I recently quipped on Facebook: “While a Christian might be within his rights to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, a gentleman never would.”1 To me, this raises an important distinction in our modern world between rights and responsibilities among the choices an individual may make.
Our society and our laws, as embodied in the First Amendment, guarantee the right of free speech. You may say, write, advocate, and publish almost anything you want. There are, of course, legal exceptions that have been raised and confirmed over time. The classic example is that you must not shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And you can be held liable under law for defamation of another person, for inciting a riot, or in time of war for committing treason by offering aid and comfort to the nation’s enemies.2
Today, many people on the Left would like to add “hate speech” to the list of prohibited communications. Not unlike the definition of “pornography” or “sedition,” the actionable content of hate speech is vaguely defined. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the 1964 Supreme Court case about banning obscenity and pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description … But I know it when I see it.” Too many people would like to see actionable hate speech defined as any kind of speech they believe would be offensive to groups whom they would like to support. That’s a little too broad for me and, I think, for most reasonable people.
But while any individual or group has the right to say, print, and broadcast anything they want within the narrower definitions of the law, that does not mean they should. The law of the land is necessarily open and nonjudgmental. But people who would use that law as the only guide to their personal behavior make poor acquaintances and bad neighbors. In most of polite society, they would be viewed as bit of a crank or crackpot.
A well brought up individual is—or at least used to be—taught manners by strict and loving parents, kindly aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and attentive teachers. For those who did not have such an upbringing, I would refer you to Miss Manners, which is the nomme de politesse of Judith Martin. I have been a secret fan of hers for years, and I would boil down the essence of what she advocates—if she has not already done so herself—as refraining from causing others discomfort.
In this modern world, all too many people are willing to make others feel weak, foolish, and stupid by pointing out some personal failing and invoking some law addressing it in the name of good society, personal etiquette or hygiene, or simply “manners.” It is a game of multi-variable “gotcha!” that any number can play.
How does this apply to the Christian baker and the making of artisanal cakes? In my mind, very simply.
A person’s religion is and should remain a private matter. If I am a practicing Christian—or Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or Seventh Day Adventist—I am required by my principles to act in certain ways. These might include refraining from taking vengeance by turning the other cheek, or from consuming alcohol or pork products in observance of religious prohibition. More positively, my beliefs may require that I render alms to the poor, defend the weak, pray at certain times of day, and fast at certain times of year. This is my business. If anyone should ask why I do these otherwise outlandish things, I may explain that they are part of my religious observance. Or I might simply say that it is my preference and my own damn business.
The First Amendment allows this. So long as I am not breaking any laws—which would include, say, child endangerment, human sacrifice, or the pursuit of ethnic cleansing—the Constitution permits me to believe and practice as I will. The First Amendment also allows me to preach, proselytize, and advocate for my religion. I can print handbills, advertise on billboards, and show up at your door to explain to you the Four Noble Truths of the Lord Buddha. And you have a right to drop my handbills in the gutter, look past my billboards to the scenery beyond, and slam the door in my face.
But Miss Manners—if she were here and engaging in this discussion—might suggest that I not so actively seek to convert others to my way of thinking. After all, I should grant that they are adult, thinking human beings who have already chosen their beliefs and made their peace with the everlasting. I should respect their choices as free and independent human beings. I might, if asked, give my opinion and advice to people who are themselves in doubt or distress and seeking a new meaning for their lives. That would be the gracious thing to do. But I would be intruding upon their privacy and failing to respect their agency as human beings to insist that they were in error with their current beliefs and that the only way out of error would be to adopt the truth that I have personally embraced and now endorse.
A Christian baker—not my great aunt who likes to bake for family occasions, but an entrepreneur who has established a public place of business and put out a shingle—may believe that homosexuality violates the precepts and traditions of his or her religion. That is an acceptable private opinion. The baker may even believe it would be inappropriate for two men or two women to marry in what, so the baker believes, would be an irreligious ceremony. That is again a private opinion and belief supported by the First Amendment. But to confront those customers in a public place of business and refuse to serve them because their request is offensive to the baker’s beliefs and represents some personal failing in them would, in my opinion, be ungracious. Those customers are doing that they believe to be right and proper. They are not seeking to give offense by asking for a cake decorated to their liking. And it would hurt their feelings—cause them discomfort—to be refused on the grounds of something that is simply part of their nature.
In my opinion, the baker is well within his rights to refuse service to anyone. If someone wants a cake celebrating a bar mitzvah, a gay union, or the coming of the demon Belial, the baker can refuse and the customer will have no recourse under the law but to take his business elsewhere. Not all bakers are gentlemen and ladies properly brought up to consider the feelings of the people around them.
But a gentleman would ask whether it was his place to criticize the personal and apparently heartfelt choices of his customers. He would then, in my opinion, decide that it was the appropriate practice of his art to create the best cake he could to celebrate their joyous occasion. This is not a matter of rights but rather of responsibility to a higher principle.
There are many things that a citizen may do under the law that a gentleman—or a lady—never would.
1. This is, of course, a paraphrase from the line in Susanna Clarke’s excellent fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Lord Wellington asks Strange if a man might be killed by magic, and Strange replies that while a magician might kill a man by magic, a gentleman never would.
2. Unfortunately, the distinction about “time of war,” and so the definitions of “treason” and “sedition,” become blurred when we are fighting wars and police actions in two or three areas around the globe at the same time, have emerged from decades of an undeclared Cold War with a number of as-yet unreconciled former enemies, and now exist in an Orwellian state of continuing undeclared war against pretty much anyone the adherents of law and order would like to name.