“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
— Albus Dumbledore
Several years ago there was a bit of a fuss in the media about a T-shirt that was being sold in the Provo area. It said, “I can’t. I’m Mormon.”
The entrepreneur involved told the Deseret News at the time that, growing up a member of the LDS Church in Nevada — where Mormons are well known but not a majority — the couplet served him well any time he was put in a position where he was resisting peer pressure to drink or smoke or any of those un-Mormon things that teens probably ought not do anyway.
“I found if I told people I didn’t drink, they didn’t know how to react,” Chad Ramos told the LDS-owned newspaper, “but if I said, ‘I can’t, I’m Mormon,’ they said, ‘Oh,’ and boom, it was over.”
But in and around Brigham Young University, there was loud objection to the sale of the shirt — and the ads for it carried for a brief time in the school’s newspaper. Those upset by the message said it implied that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were secretly — or maybe not so secretly — chomping at the bit to imbibe alcohol, or tobacco, or avail themselves of opportunities for sex outside of marriage, and that it was only their religious affiliation that, perhaps forcibly, held them back.
Or that Mormons all have installed in their chests the kind of restraining bolt the droid L3 objected to in trying to raise the consciousness of all the robots in the most recent “Star Wars” movie.
Like adherents to a number of religious traditions, Mormons talk a lot about free will — or “agency,” as I have heard folks around here say it. Despite the lists of “shalt nots” and “abominations” found in the Bible, most modern religions are less into overt threats and punishment and, on the surface at least, more about coaching and claims of how living the creed has real-world health and happiness benefits.
A more accurate garment, it was said in some places, would say, “I’m Mormon. I won’t.”
From the outside, though, it may seem that there is little difference between a “can’t” and a “won’t.” Especially when both flow from allegiance to a religious tradition that one may have chosen to follow but clearly didn’t invent.
It sounds as though those involved have, in either case, surrendered their free will and downloaded a set of moral guidelines that they are now committed to obey.
Where the “I won’t” side stands apart, though, is in its apparent realization that every act, even every daily act of obedience that never strays from the path, is a choice. The temporal power of the church, and even the state, is such that people make a thousand choices a day with little chance of receiving outside remonstrance or punishment.
Reading the Supreme Court opinions, and the baker’s own explanation in a Washington Post column, it seems there was no “I can’t” in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. It was all “I won’t” make a special cake for a same-sex wedding. And you can’t make me.
The court dropped a heavy hint that if the Colorado Civil Rights Commission hadn’t tossed in a lot of unnecessary commentary betraying a view that religion is sometimes used as a shield for people who want to do bad things, this case might very easily have gone the other way.
Which is a bit odd, because the statement that bad people have been known to hide behind religion, no matter how much it bothered the court, is empirically true. As would be a statement that good people who might otherwise be misunderstood, or derided as bleeding-heart goody-two-shoes, can say, “It’s my religion,” and, as the T-shirt guy did with his under-age beer-offering friends, end the discussion.
That can be a useful trick. But there are enough Mormons who drink cognac, Jews who eat bacon cheeseburgers, Catholics who use contraception and, yes, Christians who support marriage equality, that just saying “I can’t” isn’t going to allow a few bakers and photographers and painters to maintain their status as conscientious objectors in the culture wars.
Because, whether it is to their credit or their shame, they could. And we do them no honor as thinking human beings when we relieve them of their responsibility to their fellow citizens by treating them as beings with no free will.
George Pyle, the editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, claims that he was morally compelled to eat that last cookie. So it wouldn’t go to waste. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @debatestate.