Phil Zuckerman is professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. An avowed atheist, he is known for openly criticising Christianity on his blog. He recently spoke at an event at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he was asked to comment on his open attacks on Christianity versus his comparative silence on Islam for similar issues. Before we consider his answer, it may be helpful to get some context.
Last year, a furore exploded in America around Melissa’s Sweet Cakes in the state of Oregon. The bakery is owned by Christians, who live by their Christian convictions. Asked to bake a cake for a same sex wedding they refused, stating that it would go against their consciences to use their artistic ability to celebrate a sinful union. The lesbian couple who had placed the order sued the bakery and were ultimately awarded $135,000 in damages. The courts decided that Christian bakers had no grounds to appeal to religious liberty in refusing to bake a cake for a same sex wedding. It was determined that they had illegally discriminated on the base of sexual orientation by refusing to offer services to the potential clients.
As the legal proceedings unfolded, hidden video footage was released showing Muslim bakers in Michigan refusing to bake a cake for a same sex wedding. The recordings were released by a conservative American comedian who recorded the footage to prove a point. He believes that the Muslims are well within their rights to refuse the order—and Christians should share the same rights. The footage went viral, but no further recourse was forthcoming.
More recently, two Muslim truck drivers were fired for refusing to transport alcohol. They claimed that to do so would violate their conscience and therefore their religious liberty. When they took legal action against the employers who fired them, the courts agreed that their religious liberties had been violated and ordered their former employers to pay them $240,000 in compensation. The Obama administration, which represented the drivers, said, “We are proud to support the rights of workers to equal treatment in the workplace without having to sacrifice their religious beliefs or practices; it’s fundamental to the American principles of religious freedom and tolerance.” Clearly, however, it’s not quite as fundamental when it comes to Christian bakers.
Before returning to Phil Zuckerman, we should perhaps note that Muslims are not the only ones who are not opposed as vehemently as Christians. In 2012, Jane Parmel, founder and co-owner of a Coney Island event-planning firm, refused services to a Christian-based organisation, which she found to be “very anti-L.G.B.T.” When asked by representatives of the Christian organisation why she would not serve them, she replied, “I don’t think we share the same belief system.” She faced no reprisal.
At the event at Georgetown University, Zuckerman shared the stage with Kirsten Powers, a political analyst and recent convert to Roman Catholicism. Citing specifically the case of the Muslim bakers, she said that she does not understand why Muslims can oppose same-sex marriage and not be targeted for it, but calling out Christians for their beliefs is acceptable. “I absolutely agree with your,” replied Zuckerman. He continued,
I absolutely agree that it is okay for those on the left to critique, mock, deride Christianity, but Islam gets a free pass, which is so strange, because if you care about women’s rights, if you care about human rights, if you care about gay rights, then really Islam is much more problematic—sorry to paint Islam with a huge brush—and much more devastating.
He added that human rights have historically flourished most in Christian nations and that Christianity is “a great friend of secular culture.”
Given these comments, it seems strange that Zuckerman remains silent about Islam while openly attacking Christianity. But he explained: “I know what keeps me from critiquing Islam on my blog is just fear.” The father of three children, he is unwilling to risk their welfare by attacking a religious system known for responding in kind. “I know I can say anything about Christianity or Mormonism,” he said, “and I’m not living in fear.”
If all of this seems horribly inconsistent, it’s because it is—but a biblical worldview helps us to make sense of it all.
Jesus once said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Zuckerman will not criticise Islam because he fears those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. At the same time, he has no fear of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Christianity, on the other hand, is driven by a healthy fear of God. It is precisely this fear of God that leads Christians, in love, to oppose what the Bible calls sinful. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It goes on to list the practices of “the unrighteous,” which include, among other things, those “who practice homosexuality” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). The unrighteous, the Bible tells us, have a great deal to fear at the final judgement. And Christians, “knowing the fear of the Lord,” are committed to “persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:10–11).
Why are Christians opposed to the prevailing sexual agenda? The accusation is often made that Christians are motivated by hate and fear, but in fact our motive for speaking out against evil is love. We know that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” And we know that those who do not inherit the kingdom of God will have “their portion … in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
If we believe the biblical narrative, the only thing that could possibly keep us silent about the unrighteous is fear of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. That kind of fear will lead us where it has led Zuckerman: to silence. But if we fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell, we will, out of love for our neighbours, warn those who are on the path to destruction.
The question is, whom do you fear?