Ideas are separate from the people who hold, defend them

There were six of us around the table. A wide representation of backgrounds and religions — Mormon, Episcopalian, Adventist, Catholic and this Lutheran. We were studying the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. (The first three Sundays of August it was the appointed reading for millions of Christians around the world.)

Most Wednesdays the Bible studies come off without a hitch. We simply read the appointed verses and underscore their obvious meaning. This day had gone the same until suddenly the harmony of the previous hour was shattered. I had not intended to raise a controversy. The words themselves did that.

The words were so clear that nobody argued about what they meant. The point of controversy was whether they should be understood literally or not. I said yes. Others said no. And we were off to the races.

We make it a practice not to argue at these discussions. But neither could we move on. The difference of opinion was simply too profound. There was no way of reconciling the “yes” and the “no.” Each person around the table had to choose one or the other and there was no middle ground.

Self-Censorship Is NOT the Answer

I could have avoided the whole situation by never stating my belief. Many people take that tack every day. For years we have been enculturated to keep our beliefs to ourselves, only speaking them in the presence of people who believe the same. Not only does that defeat the whole point of being a preacher, but there are at least two problems for everyone else as well.

First, nobody in his right mind will deliberately and systematically conceal the truth from friends and acquaintances. If there is anything that I am willing to conceal from people I love, it is obviously something that I really don’t think is true.

Second, as the definition of “religious beliefs” grows ever more expansive, there are fewer and fewer things that we are allowed to say in public. At the founding of our country, nobody thought that phrases like “Nature’s God” and “Creator” were establishing any religion. They are simply common sense.

But today, the idea of a creator becomes less common and is now relegated to the realm of “religious belief.” Not only that, but there are some who would have you believe that male and female are  “religious beliefs.” What next? What common ground that we hold today will become “religious,” and therefore taboo, a decade from now?

Once I uttered my belief and the disagreement was on the table, there was another way to end the argument. I could have simply lied. I could have deceitfully retracted my words and claimed that I never really believed them. What kind of a person would that make me? Would any of us want such a person for a friend, or even a fellow citizen?

We Know How To Do This

Thankfully, human beings have been disagreeing for a long time and we have ways to deal with it. We make a sharp and clear distinction between what someone thinks to be true, and who that person is. We know that no matter what someone might believe, he remains exactly who he is—a fellow human being whom I am privileged to love.

That’s how we have gotten along for millennia. It is the foundation of all civilization that we not confuse persons with ideas. You may hate my ideas and think they are ridiculous. You may even spend all your waking hours trying to change my mind. I know that whatever effort you make to change my mind is solid proof that you really care about me.

So long as you don’t hate me as a person, we can live together in peace. But if you stop caring about changing my mind and start attacking my person, civility dissolves. Attacks on a person — whether turning others against him, or taking property and life from him—are a threat to his very existence, not just his ideas. The law must get involved to protect him.

That’s how civilization and civil conversation works. But this fundamental distinction is under serious attack today.

From the Playground to the Courtroom

Of course, it has always been rejected and ignored in childish fights on the playground and by hotheads — especially after a few too many. More recently, this incivility has moved into social media where there is less face-to-face accountability. Our darker side loves to bypass civil conversation and attack people. That’s a sad reality of our world and ourselves.

But the more serious attack on civility is happening in public law itself. Whenever somebody is punished because of his or her ideas, or when those ideas are punished as though they were an attack on someone’s person, civilization is in jeopardy.

That is exactly what is happing with increasing frequency — through inept laws and malicious prosecutors who exploit them. We are seeing a good example of this in Colorado right now. Baker, Jack Phillips, only recently concluded a six-year struggle to maintain the civil distinction between person and idea.

Since 2012 he has been pleading for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC) to recognize that his unwillingness to communicate false ideas is not at all the same as a personal attack on the people who wanted him to.

A baker — who demonstrably serves all people but who has a long and noble history of declining to express ideas that he does not believe — should not be attacked in his person. Declining to celebrate a divorce, or bake obscenities, or decorate a cake enthroning Satan should be praised, not punished.

SCOTUS Nailed It

Jack’s pleas were finally heard by the United States Supreme Court. On June 4, SCOTUS recognized the distinction between a person and an idea. It stipulated that “religious and philosophical objections” to an idea are protected by law, while maintaining that attacks on persons are not.

This put an end to a six-year-long attack on Jack’s person and his business by the CCRC. But now they are at it again. Jack does not agree with the idea that maleness and femaleness are up to us. Neither do I. I sincerely doubt that you believe that either. But the CCRC wants to run Jack out of business unless he says what he does not believe.

The irony is that the CCRC actually is attacking Jack’s person while it falsely accuses Jack of the same. Two months ago we could have explained its actions as an honest mistake. But it is that no longer. What the CCRC failed to see for nearly six years was made plain to it by a 7-2 vote of the highest court in the land.

There is a big difference between an unfortunate failure to see and a deliberate denial. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission is being anything but civil.

In so doing, it is contributing to the breakdown of all civility. So also does anyone who refuses to acknowledge the difference between a person and an idea. It is foundational to all civilization.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at


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