Let Them Eat (Or Not Eat) Wedding Cake: Religious Conscience, Gay Marriage, And Empathy For Others

With regard to bakers who might balk, out of conscience, in making a cake for a gay wedding, I think many of us who are heterosexual and support gay marriage have a problem: our empathy goes all in one direction–toward gays and lesbians, but not religious traditionalists.

I think we should carve out narrow legal spaces for traditionalists who don’t want to have anything to do with gay weddings–and I say this out of empathy (imagining myself in another’s shoes).

Just as with gays and lesbians, I think increasing the circle of empathy to religious traditionalists needs to happen here–and that empathy in general should be more broadly and systematically taught in the larger civic culture.

How so? In the reading of good imaginative literature; in the cinema and television; in public schools as a civic virtue (to walk in the shoes of others, most especially those who oppose you; to reflect on the historic victims of utopian ambitions).

Teaching students about the Holocaust and the cult of Mao, for example.

Public opinion shifted on gay marriage largely from media portrayals of gays and lesbians, and gays and lesbians coming out of the closet.

But empathy is a two-edged sword: if you feel empathy for somebody, and you discover a group that doesn’t display empathy for what you now love, you’re going to start feeling hate for the resisters.

And that’s the start of wars. Traditionalists hating and fearing secular liberals; secular liberals hating and fearing traditionalists.

It’s a failure of imagination. But blessed are the peacemakers. It takes work to step over into the shoes of others; to increase the circle of empathy enough to at least tolerate what makes you angry or uncomfortable. For a while, I was strongly against the coverings of Muslim women in secular spaces. It felt like an upending of feminism. It still feels that way. But I’ve come around to saying: let people express who they are.

I have a circle of secular friends who, when one of them recently jumped in with a snarky comment about the Indiana legislative carve outs for religious conscience, I retorted that I didn’t support the broad nature of Indiana’s proposed law, but I nevertheless supported some limited carve outs for conscience (and why). That set everybody back on their heels–accompanied by some pushback, then more or less silence.

I got them thinking. If a few in a community speak up against the knee-jerk group think, it can shift the tone. A little rudder moves a ship.

I believe that once a local community communicates its red lines to the larger community, the larger community better have super good reasons for crossing those lines (immunization of children in public schools is a good reason to cross one of those lines, wedding cake inconvenience is not).

The energy with which evangelicals have responded to the wedding cake issue tells me that a red line is being crossed for a lot of Christians who might otherwise take a live-and-let-live approach to gay marriage and the gay community generally.

So I think intellectual religious traditionalists have a role to play in communicating concerns to the broader community:

  • Articulate why gay marriage is opposed, and accept that not everybody is going to agree with your metaphysics, moral reasoning, and appeals to authority.
  • Tell the larger public, in a reasoned way, what the traditionalist community’s red lines are and why–and what traditionalists can live with.
  • Set a tone of empathy for one’s political opponents. Just as there ought to be liberals among liberals saying–“Increase the circle of empathy”–there ought to be traditionalists among traditionalists doing the same.

It’s not enough to win the abstract and intellectual argument. The empathy component has to be worked at as well. If you’re an American traditionalist, and don’t show any concern for the historic plight of gays and lesbians, or for gays and lesbians in Uganda, Russia, and Muslim countries today, then why is it surprising that others don’t show much concern for your red lines and sublime projects?

I’m not saying that’s right. I’m not saying the traditionalist has to go first. But somebody has to go first. Who’s on first? You are. I am.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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