive comments aimed at Memories Pizza would suggest that opposition to queer rights is a very “sincerely held” tenet of faith for many conservative Christians.
- This makes me so happy!!! What a blessing and proof that God can turn evil (what those intolerant people did) into good! The amount is going up by the minute!!
- Thats because the Christians are coming together.
- This is a testimony of the “Christian Heart & Generosity” that exists out there despite the hurt & harm a minority of people in this country would exact on people that disagree with them. CHRIST WINS THIS ONE!!!! smile emoticon
- Right On, Right On, Right On! Freakin’ AWESOME. ! This made my weekend! Christians always rule!
- You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done. Genesis 15:20
- I can’t wait to go to this place. The owner and daughter are the most genuine humble God fearing people. God’s people are warned they will be persecuted, mocked, and suffer for standing up for God’s truth. The main tragedy is our country has changed and is crawling with VILE LEFTISTS and persecution of Christians has come full bore to the United States.
Comments like these should make it clear: It’s not a question of bigotry or Christianity but rather a question of bigotry that is sanctified and reinforced by Christianity—by the moral framework of the Bible writers, Church traditions, modern fundamentalist leaders, and a community of like-minded believers including those who rallied to defend a pizza parlor’s right to discriminate.
Queers vs. Kids
Given the World Vision fiasco in 2014, it should surprise no one that conservative Christians would donate $800,000 to a pizza parlor as an expression of their antipathy to queer rights. World Vision is an Evangelical Christian aid organization that promotes sponsorships of desperately poor children in developing countries. When the leaders decided that they would extend benefits to married partners of same sex Christian employees, their Evangelical supporters mutinied. Conservative Christian leaders including Minister John Piper vociferously denounced the decision as unchristian and unbiblical. The band Casting Crowns made a point of publically withdrawing their support. And thousands of morally outraged Bible believers swiftly followed suit.
I have written in the past that I think child sponsorship is an unsophisticated and potentially harmful aid model, one that undermines the dignity and authority of impoverished parents and often exploits power differences to advance cultural (or religious) colonialism. I’ll stand by that. But even I was surprised that people who actually like and believe in the model would use their support for poor children as a bargaining chip against gay rights.
In an analysis published this March, World Vision stated that between 15,000 and 19,000 conservative Christians pulled their child sponsorships in direct reaction to the partner benefits question, with an estimated multi-year cost between 5 and 7 million dollars. World Vision leaders, who by their own report had prayed extensively over the decision, prayed again and apparently heard a different message from God. In an effort to stop the financial hemorrhage and protect their fragile clients from harm, they reversed the decision, issuing a formal statement that marriage is between one man and one woman; but it was too late.
If 15,000 Evangelicals would express their disapproval of gays by pulling funding from desperately poor children in places like India and Africa, children with whom some had even exchanged personal letters(!), small surprise that thousands would rally behind a pizza parlor owner who shared their passion.
The immediate take-away may be that standing against queer rights and for unfettered religious freedom, can be a winning position for individual Christians, as it is for many conservative politicians and institutions. But is it good for Christianity as a whole?
Good for Christians, Bad for Christianity’s Brand
Recent reports suggest that young people raised in Christian families are leaving the faith at a higher rate than ever before, and religious bigotry may be a key factor. When it comes to social wedge issues, young Christians seem rather uninspired by the idea that chosen childbearing is a positive social good. Most haven’t thought much about whether children in Christian homes have the right to be free from religiously motivated beatings. They may be comfortable, in other words, with the parts of the Religious Freedom agenda that give men authority over the bodies of women and children. But the idea that queer people deserve equality, dignity, and love—that much seems clear.
In fact, a recent poll showed that among likely American voters, gay people are viewed more positively than Evangelicals. Out of 1000 respondents, 53 percent expressed a positive opinion of gay people, while only 42 percent held a positive opinion of Evangelicals—roughly the same as the percent of Americans who describe themselves as born again or Evangelical. Campaigns defending the right to discriminate may feel virtuous, and may help Evangelicals feel good about themselves, but to religious outsiders, they are ugly and mean.
Evangelical leaders have been soul searching in recent years, with sermons, conferences, books and polls all aimed at trying to understand the flight of young people from the Church. If the answer to their question can’t be found in testimonials at ExChristian.net, or in the internet’s broad array of de-conversion tools, perhaps it can be found in Memories Pizza and their almost million dollar bank account.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
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