The Renewed Chick-fil-A Controversy Shows the Culture War Will Only Get Worse

(Rashid Umar Abbasi/Reuters)
Progressive corporations and governments are increasingly using power to attempt to expunge disfavored ideas from the public square.

Every single time I grow even slightly more optimistic about the state of American polarization and the prospects for true American tolerance, I get disappointed. Every time I think that we could perhaps see the light at the end of the tunnel of the culture wars, I’m reminded that it’s just another oncoming train. And at the risk of saturating readers with analysis of the renewed Chick-fil-A controversy, I think it’s worth describing why this latest revival of hatred for a chicken restaurant is an ominous harbinger of an even more divisive national cultural debate.

For those few readers who haven’t followed the latest twists in the chicken wars, after ThinkProgress reported that the Chick-fil-A Foundation donated to the Salvation Army, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and a Christian home for troubled youth, the city council of San Antonio voted to block the restaurant from opening in the San Antonio airport. Shortly thereafter, the concessions vendor for the airport in Buffalo, N.Y., also moved to block Chick-fil-A.

I’ve written previously that any government efforts to block Chick-fil-A from opening are flagrantly unconstitutional, but I’m actually more concerned about three other aspects of the current controversy. Progressive intolerance is now directed at conventional Christian ministries (not just culture-war organizations), intolerance is driven by the progressive grassroots, and progressive corporations and governments are increasingly on an activist search-and-destroy mission against wrongthink.

First, it’s worth reflecting on the sheer depth of the intolerance on display. Not one of the “offensive” organizations supported by Chick-fil-A could fairly be described as a culture-war organization. They’re standard Christian ministries that serve the poor and minister to young people. They have standard Christian rules of conduct. They are not remotely “anti-LGBT” but instead advance a different, biblical sexual ethic, one that applies to gay and straight individuals alike.

There is zero difference between giving to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and giving to, say, a youth ministry at your local Baptist Church. Both organizations have similar conduct rules. Both organizations have similar sexual ethics. Both organizations reach young people in similar ways. Is it now contrary to the values of an American city to award contracts to companies owned by tithing Christians? As the recent controversy surrounding Karen Pence’s decision to teach at a church school demonstrated, now even engagement with conventional church ministries is problematic. That’s the level of anti-religious animus we’re dealing with.

Second, the sad reality is that comprehensive anti-religious discrimination is no longer a top-down imposition by a small, secular elite, but rather a grassroots demand from a large segment of the Democratic base. If you look at religious-freedom controversies across the country, rarely will you see any involvement by the federal government. I spent 20 years defending religious liberty in federal courts and only sued the feds once, when they came after Tea Party groups during the Obama administration.

If you spend any time in an American university, a major American corporation, or the governments of America’s deep-blue urban regions, you’ll find pervasive animus against religiously orthodox Christians. Christians working in those spaces write to me all the time, telling me that they must tightly regulate their speech and tightly control their social media, lest they endanger their careers. That is especially true if they raise any religious objections to any aspect of the sexual revolution — from abortion to gay marriage to debates over gender identity.

And this brings us to the third negative trend. It would be bad enough if this pervasive intolerance were confined to the workspace, but progressive corporations and governments are increasingly using power to attempt to expunge disfavored ideas from the public square. In a recent episode of my friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg’s excellent “Remnant” podcast, we discussed the institutional drive on the Left towards “performative wokeness.” We essentially defined it as the drive for institutions to aggressively depart from their core, underlying missions for the sake of aggressively advancing social justice.

Apple, for example, is in the tech business, but it also is defining part of its mission in unrelated moral terms — using its immense financial, cultural, and political power to take specific stands against greater legal protections for religious liberty, to take one example. Citibank and Bank of America are using their financial power to advance gun control.

In each case, the woke organization took action well outside its core commercial mission for the purpose of defeating the ideas (and deterring the lawful conduct) of law-abiding customers and fellow citizens. In the government context, performatively woke universities and city councils often go well beyond enforcing valid non-discrimination laws and instead wield their financial power (and their raw police power) like a club, deterring private citizens from participating in the marketplace of ideas for fear of facing government retribution.

Even powerful and wealthy corporations such as Chick-fil-A — supported as it is by an adoring, hungry public — can find it easier to back down than to stand up. It has, in fact, altered its giving patterns under pressure. It turns out that standing up to the triple pressures of increasing intolerance, progressive grassroots anger, and search-and-destroy performative wokeness is hard. But that doesn’t mean that intolerance will ultimately triumph, only that bitterness and polarization will deepen. A faith tradition that has thrived for millennia has faced far worse challenges. It faces far worse challenges still, in other parts of the globe. America’s traditional religious believers will not be bullied out of their deepest beliefs.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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