Wedding Cake Wars

I spent my 21st birthday in a bunker outside of Long Binh Vietnam. Not exactly ideal circumstances for such an important occasion. But I did have a cake courtesy of my mom. She sent a Betty Crocker yellow cake with a can of chocolate frosting. It hadn’t traveled very well and was a little stale, but we still enjoyed it. It was made and sent with great love and therefore beat any desserts in the chow hall. I wasn’t surprised by its arrival since family legend had it that my great grandmother had successfully shipped a birthday cake to my great grandfather during WWII by wrapping it in clear plastic. My mom was compelled to add to the family history. She wasn’t going to let her only child celebrate such an important occasion without the proper cuisine. Every culture has special foods for celebrations, and some form of cake tops the list for many people.

Of course cake is delicious, but what is it about such a simple food item that generates so much passion and attention? I mean, it is basically ground up grass seed mixed with fat and water. But for every holiday from Christmas to Arbor Day, your local store has cakes on display for you to buy for the occasion. There are TV shows devoted just to cakes and cupcakes. The importance of cake is indelibly written in our language, which is filled with cake references: piece of cake, icing on the cake, takes the cake, have your cake and eat it too, shut your cakehole, and cakewalk are just a few examples. So it follows that cakes, specifically wedding cakes, should become the new focal point of the Religious Right’s fight against gay marriage. But there it is. In Colorado no less. How did we become such a lightning rod in the culture wars? Altitude maybe? One baker won’t make a cake for a gay couple, and another won’t put anti-gay slogans on a cake. Both extremes. Right here in our back yard. As Thurber once wrote, “The most dangerous food is wedding cake.”

In one sense, I shouldn’t be surprised over the wedding cake brouhaha. Use of cake as a wedding symbol goes back to Roman times. Sharing of cake (not smashing it into each other’s faces) during the ceremony was called confarreatio. It was basically a promise to never divorce the other. In fact, patrician couples who included confarreatio in the ceremony had as hard of a time getting a divorce as a bankrupt Catholic couple. Which brings me to my first problem with Christian bakers who refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples. The Catholic Church does not recognize divorce, only an annulment, which is a very expensive proposition. So shouldn’t a baker refuse to make cakes for divorced Catholics who are remarrying? What about cakes for Muslims? Satanists? Atheists? Or convicted murderers? What biblical transgressions are sufficient ethical grounds for refusal of service? It seems odd that only gay marriage qualifies. After all, there are no biblical admonitions about gay marriage, only male on male gay sex. Is it okay to make a cake for a gay man marrying a lesbian? And I thought the whole Ten Commandment story was supposed to summarize the list of heinous behavior in the eyes of the Lord.

As a teacher of rhetoric, I typically warn my students against the use of slippery slope arguments. But in this case, growing evidence shows that the “Religious Freedom” acts are a legal lubricant for the insertion of a particular brand of religious morality into public transactions. Barriers to institutional discrimination are falling away faster than passengers sliding off of the deck of the Titanic. It’s not a slippery slope, it’s a luge run into the Great Wall. Exhibit A is Lester Maddox. Lester was a restaurant owner in Georgia in the Sixties. He became famous for posing with an axe handle he used to discourage blacks from entering his establishment. His stunt, along with the explanation that it was his business, land, money, etc. so he would decide who could eat in his establishment and who couldn’t, made him famous. Sound familiar? By the way, he used the Bible to justify his stance. His support of segregation, coupled with defiance of the Federal Civil Rights laws, got him elected as Governor. He ran on a constitutional property rights platform and distributed axe handles at political rallies along with campaign buttons. And he is still a hero to many people.

But wait. What does a racist from the Sixties have to do with a Christian baker/mechanic/pizza maker denying service to gays? Because when governments allow discrimination against any group, it opens the door to discrimination against any group by any other group. Muslim-owned businesses can force their employees to abstain from alcohol use even in a church service. Baptists can fire Catholics for not being born again. Catholics can fire people for using birth control. Out-of-wedlock births and living in sin will become causes for dismissal. And don’t get me started on what Satanists, Wiccans, and atheists will come up with to fight back against Christians once the legal floodgates are opened. It aint gonna be pretty. And it’s not mere speculation on my part. Our history is filled with examples of discrimination that are unthinkable today but could come back with a vengeance if given a legal crack to slither through. Ask the Kansas state legislature what happened when they tried to legislate “alternative creation stories” into the high school biology curriculum. Just Google Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to see how that turned out. When a Florida school district and the legislature tried to pass out Christian materials, they had to back down or let Satanists do it as well.

It’s very hard to know exactly what unintended consequences a law could have. That’s why we have law schools and bar exams. Figuring out how to write laws that do only what you want and nothing else isn’t easy. If it were, everybody would be a lawyer. And many of the legislators who are rushing these bills through not only lack legal training, but their haste guarantees that we will have massive problems in the future. You can’t rush a good cake or a good law. History is filled with the failures of trying to do otherwise.

My second problem is a purely business observation. What company wants line staff making decisions about which customers to serve and which ones to turn away? Let’s say two women are standing in line at a sandwich shop holding hands. The clerk boots them out because he thinks they are lesbians. Only they are not. They are cousins/sisters/foreigners who hold hands as a cultural expression. What management team wants the publicity nightmare that would come from that scenario? Turning away customers because of their group affililiation is bad business. Of course it follows that one can argue that the marketplace can punish such shortsightedness, so why worry? The answer again is found in our past. Blacks and other minorities were denied equal access to housing, jobs, goods, services, and banking because of certain religious beliefs and cultural traditions. Has racism really died off? If given the opportunity, closet racists and segregationists will start reasserting their evil “traditions.” And one problem with that is that you can’t hold somebody down without getting dirty yourself. Our country has always been poorer for the groups it has segregated against and enriched by those given equal access.

My last problem with the so-called “religious freedom laws” is that they are anti-Christian. Christ was pretty clear about being inclusive. He not only told us to love those who hate and curse us, but he surrounded himself with the sinners, the sick, and the Samaritans of his time. And in spite of today’s connotation, Samaritans were the worst of the worst. In 33 AD, Jews would rather serve lepers at their table than Samaritans. Samaritans were the LGBT people of their time. If Christians really want to live their faith and shine a light in the world, they must show their love for others who are different from them and not just those who go to the same church. Being a true loving Christian isn’t easy. But what better way to show that love than with a cake?