Paul Dean

Pastor, Counselor, Professor, Columnist and Radio Talk Show Host

Religious Freedom or Simply Freedom?

In the movie Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson plays Elijah Price, a comic book art gallery owner. In a scene that has relevance for our current cultural discussion, he is explaining to a customer the artistic merit of a valuable comic character sketch. The customer says he’ll buy it. Elijah is pleased and affirms the customer’s wise choice. But he stops cold when the customer says something startling.

Customer: My kid’s gonna go berserk.

Elijah: Once again, please?
Customer: My son Jeb, it's a gift for him.
Elijah: How old is "Jeb?"
Customer: He's four.
Elijah: No. No, no, no, no, NO. You need to go. Now.
Customer: W-What did I say?
Elijah: Do you see any Teletubbies here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name on it? Did you see a little Asian child with a blank expression sitting outside in a mechanical helicopter that shakes when you put quarters in it? No? Well, that's what you'd see at a toy store. And you must think you you're in a toy store, because you're here shopping for an infant named Jeb. Now, one of us has made a gross error, and wasted the other person's valuable time. This is an art gallery, my friend, and this is a piece of art.

Elijah refuses to sell the man his piece of art simply because the man doesn’t appreciate it like Elijah does; simply because he doesn’t want the man to give it to his four year old son. And you know what? If you watch the movie, you applaud him for it. How could this customer be so ignorant? So uneducated? So unappreciative?

Of course, Elijah is discriminating. He’s discriminating against the ignorant, the uneducated, those who don’t appreciate good art, and even children. Here’s the question though. Is it wrong for him to do so? Is it wrong to refuse to sell your art to someone who doesn’t appreciate it the way you do?

Few people prior to the discussion surrounding Indiana’s religious freedom act would have said it was wrong: a point the movie underscores. But, what if we did consider that or something similar morally wrong? I mean if Joe Jones who owns a diner refuses to serve lunch to a tatted up punk rocker just because he doesn’t like tatted up punk rockers, I’d say he’s morally wrong. The Bible says he’s morally wrong. But, and here’s the real issue, does he not have the right to do with his property what he wants? Sell it or not? Isn’t he just like Elijah Price? It’s his property, right?

People are saying he doesn’t have the right to do what he wants with his property. Well, if that’s true, then he has no real property rights and no real liberty. Those same people are saying he can’t refuse to serve the tatted up punk rocker because that would be discrimination.

But don’t miss this point; don’t miss the real world; discrimination occurs either way. If Joe refuses to serve the punk rocker, Joe is discriminating against him. But if the government forces Joe to serve the punk rocker, then the government is discriminating against Joe. Either way, someone is being discriminated against.

Big question: do you want the government discriminating against people? I hope not. We’ve been through that with Jim Crow laws. But think about this. When Joe refuses to sell to the punk rocker, he’s not violating any rights of the punk rocker. The punk rocker has no right to eat Joe’s food. He only has the right to make Joe an offer to purchase his food. But Joe has the right to reject the offer. And the punk rocker can go purchase food somewhere else. No harm, no foul. But if the government forces Joe to serve the punk rocker, then not only has the government discriminated against Joe but it has violated his right to do with his property what he wants. It has abused him and taken away his freedom.

Here’s what we need to understand. Every single person engages in some kind of discrimination every day. When you choose to eat at a restaurant, you are discriminating against all other restaurants. That’s not morally reprehensible but its discrimination nonetheless. When you sell your home to a guy with a cash offer of five-hundred dollars less than the guy who has to get loan approval, you’re discriminating against the guy who needs credit. You’re discriminating when you hire a girl with whiter teeth than the other girl who applied for the job. You’re discriminating when you hire the thin woman to pitch your product rather than the fat woman. How many not so thin and not so young guys are doing ads for Calvin Klein?

Let’s be clear. Biblical Christians hate immoral discrimination. Joe Jones should serve anyone who comes into his diner. That’s what Christ would want regardless of race, religion, sexual-orientation, or whatever. A Christian doesn’t refuse to serve someone just because he’s different or has a different value system. A Christian doesn’t refuse to serve someone just because he’s gay.

But there are other issues. What if someone came into Joe’s diner and insults the other customers? Shouldn’t Joe not only have the right to ask him to leave but wouldn’t he be biblically obligated to? Aren’t there any number of scenarios where we would say that Joe is morally obligated to ask someone to leave? What if a guy was brandishing a gun around scaring people? What if a couple started heavily making out?

