Enlightened liberals vs chicken-chewing morons

The Chick-fil-A controversy in America reveals just how illiberal and intolerant supporters of same-sex marriage are becoming.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics

Supporters of same-sex marriage have opened up a new front in America’s Culture Wars in recent weeks – by targeting a chicken-sandwich restaurant. The call to boycott Chick-fil-A over comments made by its CEO reveal how the debate about same-sex marriage is moving in an increasingly illiberal direction.

Chick-fil-A, an Atlanta-based fast-food restaurant chain with 1,600 restaurants in 40 US states, makes chicken sandwiches that many rave about. When asked if it was true that he did not support gay marriage, CEO Dan Cathy said he was ‘guilty as charged’. He added: ‘We are very much supportive of the family – the Biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives.’

In a recent radio interview, Cathy also said: ‘I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, “We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage”.’ Critics note that Chick-fil-A, owned by the Cathy family, donates millions to Christian and pro-traditional family charities, including Focus on the Family, which they consider to be anti-gay.

In response to Cathy’s comments, mayors in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco proclaimed that Chick-fil-A was not welcome in their cities. Specifically, they asked their city councils to deny Chick-fil-A the permits they need to open. ‘Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values’, said Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and former chief of staff for President Obama. Joe Moreno, an alderman in a ‘hipster’ ward in Chicago, vowed to block the restaurant, calling Cathy’s comments ‘bigoted and homophobic’. Christine Quinn, leader of New York’s city council, said Cathy’s remarks were ‘repugnant and un-American’; she urged New York University to evict Chick-fil-A from its campus.

The reaction by these public officials shows the authoritarian instinct behind many of those who support same-sex marriage – and how such illiberal views are not limited to hardcore activists but rather extend right to the top of the political world. In defending his stance on Chick-fil-A, Boston mayor Thomas Menino said, ‘We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.’ But apparently, in the name of ‘inclusion’, it is perfectly acceptable to be intolerant of those who back traditional marriage.

As it happens, many liberal pundits recognised that the mayors had overstepped their authority. Editorials in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times came out against the mayors. Even the super-nanny mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, expressed opposition to his counterparts (although he won’t let Chick-fil-A customers in his city have a large-size soda with their chicken sandwiches).

As welcome as it was to see many stand up for free speech, the focus on First Amendment rights missed the bigger picture. While making principled references to Voltaire, these critical liberals were still using the Chick-fil-A issue to expand the definition of what it means to be ‘homophobic’, so that it now includes the mere utterance of support for traditional marriage. It is noteworthy that Chick-fil-A does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation – it has gay employees and it serves gay customers. A franchisee in Chicago has held fundraisers for gay and lesbian groups.

Advocates for same-sex marriage want expressions of support for traditional marriage to be considered beyond the pale and unworthy of debate. It is amazing how fast this issue is moving. Three months ago, Obama was against same-sex marriage – is anyone who espouses that view today now anti-gay and ‘repugnant’? Obama launched his political career in Chicago – was he out of line with ‘Chicago’s values’ until his conversion to the gay-marriage cause 90 days ago? Same-sex marriage has been voted down in all 31 states where it was on the ballot, including in California – are these states filled with ‘bigoted and homophobic’ people?

Millions of Americans, including many CEOs, do not agree with same-sex marriage. But it is clear that Chick-fil-A’s CEO has been singled out because his restaurant chain fits a Culture War stereotype held by many coastal liberals: a Southern-based establishment led by Christians and frequented by ‘backward’ people. It is revealing how pro-gay marriage protesters took the opportunity to condemn Chick-fil-A customers for committing another of today’s sins – being obese. As the New York Times reported, some protesters held signs with ‘warnings that those chicken sandwiches contain a lot of fat and cholesterol’. Dan Turner of the Los Angeles Times helpfully pointed out that ‘a fairly typical meal – a deluxe chicken sandwich with medium waffle fries, a medium Coke and a fudge brownie – contains about enough calories and fat to support a Tunisian village for a week’. The ease with which commentators went from attacking a certain group of people for their beliefs on marriage to attacking them for their eating habits told us a great deal about the elitism that is fuelling the gay-marriage issue.

Same-sex marriage proponents picked a Culture War – and that’s what they got. To counter the boycott, Republicans Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum organised ‘National Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day’ last Wednesday. More than 630,000 signed up to support the event, and Chick-fil-A restaurants around America drew huge crowds, with hundreds lining up for more than an hour. Many were no doubt happy to respond to what they saw as northern liberals taking a condescending view of southerners. Reports found the crowds generally good-natured. ‘I’m not against gay rights by any means, but I think this guy is getting a bad rap’, said one diner in California. ‘Plus’, he told the Los Angeles Times, ‘the food’s pretty good’.

Two days later, pro-gay marriage activists held a ‘National Same-Sex Kiss Day’. In the event, relatively few took up the call to kiss their partner in a Chick-fil-A. By the weekend, many onlookers were despairing that the United States had once again fallen into a Culture War squabble. Both sides were now claiming that they were victims of ‘hate speech’. As soon as battles descend to this level, debate is out and posturing is in.

The campaign for same-sex marriage claims it is a popular movement for equality, but it looks more like a top-down attempt to impose a particular, non-traditional view of marriage on all. Reasonable people, in good faith, have different opinions on same-sex marriage, and the issue should be discussed openly. But many politicians and media pundits who support same-sex marriage clearly prefer simply to denounce and demonise those who won’t get with the programme. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes: ‘The gay-marriage movement isn’t just arguing with its opponents; it’s pathologising them, raising the personal and professional costs of being associated with traditional views on marriage, and creating the space for exactly the kind of legal sanctions that figures like Thomas Menino and Rahm Emanuel spent last week flirting with.’

Movements for equality have historically sought to expand our notions of freedom, but as the case of the Chick-fil-A boycott shows, today’s campaign for same-sex marriage is moving in the opposite direction.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics Politics


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