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Of Bakers and Beliefs: Kirsten Powers’ Faith-Work Disconnect

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In a recent column for USA Today, Kirsten Powers uses some legislation in the Kansas state legislature as a foray for arguing that, for many Christians, the supposed fight for religious liberty is really just a fight for the “legal right to discriminate.” Pointing to recent efforts to protect a florist, a baker, and a photographer from being sued for their beliefs about marriage, Powers argues that these amount to the homosexual equivalent of Jim Crow laws.

Powers, herself a Christian, reminds us that Jesus calls us “to be servants to all,” which is, of course, correct. Yet, as many have already observed, those involved in these lawsuits have no qualms with serving gay customers. Their conflict, rather, is with the particular ends that such services would support. As Andrew Walker explains at First Things: “What’s at stake in this context is when individuals who provide material and artistic craft for weddings are then forced to take their talents and their creative abilities and use them for purposes that go against their consciences.”

Setting aside any differences over sexual ethics or the particular legislation at hand, it’s worth noting how Powers so decidedly divorces work from religion, and in turn, work from ethics. Are we really to believe that the ends of our economic activity are of no consequence?

Powers writes that most of those planning a wedding would be shocked to learn that their vendors and suppliers had some kind of religious principle or transcendent ethic driving their efforts. “Most people think they just hired a vendor to provide a service,” she writes. “It’s not clear why some Christian vendors are so confused about their role here.” Reinforcing this view, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley is quoted, advising Christians to “leave Jesus out of it” when it comes to discerning the shape of their economic output. Later, in a tweet responding to her critics, Powers still fails to see it. “Of all the pushback I’ve gotten on my column,” she writes, “not one person has explained when Jesus taught that baking a cake is an affirmation of anything.”

Of course, plenty of bakers, florists, and photographers don’t see their work as an affirmation of anything. For many, work is done solely for the purposes of filling their pocket-books, putting bread on their tables, providing an ample retirement, and perhaps yielding some smiles and satisfaction along the way.

But as Christians, we are called to affirm something and testify to someone — in all that we do. As Chris Marlink noted in response to Powers, Christians are called to put on a “new self,” complete with new practices. “Whatever you do, in word or deed,” writes the Apostle Paul, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Jesus served the sinner, but Jesus’ service — whether through acts of mercy, miraculous healings, feeding the thousands, or dying on the cross — was oriented toward redemptive purposes, the workings and arc of which were distinctly in the name of the Father. We are called to serve the sinner, but serve so that our sacrifice and generosity might bring light and life.

In a peaceful and pluralistic society, surely there’s a balance between (1) living peacefully and graciously among those with differing perspectives and (2) devoting our time, energy, and resources in the service of activities that which we deem false, destructive, and unethical. The market offers one solution to this problem, serving as an agnostic moderator of sorts, allowing for a flurry of diverse perspectives to emerge. But diverse and pluralistic markets require diverse sources, and Christians are simply asking that they retain a distinctive voice and influence amid an increasingly diverse economic landscape. When Powers downplays this witness by telling Christians they should just suck it up and “provide a service” like everyone else, she ignores the fundamental and wholly transformative mission we were called to in the first place. She moves the City on the Hill to the plains. She hides the Light under the bushel.

Yet I have a hard time believing Powers would carry this framework into other areas of application. Are poppy farmers in Afghanistan just providing a service? Is the Realtor brokering a deal for a brothel just providing a service? Is the IT professional who fixes the pornographer’s network just providing a service? I suspect that if Powers were a farmer, realtor, or web tech, she’d be uncomfortable providing any of these services, and rightly so. Jesus provided no specific instructions for or any prohibitions against any of these “services,” and yet each caries an undeniable moral weightiness.

Christian witness doesn’t happen accidentally or automatically. We cannot put a blindfold on our cake-baking, flower-arranging, or photo-taking and simply expect the Ultimate out of the Arbitrary. Transformation happens with an intentional, integrated approach to work, service, and the Gospel — one that includes grace, mercy, and justice, but in the context of rightly ordered and upwardly oriented ethics.

That is the debate, and those who gloss over it with platitudes about pluralism will surrender cultural and economic impact to those who hold up the standard, whatever theirs may be. The point may seem small, but properly sourcing and orienting our service impacts everything we do, from the work of our hands at the bottom to whether and how such work is unleashed or coerced from the top-down.

