I skipped Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, not because I didn’t appreciate it, but because I have never gotten excited about economic boycotts or counterprotesting with my diet. I’m consistent that way—I ignored Martin Sheen when he stood outside my local grocery trying to stop me from buying grapes and, if I skipped a Jane Fonda movie, it wasn’t because she had gone to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. As college endowment managers learned, it’s pretty difficult to get all your principles and politics lined up with your investment portfolio, much less with your diet or entertainment.
Still, the debates that centered on the sandwich chain offered an opportunity to chew over more than just a chicken sandwich. On the surface, the controversy entailed company president Dan Cathy’s support for his understanding of biblical marriage (one man and one woman for life) and attempts by supporters of gay marriage to boycott the chain or, in the case of certain politicians, even try to prevent its stores from locating in their districts. But at a deeper level, the battle of Chick-fil-A underscored the growing dilemma over Christianity and democracy in America.
Increasingly loud voices argue that there is no longer room for Christianity—or at least fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity—in the American public square. Why? Because such conservative forms of Christianity are not themselves democratic—their principles are not put to a popular vote and therefore do not change much over time. Dan Cathy was not so much expressing his own personal view about marriage as he was articulating what he understands the Bible to say about marriage, a teaching he does not feel free to ignore or change. In the view of evangelical Christians, Christianity is not a democracy and God does not take votes to decide policy or doctrine. It is what God said it is in the Bible.
This antidemocratic view holds that there is absolute truth, which does not sit well in an increasingly relativist, secular culture. It’s the answer to a question one of my children asked growing up attending public schools in a very secular place: “Dad, why is it OK in my school to be anything but a Christian?” It was OK to be a socialist or a vegetarian or a secularist. Christians are not able to compromise many of their core beliefs, I explained, adding that many Christians also were not very gracious in how they carried and expressed their views, but that’s another story.
The irony, of course, is that America has always understood itself to need Christian values to make its democratic republic work. Business people established great companies like Chick-fil-A, people got jobs and made money, and their Christian values became what French journalist Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, the “habits of the heart” that made American democracy work.
These sometimes clashing, sometimes collaborating values have created the energy that has moved America forward. I always loved the cartoon of the Pilgrims with their funny hats and religious values coming across on the Mayflower, with one asking another what they would do when they got to America. The other Pilgrim responded, “First we will establish our basic religious values, then we will go into real estate.” Tocqueville said the influence of Christianity on America was what first caught his eye, propelling the Protestant work ethic but, more important, creating the “mores that render Americans . . . capable of supporting the empire of democracy.” George Washington, whose own faith has been questioned and debated, nevertheless observed in his farewell address that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
It seems right for supporters of Chick-fil-A and its president’s values to be concerned about their right to follow God’s word as they understand it, and even to believe that their point of view deserves a seat at the table in American democracy. Indeed, there is a long history supporting the notion that such values have been of real, practical value to elevating the mores and values that allow a free republic to work. And it seems right for Americans who find those views too narrow to decline to eat at Chick-fil-A, though not for elected leaders to use their offices to block a business whose leader expresses his freedoms of speech and religion.
In the end, Americans should chew over the powerful dilemma of Christianity and its impact on the democratic republic for 250 years. We may well be traveling the road of secular Europe, prepared to throw out the baby of religious values with the bathwater of religious teachings that are no longer popular.