Conservatives' stupidest cause célèbre: Wedding cakes
Last night after putting a sick toddler to bed, my wife made us some hamburgers. Probably because I was impatient I ended up putting way too much barbecue sauce on mine. It was still very good, with bacon and mushrooms and a bit of Swiss cheese. But was it art?
I am trying to remember if there has ever been a cause célèbre that showed American social conservatives looking dimmer than their full-throated defense of the ludicrous notion that baking a cake is a constitutionally protected form of speech. Forget about jurisprudence for a moment. If this is true, all the art history textbooks will have to be revised to account for the numberless masterpieces we have peeled, boiled, stewed, gobbled up, and digested over the last 10,000 years or so.
More to the point, if they are right when they say that a cake is speech and bakers don't have to prepare pastries for consumption after same-sex weddings, then Lester Maddox, that old master noted for his virtuoso designs in egg, dough, and poultry, was perfectly within his First Amendment rights to refuse to serve black Americans at his chicken restaurant.
The whole idea is laughable on its face. Not only is a cake obviously not a form of artistic expression subject to constitutional protections, to make one is not in any meaningful sense to "participate" in some activity of which one disapproves, unless that activity is baking. If an evangelical tux rental magnate in Arkansas allows six of his suits to be worn by a lesbian wedding party, is he approving? What about the limousine drivers or bartenders?
The misguided fracas is typical of social conservatives in this country, whose perennial mistake is to assume that a rightly ordered society would look very much like the one we have now, minus whatever their current bugbears (same-sex weddings, sex-neutral water closets, touchy "snowflake" millennials) happen to be. It does not occur to them that the causes they defend, such as the belief that marriage is an indissoluble sacramental union between a man and a woman, are just as threatened by the bourgeois TLC reality show commodification of marriage represented by these "artisanal" cake shops as they are by Chuck and Larry’s impending nuptials. How many of these stalwart defenders of Christian mores would refuse to bake a cake for a man on his second or third marriage, in defiance of the plain word of scripture?
For years now social conservatives have devoted thousands of words to defending everything from office hook-ups to high heels to ridiculous 1950s images of masculinity to Playboy. There is a word for all this: nostalgia. Whatever you think you are defending when you pound out your wistful fantasy of what it must have been like in the good old days when unmarried junior vice presidents fresh from their three-martini lunches would give Phyllis a gentle pat on the rump on the way back to their desks, it has nothing to do with Christianity.
This, I think, is a largely unrecognized fissure in social conservatism. Saying "Merry Christmas" but meaning something invented by Coca-Cola as much as you do the Nativity; windy sentimentality about "our flag;" Mad Men-derived pagan attitudes about sex; harder hits in football; concerns about "political correctness": These are all things toward which Christians must be at best indifferent and in many cases hostile.
The peace that some Christians think they will be able to make with the higher liberalism of Hillary Clinton, Goldman Sachs, and HGTV is an illusion. There is no world in which it is possible to live as both faithful Christians and McMansion-dwelling suburbanite commodity fetishists who just happen to spend their Sunday mornings doing something other than watching ESPN or eating brunch. Taking up our crosses involves something far more radical. Just how radical will only become clearer in the years to come as the seemingly inexorable forces of capital and exchange continue to erode the hills we were all supposed to die on according to the Susan B. Anthony List, and the things we believe sound increasingly mysterious, even wicked, to the rest of the population.
American Christians in the 21st century will — I hope — be kind to our neighbors, but we will also confuse and probably disgust them. We certainly won’t be baking boutique cakes for them because we won’t be baking them for ourselves.