Christian service isn’t Christian service unless it’s Christianly, and Powers, Stanley, and far too many Christians appear all too eager to strip Word from Deed. The economic order needs light and life. Hide it under a bushel? No.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • cmarlink

    Great piece, Joe. And not only because you quoted my tweets, though that helps. This angle to the debate over religious liberty is critical and we’re seeing it play out in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Woods case as well. Some believe the “wall of separation” that has been (mostly) successfully erected between religious expression and the public square must be extended to run between a Christian and his work. Thanks for helping Christians to see how this dichotomy between faith and work is wholly un-biblical and unworkable.

  • Andy Stanley and Powers both note that bakers and photographers don’t seem to have a problem providongn services for second and third marriages or couples that included Christians and non-Christians. So there is something different that is happening for gay couples. All three are prohibited in scripture. But only one is being targeted by law and has an uprising of conscious. What is the reason for the difference if not some sort of bias?

    Ethics in work does matter, both Powers and Stanley have spent time talking about that before. But expanding freedom religion to include too much is just as bad as using it to claim too little.

    • Joseph Sunde

      Is there something inherently sinful about a non-Christian marriage or a second or third marriage? I’m sure there are situations where these could be, and I know some Christians would say “yes” (I wouldn’t), but it doesn’t seem to be a very strong comparison.

      • Joseph Sunde

        I would, by the way, support a baker’s right to refuse providing a cake to a heterosexual wedding/couple that they discern to be morally or spiritually problematic. I myself have refused providing music services to a wedding for such reasons.

        • Jesus did say that couple that re-marry after a divorce are committing adultery. So I think it is a reasonable comparison. Both are listed in scripture as sin (although clearly not in case of re-marriage after the death of a spouse).

          I think it is consistent for your to say no and music I think it a stickier case because you can fairly legitimately say you are providing a religious action during the ceremony. That is pretty different from a baker, who is providing food, not a religious service.

          And there is no evidence that the US is interested in requiring clergy to perform same sex weddings. (There has been no law suits about requiring clergy to marry formerly divorced people or mixed race couples for instance.)

          What is problematic is that freedom of religion needs to be a two way street. We can’t suggest that we have rights to discriminate, and at the same time resist discrimination against Christians.

          It is my positions that Christians should be known for protecting others’ and be willing to give up some of their own rights in the process.

          • Joseph Sunde

            I guess I see the path to social harmony a bit differently, and don’t think any “rights” need to be sacrificed in this case. If a place like Starbucks refuses to provide coffee to my church because of our beliefs on same-sex marriage, I would not sue them, but find another vendor. Businesses should be more honest and clear about their values and cultural outlook, not less, in my opinion.

            Thanks for reading and weighing in.

          • I really do think it would be a reasonable compromise for businesses to be required to just say who they will and won’t serve and make it public. It is something different for someone to look up a list and know not to go somewhere than it is to go somewhere and try to obtain service and be refused.

            But that is what Stanley said in the full context of his quote. So I am not sure you are that far from what Stanley is actually trying to communicate. Powers I think is someplace different. And I tend to agree with Power’s stronger stance on the matter. But I do recognize room for legitimate debate.

            This should be solved most of the time out of court or law. But people like legal precedence (and all sides are using it.)

          • johnbpowers

            But who is in the best position to make the call on whether he would be in in violation of his own Religious principles? Would that be a faceless bureaucrat in Washington DC? Or a business owner, perhaps in consultation with his family and Clergy?

          • A similar question could be ask about who is best to interpret whether what is being done to gays is discrimination. We may not like being on the receiving end of restrictions to what we feel is our liberty, but that is part of the role of government to make rule that protect. Obviously there are some that feel Christians are being discriminated against. There are others that feel that gays are being discriminated against. The claim of personal feelings really doesn’t get us anywhere because for every person that feels they are being discriminated against, there is someone else that feels that the restriction is another form of discrimination.

            Again, this is why I think as Christians we have a responsibility to overtly walk away from our rights in order to be known as a people that empower the rights of others above ourselves.

          • johnbpowers

            Well no, there is about 1,000 years of Christian thought on this matter, that do not have to do with feelings, rather individual rights and responsibilities.

            You are proposing a novelty, and demanding that the Government enforce your novel idea because….well because that’s just how you feel.

            Should Christian bankers be forced to loan money to compulsive gamblers because “as Christians we have a responsibility to overtly walk away from our rights in order to be known as a people that empower the rights of others above ourselves”? How about Christian Doctors being forced to provide Heroin to Junkies because of the same?

          • dynbrake

            You are perfectly welcome to walk away from your own rights, anytime. I want to keep mine, however.

