Thursday, 9 August 2012

View from America: Secular fowl play

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his fifth dispatch, he looks at how a dispute over gay marriage has led to some fowl play by US mayors.
The Secular Centre, Episode 5: The Chick-fil-A Affair in Secular Perspective




My best guess is that in the United Kingdom roiling national debates about the role of religion in public life are not usually triggered by Bible-thumpin’ men who own fast-food joints. Stateside, however, this is the odd reality we are currently enduring. Let me bring you up to speed.

For years the Cathy family, wealthy Southern Baptists who own the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, has advocated against same-sex marriage by funding like-minded organisations. Just a few weeks back the president of the company, Dan Cathy, went on record as saying: “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. We give God thanks for that.”

He then added, helpfully: “I think we are inviting God’s judgement on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.”

To use an Americanism, it was “game on!”. Mayors and public officials in Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and San Francisco all pushed back by indicating that the restaurant chain was not welcome in their cities.

Gay and lesbian activists called for a nationwide boycott of the company. Meanwhile conservative Faith and Values icons such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin voiced support for the Evangelical-owned company and even scarfed down some bird for reporters and appreciative onlookers. (Interestingly, neither presidential campaign has said much about L’affaire Chick-fil-A. This is consistent with the Obama and Romney teams’ decision to lay off religious themes so far in this year’s election.)

In any case, insofar as the company’s views on homosexuality have been known for years, I don’t fully understand why Cathy’s provocations set off so many ructions in the past few weeks. Yet one thing I am at sure of – and at pains to point out in the video above – is that the aforementioned mayors are betraying the secular vision.

True, they may be well-intentioned; the scourge of homophobia must be combated.

But we should recall that the secular state, in its best theoretical reading, doesn’t punish beliefs. It grants its citizens complete psychic sovereignty. Secular states do, however, punish unlawful acts. And to this point Chick-fil-A has not engaged in actionable behaviours. Annoying and antiquated worldviews it has given us a plenty. But to this point, no behaviours that contravene the laws of the land.

It was New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg who clarified this for all and sundry. Although a proponent of same-sex marriage, Bloomberg understood his secular theory well enough to note that that it was wrong "to look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city."
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