Dueling columns pit SBC leader against pundits

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore and pundits Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt engaged in high-profile debate over whether a Christian photographer or baker should be required to provide services for a same-sex wedding.

By Bob Allen

The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission pushed back at criticism by Fox News analyst Kirsten Powers and culture writer Jonathan Merritt that it’s hypocritical for a Christian photographer to refuse to participate in a same-sex wedding while responding differently to other “unbiblical” marriages such as those between a Christian and a non-believer or after a previous marriage ended in divorce.

Powers and Merritt suggested in a Daily Beast column Feb. 23 that the futility of vendors trying to provide goods and services only for “biblical” ceremonies best explained ERLC President Russell Moore’s advice in a Gospel Coalition column that a Christian wedding photographer need not investigate whether the wedding he or she is covering is “Christ-honoring.”

russell moore crop“First of all, while a biblical view of marriage would see that such people (fornicators, believers to unbelievers, unlawfully divorced, etc.) should not get married, and that the church has no authority to marry them, we also would affirm that such people, when married, actually are married,” Moore opined. “A pastor who joins a believer to an unbeliever bears an awful responsibility for doing something wrong, but the end result is an actual marriage.”

“The same-sex marriage differs not in terms of morality, but in terms of reality,” he continued. “It is not that homosexuality is some sort of wholly different or unforgivable sexual sin. It's that the historic Christian view of marriage means that without sexual complementarity there is no marriage at all.”

Powers, a columnist for The Daily Beast, and Merritt, son of former Southern Baptist Convention President James Merritt who writes for various media outlets including Religion News Service, said that sounds to them “like randomly applying religious belief in a way that discriminates against and marginalizes one group of people, while turning a blind eye to another group.”

kirsten powers mug“So, Moore — a sincere Christian and a leader we respect — is telling Christian vendors that it’s okay to do something ‘wrong’ by providing services for a heterosexual wedding as long as they don’t know it’s unbiblical,” they wrote. “But do we really believe that Christians don’t know that many weddings they provide service for are unbiblical without ‘investigating?’ That’s a real stretch.”

Moore countered in a Feb. 24 commentary on the ERLC website that such a “sarcastic response” could just as easily be applied to the Apostle Paul’s argument in First Corinthians that believers should not knowingly purchase meat in the marketplace advertised as sacrificed to idols but had no obligation to investigate whether meat set before them was sacrificed to idols or not.

“It’s of no harm to anyone else if Kirsten Powers and Jonathan Merritt (both of whom I love) think me to be a hypocrite,” Moore said. “It’s fine for the Daily Beast to ridicule the sexual ethic of the historic Christian church, represented confessionally across the divide of Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy. It’s quite another thing for the state to coerce persons through fines and penalties and licenses to use their creative gifts to support weddings they believe to be sinful.”

Moore’s Gospel Coalition column was a repost from a couple of years ago concerning a wedding photographer, but he also addressed the question of whether Christians should bake cakes for weddings with which they disagree in a Feb. 21 podcast.

Moore said he was bringing it up because of an earlier column that Powers wrote in USA Today comparing laws to protect the religious freedom of business and individuals to refuse services to same-sex couples to the Jim Crow era in the segregated South.

Powers quoted Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries and son of former SBC President Charles Stanley, saying he finds it "offensive that Christians would leverage faith to support” such laws.

jonathan merritt mug"Serving people we don't see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity,” Stanley said. “Jesus died for a world with which he didn't see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn't want to sell its products to a gay couple, it's their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it."

“Look, Kirsten Powers and Andy Stanley, I know both of them,” Moore said. “I love both of them. I respect both of them. I don’t have any desire to bash them at all in this. They are good people, but I disagree with them on this.”

Moore said a Christian baker selling already made wedding cakes in a store need not ask a customer how the cake is going to be used before ringing up the sale, but in many cases the cake decorator is part of the planning process and is chosen specifically to help tell the couple’s story.

“I think it would be kind of similar, because of the diversity of gifts, for someone to say to me: ‘Look, I’m a liberal Episcopalian pastor. I’m going to be a same-sex couple, and I’d like for you to write the sermon for me. You don’t need to do the wedding, but I want you just to craft a sermon for me that I would be able to preach at the same-sex wedding,’” Moore said.

“I would have to be able to say: ‘You know, I can’t do that. I can’t use my creative gifts in that way in order to participate in this wedding.’”

“If you’re coming in and saying to someone whose conscience says, ‘My being involved in this, using these creative gifts that God has given to me in order to tell this story in this way, is something that I feel like is rebellion against God and I’m going to have to stand before God in judgment,’ I do not think that the state ought to come in and pave over the conscience of that person,” Moore said.

“Frankly, I don’t think that’s in anybody’s interest, including in the interest of gay and lesbian people, and our neighbors and our friends, for a state to be powerful enough to do that,” he said.

Powers, whose role at Fox News is liberal pundit, is an evangelical Christian, though she said recently she prefers to be called “orthodox” because of cultural baggage attached to the term “evangelical.”

Last October she sat with Moore and other panelists including New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in a discussion of religious liberty co-sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Manhattan Declaration.

During the discussion, Powers agreed with fellow panelists that traditional Christian views on sex and marriage are increasingly being pushed to the margins by people on the left, but that doesn’t mean things like a Wal-Mart employee not saying “Merry Christmas” amounts to religious persecution.

“I will always stand up for my pastor’s right to say ‘I’m not going to perform a gay marriage,’ and I will have to take whatever comes with that, basically, and I don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for me because of it,” she said.

“Sometimes I hear a lot of Christians talking in a very self-pitying way, like ‘woe is us because this is the way society is going,’” she said. “That’s not religious persecution by the state. That is the society basically saying ‘we have different views than you have.’”

“That’s a very different thing than if the state were to say ‘we are going to force you to perform a gay marriage’ or something like that, or ‘we are going to put you in jail for a sermon,’” she said. “That would be religious persecution, but we need to keep them separate and understand that people not liking you is not religious persecution.”