          • dynbrake

            Freedom. No bureaucrat needed. A man decides for himself what violates his conscience.

          • John H. Guthrie

            Whether it is hypocritical for an individual to refuse services to a same sex couple while providing services to a divorced couple is not the issue. If providing the service to a same sex couple violates an individual’s conscience, then the government has no business coercing the person to violate their conscience.

          • dynbrake

            Why? Jesus Christ is the Truth! Why should we give up Truth, and embrace error? Christianity is the way of Truth, and every other way is false. Without Truth, freedom cannot exist. The homosexuals are only interested in trying to silence the Truth. If the homosexuals succeed in silencing the Truth, you will no longer be free. They will not be harmed by this (Arizona) legislation. There are more than plenty of businesses which will gladly cater to the homosexual population.

    • Joseph Sunde

      I would support, by the way, a bakers right to refuse providing a cake to a heterosexual wedding/couple that they discern to be morally or spiritually problematic. I myself have refused providing music services for such reasons.

  • Interesting article… I have followed some of these cases. I am a Christian and have a business making garments for babies. I would sew for a homosexual couple… that in itself, I don’t think is participating in something that goes against God! But I would draw a line if, for example, the two moms would ask me to embroider a design that states… let’s say “My Two moms are Special.” For me, doing so, would bring me into participation of what I consider to be against my beliefs and the conduct God expects of me in my everyday living. Even though I am working to make that paycheck, I am still responsible to God for the things that I do in that business! I cannot divorce my work from my beliefs and my actions.

    It was stated: “Of course, plenty of bakers, florists, and photographers don’t see
    their work as an affirmation of anything. For many, work is done solely
    for the purposes of filling their pocket-books, putting bread on their
    tables, providing an ample retirement, and perhaps yielding some smiles
    and satisfaction along the way.” If this were true, then according to this or according to what Powers is saying…. it would make no difference whether or not I cheated, stole or lied in order to fill my pocket-book! As long as it is for that reason, I am not responsible to God for these actions? Not So! Even in business, I am responsible for what I chose to do. If I baked cakes, I might make that wedding cake, but cannot go as far as putting two men in a tux at the top! My business would not carry such an ornament! That is the reality of my Christian Life!

    It’s simply not enough for this group to gain marriage but they want to force acceptance from all of us and expect us to participate as well! As Christians, we just won’t do that! But if I sew a garment for them, for me, that opens the door to have interaction and possibly once or twice someone might ask me why I believe the way I do! When that happens… I have an answer!

    • I think you are reading into what she is saying. She is saying that their work as photographers, bakers are not affirming marriage. That does not mean that their work is not valuable or worth doing well or to your very extreme example not having a reason to not lie or cheat.

      Her suggestions are limited and I think it is being quite uncharitable to suggest that she is advocating a loss of all ethics within business because she is saying that making a cake is not endorsing a particular marriage.

  • Stoneyjack

    Kirsten Powers is looking more & more like Nicolle (The Mole) Wallace. How long before she moves over to MSNBC & hooks up with Rachel Maddow?

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  • digitalPimple

    What is a she a preacher? It’s not up to her to decide what service violates someones religious conscious. That’s for the courts and law explicitly says it can not be trivial. This is a basic protection all should be behind.

    Should a baker that specializes in religious cakes be forced to make a cake for a group that demands they make one depicting jesus have sex with animals? Should a group force a muslim baker to make a cake with a picture of Mohammed? How about a black baker making a cake for a K-K-K rally? Or how bout a hired surrogate that believes providing the service for a gay couple is against their beliefs? Must that person be forced under law? How about a Christian pastor thats hired to marry a couple? should he be forced too marry a gay couple against his religious tenants or sued? How about a religious adoption agency? How about the doctor at a hospital that does not want to be part of any abortion procedures he find unethical? Or the Kosher butcher that’s tossed a pig and told to break it up or else?It goes on and on but Gays think they are the only people the planet..

    Amazing how the left hates 2nd amendment and now have turned to attack the 1st. Stop making issues where none exist. A person just being gay does NOT violate your religious conscious. Being made to participate in something against you religious doctrine is and that is what the law is about.

  • larrytxn

    It’s the old pray for the sinner but hate the sin. Of course now that I’ve written that, I’ll be accused of being homophobic. Faith and work…how far can this be taken? More important, who decides? The mega-pastor; leave Jesus out of it….of course when it comes to giving to the church…it’s all WWJD. so it goes.

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