The right’s dangerous use of moral relativism to defend Sarah Sanders

No, denying Sarah Huckabee Sanders dinner service is not discrimination.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions during a White House briefing June 25, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions during a White House briefing June 25, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Over the past several days, lawmakers, pundits, and journalists have waxed poetic about the need for “civility,” following the decision by Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson to refuse service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last Friday night.

“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson said, according to The Washington Post. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”

The “morals” argument has been used by businesses to (successfully) deny service to LGBTQ people, as a recent Supreme Court ruling has shown. USA Today published an Op-ed Sunday arguing that the Red Hen’s LGBTQ employees should have stood up for Sanders because they “understand bias.” If progressives want to be consistent in their views, commentators argue, they must oppose the use of morals to justify discrimination based on political affiliation. Alternatively, if it’s okay to refuse service to Sanders, many think it is logically consistent to refuse service to a gay couple.

But such arguments contain an incredibly dangerous assumption: that the morals behind refusing to serve LGBTQ people are the same as the morals behind refusing to serve Trump administration officials. They’re not.


The idea that no one set of morals can point to a universal truth is called moral relativism, and it’s a tactic the Trump administration relies on repeatedly to justify policy that hurts marginalized groups, and then to silence dissent with calls for “civility.” In reality, refusing to serve LGBTQ people and refusing to serve a representative of the Trump administration are vastly different moral decisions — and one is better than the other.

Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop who was affirmed by the Supreme Court earlier this month in his right to refuse service to an LGBTQ couple, said he did so based on his religious beliefs, which inform his morals. Phillips’ moral decision was thus grounded in an interpretation of the Bible that says homosexuality is a sin.

Wilkinson’s morals, on the other hand, are grounded in empirical, factual evidence, and anecdotal evidence. In her interview with the Post, she said some of her employees are gay, and they know Sanders defended Trump’s policy to ban transgender people from serving in the military. The American people have also seen Sanders lie repeatedly about the effects of Trump’s policies. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported a 19 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016, according to recent FBI data, and many argue that Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims and his recently upheld Muslim ban are contributing factors. Americans also recently heard the cries of immigrant children held in detention centers after they were separated from their parents — families the administration has loose plans to reunite eventually.

Contrary to what many elected officials have said, religious morals often have little basis in fact or data. And there aren’t many anecdotal or emotional stories that justify opposition to LGBTQ people as a group, for instance, unless they’re stories from people who already have a bias against LGBTQ people. Despite that, the effects of giving legal recognition to morals that oppose being LGBTQ results in violence against those people, persistent workplace discrimination, and higher rates of depression and suicide.


Not only is there no factual basis for Phillips’ morals to oppose same-sex marriage, his sincerely held beliefs have a negative impact on people. Unlike Phillips, Wilkinson’s moral decision was the result of recorded evidence that shows Trump administration policies have hurt people, and that Sanders has defended those policies. The Red Hen’s decision to deny Sanders did not contribute to a larger system of violence against an oppressed group. Sanders, in fact, holds the power, and the only result of Wilkinson denying her service was that she didn’t get to eat dinner at that particular restaurant.

“The Red Hen’s decision to deny Sanders did not contribute to a larger system of violence against an oppressed group. Sanders, in fact, holds the power.”

The Trump administration and much of the religious right want Americans to think that personal morals are always right — regardless of the justifications behind them — because they are personal. That’s the driving force behind moral relativism. But the problem is that it’s simply not true that all decisions based on morals are good. We don’t live in a vacuum, and we have evidence that informs why certain moral decisions, though once widely held by religious people, are no longer good moral decisions. Because we have the capacity to make these deductions, it’s time we stopped allowing morals defined by one person’s religion to justify rights abuses like discrimination against LGBTQ people and restrictions on access to health care like abortion.

Moral relativism like that used to equate Phillips’ morals to Wilkinson’s is dangerous to democracy. Phillips’ morals are discrimination hiding behind the first amendment, and the culture those morals create prevents LGBTQ people from living free from danger. Wilkinson’s morals do the opposite, by taking a stand against the oppression of marginalized people. The morals behind these decisions are not only different — only one set is just that: moral.

Josephine Yurcaba is a news editor for and a freelance reporter. They cover politics, sexual violence, gender, pop culture, and health care.