The Optimistic Christian
Chick-Fil-A Is neither Hateful, Intolerant, nor Anti-Gay
There is no peace, for Christians or anyone else, if there is not freedom of conscience.
By J. E. Dyer, July 29, 2012
Elizabeth Scalia had a great piece on the mob fury mounted against fast-food seller Chick-Fil-A after a bout of hostile news coverage last week. She points out that Chick-Fil-A’s accusers are using the methods of fascism, and she’s right. Self-appointed advocacy groups and public officials posing a litmus test on beliefs for a commercial company, as a price of doing business, is a quintessential pattern of fascism. (Samples of the threats to Chick-Fil-A’s business options are here and here. Fortunately, Mayor Menino of Boston acknowledged a day later that he doesn’t have a basis in law for demanding a social-issues litmus test for business owners. A Chicago city alderman, on the other hand, is doubling down on that theme.)
Elizabeth is also right that there is no “tolerance” in demanding uniformity of opinion. The premise behind the political anger being stirred up against Chick-Fil-A is basically from kindergarten: if you don’t agree with me, you’re hateful and you hate me. But in the world of adult responsibility, the very basis for freedom of conscience—intellectual and religious freedom—is freedom of contradictory expression. What demagogues today call “hatred” and “intolerance” is actually the essence of freedom: people being able to hold and advocate their own views, unmolested, no matter how much others dislike those views.
The main requirement for this freedom is a societal agreement—one arising from a salutary humility—that we cannot dictate to others what they will believe, and that we understand and expect the environment of dissent that will naturally ensue. We won’t all believe the same things. We will instead dispute them. That’s OK.
I don’t really believe that the media and advocacy groups are accurately depicting the mood of American debate on contentious social issues. Most average people—whether on the left or the right—are not slavering to demonize or frog-march the opposition. But increasingly, that’s the picture conveyed by the media on political issues. It encourages politicians who want to demonize their opponents’ speech and beliefs, and it discourages those who love freedom and genuine tolerance. This depiction, which I believe is mainly false, needs to be overcome, in our shared ideas as well as in our individual minds.
That suggests we have a thinking task ahead of us. Today’s lovers of freedom need to parse this situation with clarity. The first thing to understand is that there is no peace, for Christians or anyone else, if there is not freedom of conscience. We must protect that freedom. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of global communism, we have largely forgotten that—or have refocused our concerns toward certain repressive regimes in the Islamic world. But the dangers to Christianity (and freedom of religion in general) come from the evil in fallen humanity, which is always trying to reemerge wherever it can. No one is immune from the destructiveness of evil human patterns.
The Christian world itself went through a centuries-long paroxysm of blood and hatred over doctrinal and leadership disputes. Wherever men try to forcibly dictate beliefs (as opposed to punishing a basic set of harmful actions, like murder and theft), men’s relationship with God is menaced, distorted, and corrupted. We cannot try to forcibly dictate beliefs to others and remain in God’s will.
This doesn’t mean that churches can’t have statements of belief and doctrine, nor does it mean that nations can’t adopt laws that reflect certain beliefs. As regards the latter, however, it does imply what America’s Founders wisely believed: that smaller government—government that doesn’t attempt to rule on and decide everything for the people—is the most salubrious for the public weal. The Founders believed there were few, if any, social issues on which the national government should proclaim a position. Such issues belonged at the level of local government, if government was to take them up at all.
In the last 40 years, we have forgotten a lesson of history: that an attitude of enforcement over other people’s minds and hearts is inherently corruptible and always works against the principles of Jesus Christ. It cannot work for them, because coercion is not Jesus’ way. He rules hearts through our voluntary submission; he doesn’t rule public policy through coercion against people’s consciences. Trying to use his name for that purpose didn’t work in the upheavals of the Renaissance and Reformation. No other source of authority can possibly make coercion of the conscience work. It is an inherently evil process that cannot produce good.
It will also help in our thinking task for today’s American freedom-lover to understand what hatred, intolerance, and having an “anti-someone” attitude actually are. It is painful to see modern Americans characterizing their political opposition in these terms. Hatred of a politically actionable kind isn’t the feeling that someone disagrees with you. Hatred looks like the corpses of Jewish women strewn on a floor at Auschwitz. Hatred looks like the mass murder of 5,000 Tutsis who took refuge in a church in Rwanda in April 1994.
Intolerance looks like burning Protestants at the stake in England in the 1550s, or the massacre of Catholics in Baghdad in 2010. Intolerance looks like the nearly half a million Vietnamese “boat people” who perished on the seas fleeing the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in the mid-1970s.
Being “anti-someone” looks like Iran hanging men from industrial cranes for being gay. It looks like the pogroms under the Russian Czars against Jewish communities. It looks like the atrocities against Christians, Jews, businessmen, and ethnic minorities committed by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s, or those committed by the Castro regime in Cuba over the past five decades. Being “anti-someone” looks like the depredations of the Soviet Union against Eastern Europe in World War II and the Cold War, from mass executions, raids, and theft, to deportations that drove women and children to starvation and death at internment camps in Siberia.
Americans living in freedom and comfort but without the universal approval of their fellow countrymen cannot seriously claim to be suffering these terrible impositions. By no reasonable standard is there an epidemic of vicious hatred or intolerance in the U.S. As much as Christians are to live in sympathy and kindness with others, we’re not required to accept distorting, demagogic language about their travails.
Tolerance, meanwhile, starts with the individual and the moral underpinnings of society. It is not a product of democracy or free elections, but a precondition for their success. It cannot be forced. People either agree voluntarily to the principle of tolerance—meaning others get to disagree with us and even disapprove of us—and then actually control ourselves and give each other leeway, or there is no tolerance or freedom.
It has been quite a while since Americans seriously thought about these ideas, and frankly, it shows. We are caught up every week in some public dispute in which the media encourage us to snipe at each other like children: “Racist! Idiot! Homophobe! Fascist! Misogynist! Hater! Moron! F****t!” Emotional rants have even begun affecting our public policies. We have lost sight of the seriousness of government and the need for accountability in its actions, treating it as if its function is to express feelings, regardless of the precedents that may set.
No society’s situation has ever been safe from this political incontinence, and ours certainly is not. There is no self-correcting “freedom mechanism”; there is only character and wisdom in the people. Christians, of all people, are equipped to know that it is not “unfair” to be disagreed with or to have one’s proposals for reordering society rejected. Each one of us endures disagreement and rejection over a lifetime, but the love of God upholds us in spite of it, and is truly and tangibly more important than all the injuries men can inflict.
To preserve religious and intellectual freedom, the key is rigorously restricting the role of the government in disagreements and rejections among the people. Our competence to stand in an intellectually coercive relation to each other, with the force of the state behind us, is extremely limited. We inevitably turn this power to evil when we wield it over others. We should, moreover, resist on principle seeing our social interactions in these divisive terms, and should refrain from joining in mob fury over disagreements and rejections, whether government is involved or not.
In doing this, we can take Jesus as our model. He could never be induced to join in a self-righteous anger- or blame-fest. His one occasion for righteous anger, with the moneychangers in the temple, was based not on a prescribed “righteousness checklist” derived from the law, but from his upwelling of personal, filial care for what was holy to the Father. In living as citizens of a free republic, let us seek to follow in his footsteps.
J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval intelligence officer and evangelical Christian. She retired in 2004 and blogs from the Inland Empire of southern California. She writes for Commentary’s CONTENTIONS blog, Hot Air’s Green Room, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.