Southern Baptist Leader Takes Religious Liberty Arguments to the Absurd

About Frederick Clarkson

Russell Moore,

Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

There is much we can learn about the state of the Christian Right from Russell Moore, the point man on public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Like other Christian Right leaders, Moore continues to rely on historical revisionism, bogus science, dubious claims of religious persecution, and hints darkly of tyrannical governmental violence to come. But his arguments in favor of discrimination quickly drift into outright absurdity.

Moore, who is celebrating the first anniversary of his presidency of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said during a recent interview that a key influence on his thinking about religious liberty—as it relates to marriage equality–is his mom, who happens to be a cake decorator.

Before we discuss this, it is worth recalling that Moore, as we reported here at Eyes Right, recently distinguished himself by featuring two controversial and ethically compromised figures at a SBC “summit” on the Gospel and sexuality: Mark Regnerus, who is best known for his thoroughly debunked study on same-sex parenting (a study bankrolled by Christian Right interests opposed to gay parenting–a fact he attempted to conceal); and Greg Belser, who has been deeply implicated in the cover-up of a notorious child sex scandal among Baptist clergy. The two appeared on a panel on homosexuality at the Summit along with Baptist pastor J.D. Greear, who sparked a storm on social media when he compared opposing marriage equality in the church to opposing slavery in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. Moore is planning an entire conference on homosexuality slated for October 2014.

Currently, Moore is miffed about what he regards as “elitist disdain” for the consciences of people in the cake business. “I am the son of a mother who was a cake decorator, worked for weddings,” Moore told his interviewer, Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kansas City, MO. “Sometimes you have people who bake wedding cakes [who say]: ‘Here is our wedding cake. Come have the wedding cake. You come in, and you do not need to say what this wedding is for.”

“My mother used to sit down with the couple and would say: ‘We are going to make a groom’s cake that is indicative of his interests and what he is doing. We are going to make a wedding cake that seeks to tell the story of this wedding,'” Moore said.

Wedding photographers, he claims, “do the same thing.”

“They are coming in and saying, ‘You stand here and you stand there, because we are wanting to tell the story of this wedding,'” Moore continued. “So, [for] those people who say, ‘My conscience is implicated in this,’ the Scripture tells us that to sin against conscience is to sin against God.”

While there is considerable controversy over vendors of cakes, flowers, and wedding photography who seek exemptions from public accommodation laws requiring businesses not to discriminate against their customers (including same-sex couples), the arguments in favor of such “religious exemptions” are becoming what can only be described as “odd,” as Moore’s interview shows.

Moore and attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom (one of the primary right-wing legal groups pushing for religious liberty laws in state legislatures) argue that these services are forms of expression protected by the First Amendment. They also argue that compelling vendors to provide services which they willingly provide to others, but refuse to provide to LGBTQ couples, is a violation of their religious freedom.

These arguments from the Right closely echo similar arguments made in the past for identical exemptions from anti-discrimination laws on the basis of race, gender, and religion. During the civil rights movement just a few short decades ago, many on the Right sought to use similar arguments to gain exemptions from public accommodation laws affecting service at restaurants, rental housing, and employment discrimination.

But as happened a few decades ago, the courts (if not the state legislatures), have so far ruled that allowing people to claim “religious liberty” as a justification for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation clearly violates the law.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in August 2013, that Elane Photography had violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act when they refused to shoot the commitment ceremony of a same-sex couple. In its ruling, the court said:

“The purpose of the NMHRA [New Mexico Human Rights Act] is to ensure that businesses offering services to the general public do not discriminate against protected classes of people, and the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment permits such regulation by state. Businesses that choose to be public accommodations must comply with the NMHRA, although such businesses retain their First Amendment rights to express their religious or political beliefs. They may, for example, post a disclaimer on their website or in their studio advertising that they oppose same-sex marriage but that they comply with applicable anti-discrimination laws.”

On April 7th, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the case, essentially upholding the ruling of the lower court.

“When you come into the marketplace,” Moore said while speaking of the Elane Photography case, “it is the price of citizenship to give up that conscience and those convictions.”

Taking Up the Sword

But in his interview, Moore went further than the decoration of cakes. He engaged in a form of soft-spoken anti-government demagoguery that is becoming increasingly common on the Right. Issues are hyperbolized, invoking violent imagery as part of a distinct otherization of government.

“Christian ministries are going to become increasingly under assault,” Moore claimed in his explanation of business owners being required to comply with the law protecting the rights of others. In support of his prediction, he engaged in wildly revisionist history, asserting that Roman Catholic Cardinal Sean O’Malley, of Boston, and his three fellow Massachusetts Bishops were “compelled” to shut down Catholic Charities in the state because of marriage equality. But the actual facts of the story do not support his conclusion.

The agency had been a state contractor for providing adoption services in the city and had in fact, placed 13 children with gay couples, according to a report in the Boston Globe. But after deciding not to provide those services to same-sex couples any longer, O’Malley opted to shut down Catholic Charities rather than continue to comply with the law recognizing the rights of same sex couples to adopt–which it had been in compliance with since the law was passed in 1989. This case has been frequently distorted and cited as an example of government persecution of Christians for their faith, with right-wing activists and media continually claiming that somehow government had forced Catholic Charities to close down—instead of the simple truth that they chose to close their doors.

“Does the government, with the power of the sword,” Moore asked, “have the right to force someone whose conscience says that he should not bake this cake, to bake the cake?” That is the question. We will be hearing more such questions.

Moore is correct in this one assertion, the debate over the meaning of religious freedom is certainly going to continue nationwide. Just this year, after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a religious exemption bill passed by her state’s legislature, the Mississippi Legislature passed its own version of the bill which was quickly (and with much less public attention and condemnation than Arizona) signed into law by the governor. Similar proposals have been made in several other states. And while the times and circumstances are different, what we are seeing may be the beginnings of the kind of “mass resistance” that marked the era of the African American civil rights movement. How massive this resistance will be remains, of course, to be seen. 

Frederick Clarkson, a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, has written about politics and religion for more than three decades. He is the author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy and editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. Follow him on Twitter at @FredClarkson.