And, biblically speaking, aren’t there times when Christians should refuse service? The Christian can’t in good conscience participate in celebrating the matrimony of same sex couples. It’s one thing to sell a homosexual a hamburger at lunch; it’s another thing to sell him a cake for his same sex wedding. Some Christians might do otherwise. That’s their choice. But isn’t that the point, that it’s their choice?

We’re talking about the right to choose. That’s freedom. That’s America. Or it’s supposed to be at least. When you favor the government taking away freedom, you favor tyranny. You favor something other than the principles upon which America was built. And, when you favor government taking away freedom, you don’t favor the Bible’s vision for a civil society. You don’t favor the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When you take away freedom, you put the majority in charge. You take away principle that protects all of us. When the majority and not principle is in charge, then the majority group could ban Bibles, gays, churches, alcohol, blacks, whites, sodas, French fries, sodium, guns, condoms, etc. This is the problem.

Larry Beane gets it right.

Should a lesbian photographer be compelled to accept a job taking pictures at a celebration of Fred Phelps at the Westboro Baptist Church? Or does this photographer have the right to either accept or decline this job based on her comfort level and freedom of choice?  Does she have a choice, or is she under compulsion to go and be uncomfortable, to do a job against her will?  Which option, choice or compulsion, would be considered “freedom” as opposed to “tyranny”?

How about:

a black photographer at a white supremacist ritual,

a Jewish photographer at a neo-nazi political rally,

a vegan at a slaughterhouse,

a Mennonite at a pornography convention,

a Muslim at a pig farm,

a Jehovah’s Witness at a flag-raising ceremony,

a Tibetan at a function honoring Chairman Mao?

Should a photographer who does not believe in the death penalty be compelled to photograph executions? Do any of these photographers reserve the right to say “No, thank you,” or must every photographer be compelled to do business with every other person on demand, regardless of religion, worldview, or comfort level? What if a photographer suffers from an irrational fear of left-handed people?  Could he only contract weddings for the right-handed?  What if a photographer is afraid of heights?  Could he refuse to shoot a wedding on the observation deck of the Empire State Building? What if an Atheist thinks religion is stupid, or even offensive, could he refuse to take pictures at a Christian ordination?  What if a photographer suffered the effects of promiscuous parents and a broken family, could he turn down a job at a swinger’s party? How about a person whose father was beaten to death in an incident of police brutality, can he refuse jobs involving the police?

Of course, this issue of freedom of association doesn’t only affect photographers. How about these:

May a Christian ob/gyn refuse to perform abortions?

May an all-women’s college refuse admission to men?

May a merchant refuse to sell alcohol or pornography or marijuana (in states in which it is legal) if he finds these legal substances to be morally troubling?

May a Muslim-owned convenience store sell eggs but not bacon?

Must a sporting goods store sell weapons and ammunition, even if the owner is a pacifist?

Must an animal rights activist who runs a pawn shop purchase a stuffed deer head for resale?

May a Lutheran pastor refuse to conduct a wedding for two Methodists, two Unitarians, or two men?

His point is well made. People are different. We have different religions, backgrounds, preferences, likes, dislikes, foibles, phobias, etc.

Hear him again:

Sad to say, both left and right have lost touch with what freedom is. The left talks the talk on tolerance, but is utterly illiberal when it comes to extending tolerance to those who disagree with them. The right talks the talk on freedom, but prefers to focus on religious freedom instead of seeing the bigger picture that freedom is freedom whether or not it has anything to do with religion. Both left and right are willing to throw liberty under the bus if the state has “a compelling interest” in taking away this or that freedom. And, of course, it is the state itself that decides whether the state has a “compelling interest” or not. How far we have fallen since 1776, when Jefferson opined about “inalienable rights” and the role of government being “to secure these rights.” . . . Even the word “compelling” suggests “compulsion” – which is the antithesis of liberty.  This kind of language is indicative of the controlling and tyrannical tendency of government by its very nature: a nature our forefathers sought to curtail through conscious limitation, institutional distrust, and eternal vigilance. Sad to say, the fact that we’re even having this discussion in the United States is indicative of our own failure to uphold the very principles of liberty and independence our ancestors attempted to secure for us, their posterity.

It’s freedom that we’re losing along with God-given rights. Precious few on all sides value these things anymore. So to the liberals I say, don’t fight for tolerance if you’re not willing to tolerate those who disagree with you. And to my fellow Christians I say, don’t fight for religious freedom if you’re not willing to fight for freedom in general. You’re both hypocrites if you don’t fight for freedom for all. And remember, Jesus had a lot to say about that.

Follow me on Twitter: @pauldeanjr


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