On the Christian Youth Crusaders, “Normative Threat,” and Cake Bakers

The Pledge to the Christian Flag

I grew up attending the Wesleyan Church, a conservative Christian church rooted in the doctrine of John Wesley. Wesley himself founded the Methodist church, and our denomination was an off-shoot of Methodism. Wesleyan churches are especially prominent in Ohio (my home state) and Indiana.

On Wednesday evenings I participated in a group called CYC, or the Christian Youth Crusaders. This was for children in the first through sixth grades.

That’s right — we were crusaders. We were being groomed to “spread the Word” about how Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins, which meant that “accepting Jesus into your heart” was the right and only way for a person to ever get to heaven. Any other option — atheism or agnosticism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Daoism— would lead anyone who followed those paths straight into the hottest fires of hell. We were a “my way or the highway” kind of crowd. And if we any encountered any resistance to our proselytizing that was only to be expected. Most of “the world” was bound to be against us, because choosing the path of Christ was lonely work.

As young children, though, this part of our evangelical mission was not yet so apparent. We did know how to recite the pledge to the Christian flag, which I have included above. This was in addition to pledging allegiance to the United States flag. Both pledges occurred as part of “chapel,” a period at the beginning of each CYC meeting when children of all ages gathered for a brief lesson before dispersing into age-divided groups. Our church minister’s wife often gave these lessons. One week the focus of the lesson was about how God had created all humans in “His” image. “Some people will say you come from monkeys,” she proclaimed incredulously. “But that’s not true. You are all children of God.”

“Coming from monkeys,” of course, refers to the theory of evolution discovered by Charles Darwin. Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which sets forth the overwhelming evidence for evolution, in 1859. These remarks in Galloway, Ohio were made in 1986 or 1987 — well more than a century after Darwin’s revolutionary claim. It did not matter in the least that Darwin’s work had become the basis of modern biology around the world. Within the walls of Cypress Wesleyan Church this work was rejected out of hand and without a second thought.

I thought about this a few days ago, when reading Thomas Edsall’s column “Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of their Ears.” Edsall draws upon the work of several scholars to make the case that liberal causes such as maximizing gay rights are seen by many people as a “normative threat” to their deepest-held values. Gay rights are fully consistent with what America stands for, which is that everyone deserves equal standing before the law. But they also challenge millennia-old religious doctrine that the only proper sexual and marital arrangement is between a man and a woman. Changing our laws to protect gay rights will not change everyone’s mind simultaneously, and in some cases could lead to a backlash (see: Trump).

Just as my church blithely ignored Darwin more than 100 years after his breakthrough, it is likely that some US churches will ignore the gay rights movement for decades to come. The law can only get us so far.

Which brings us to last week’s Supreme Court case about Masterpiece Cake Shop in Colorado. Same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins visited Masterpiece Cake Shop to request that proprietor Jack Phillips make a cake for their upcoming wedding. Phillips offered to sell them anything else, but said that making the wedding cake would violate his Christian belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Craig and Mullins were humiliated by this and sued for discrimination, and they won their case in Colorado. Phillips appealed, citing both religious liberty and his freedom of speech as an artist. This pushed the case up to the Supreme Court, which will decide the case next June.

Legally speaking, in my estimation, Craig and Mullins are completely correct. Phillips maintains a shop that is open to the public. Same-sex marriage is legal throughout America. In addition to that Colorado’s anti-discrimination ordinances recognize sexual orientation as worthy of protection. Phillips is free to hold whatever beliefs he would like, but he is not free to violate the laws of his state. Case closed.

And yet. Seeing how my church could still deny Darwin more than a century later, it feels inevitable that this case too will be used as grist in the eternal culture wars. If Mullins and Craig prevail, as they should, this will become yet more evidence that the “world” is out to deny Christ. Donations will come pouring in to support “conservative Christian candidates,” and some state in the Bible Belt will make absolutely sure that gay people are not protected within their borders.

Mullins and Craig are not responsible for preemptively gaming all of this out in advance, of course. Their rights were violated, and they have sought legal redress for that violation. Nobody but the two of them can say what they should have done, and nobody can know what they would have done in their place. But let’s be prepared for the backlash that is certain to come if they win.