At his trial, Martin Luther famously said, “…to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
The conscience is a person’s moral sense of right and wrong. It is one of the things that distinguishes humans from animals – the innate (and automatic) tendency to judge ourselves against some higher standard.
Modern wisdom tells us that such negative feelings are always bad. If they seem to be caused by others, then others are to blame. If we feel them spontaneously, then our self-esteem needs repair.
We often believe that negative, accusatory feelings are hurtful and should neither be felt in ourselves nor inflicted upon others.
But even more than that, if we encounter others who are experiencing those feelings over things which cause us no personal concern, we tend to judge them harshly. We mount clever arguments that explain away their concerns and prove them to be far too sensitive.
After the 1984 crash of an Avianca Airlines Jet in Spain, the black box flight recorder revealed the cause of the tragedy. Minutes before the impact, the plane’s automatic warning system was heard to loudly shout in an English computer-generated voice, “Pull up! Pull up!”
Apparently assuming the system had malfunctioned, the pilot retorted, “Shut up, Gringo!” and switched the system off.
Then the plane slammed into the side of a mountain, killing everyone on board.
That is a parable of the way modern Australians treat conscience and its warning messages. In fact, it’s also the way we often respond when we see conscience at work in others. We shut it down.
But the conscience has been placed in the human psyche by God Himself.
The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 2:14-15 that the conscience can bear witness to the law of God written on our hearts by accusing or defending us. Something that is true even for the most unspiritual of people.
Paul mentions the work of the conscience throughout his letters, warning against searing it (1 Tim 4:2), wounding it (1 Cor 8:12), or defiling it (Tit 1:15), whilst affirming the importance of having a clear conscience (1 Tim 3:9).
He also set a tireless example of obedience to conscience, saying, “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offence toward God, and toward men.” (Acts 24:16).
Which brings me to Jack Phillips and his famous refusal to design a cake to celebrate a gay wedding.
Jack acted on his conscience, as he had done in the past when asked to design custom cakes celebrating divorce, adult themes and Halloween.
Jack was judged harshly for his conscience.
One commissioner from the Colorado Human Rights Commission called it, “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use.” The media called it bigotry. Many in the church said it was unnecessary and unhelpful.
In what will surely become a historic ruling, the US Supreme Court this week found in Jack’s favour, reversing the Colorado Human Rights Commission’s decision to punish him for his refusal to make the cake.
Although the Court’s reasoning is technical, it is a win for freedom of religion and conscience.
Importantly, Justice Gorsuch said that the refusal did not amount to discrimination on the ground of homosexuality because Jack’s decision would have been the same regardless of the sexual orientation of the customer. He would also have refused a heterosexual customer who wanted a cake design promoting same-sex marriage.
The customer’s sexual orientation had nothing to do with it.
There was no sign in Jack’s window saying, “no gays.” Jack frequently served homosexual customers for birthdays, anniversaries and other special events.
In a video for the New York Times, Jack explained, “It’s making a statement. These people are getting married… For me to take part in it against my will is compelling me to make a statement that I don’t want to make.”
“When I wake up in the morning I want to do my best job to honour my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in everything that I do,” Jack says.
But matters of conscience are not only for the religious. To have a conscience is to be human.
Venue owners around the country have refused bookings from ACL because they cannot in good conscience lend their support to the messages being promoted at our events. We have never sued anyone. We find another venue.
Dr David van Gend recently published his book, “Stealing from a Child: the Injustice of Marriage Equality.” The preferred printer for that work declined to print it, saying they could not promote its message in good conscience. He sued nobody. He found another printer.
When Donald Trump became president, several fashion designers declared that they would refuse business from Melania Trump because they could not endorse his presidency. As far as I know, she hasn’t sued anyone.
The point is that everyone draws the line somewhere. Everyone has a conscience. Everyone feels pain and guilt when forced to violate it. Indeed, the ability to follow our conscience is fundamental to human freedom and the alternative is a hallmark of tyranny.
That is why a cornerstone of human rights law has long been the freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. It is the final frontier against tyranny. It is the foundation of human freedom.
Other freedoms are meaningless without it. People do not speak, except to speak their convictions and beliefs. People do not associate, except around shared convictions and beliefs. People do not express themselves, except in accordance with their convictions and beliefs. This is true no matter what those convictions and beliefs are, and whether or not they are religious.
When freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief collapses, something fundamental to freedom itself collapses.
For Christians, our freedom to obey our conscience in Christ is attacked.
This should be of the highest concern to us all.
Sadly, very few Australian groups are advocating for the freedom of service providers and businesses like Jack’s in their submissions to the Ruddock Review. Some churches have even omitted it. The Review’s final report is unlikely to touch it.
In Australia, Jack would almost certainly lose.
We would do well to recover our respect for conscience, both in ourselves and in others. We would do well to heed Luther’s wisdom today. It is right, safe, and Biblical.