What is it with Americans these days when it comes to free speech?  

On the one hand, everyone seems to have an opinion, and the ability to express that opinion is, of course, enshrined in the Bill of Rights subject to certain limitations regarding “clear and present danger” and the like.

On the other hand, increasingly people want to defend their right to free speech, but they also seem to want to compel others to dignify their view, or at least feature their views prominently.   Fail to comply with that, and risk being judged exclusionary.   People even seem to want to enlist the government to compel companies or private citizens to endorse their views, or at the very least to not contradict them.

 "How dare you contradict me!   That violates my right to not be contradicted!"    Really?

The Chick-Fil-A thing is just the latest example of this disturbing trend, and like most examples, it began as a flashpoint in the never-ending "culture wars."  The President of Chick-Fil-A (one Don Cathy) said things that he really believed about homosexuality, things that are repulsive to most gay men and women.   Unable to deal with speech that is arguably divisive, some of the proponents of marriage equality have urged a boycott of the chain.   In a predictable backlash, Chick-Fil-A supporters made a statement by flooding the chain with business, with lines in the parking lot.   Here in Fresno, where I live, many of these lines occurred in the peak of the day, in triple-digit temperatures.   One has to admit that those who flocked to Chick-Fil-A at that moment were putting comfort aside in order to stand with the beleaguered fast-food chain, though the extent of that support is exaggerated in part by the fact that there are only two Chick-Fil-A locations in all Fresno County, and one (within the CSU Fresno campus) is not readily accessible to the general public.

Well, I for one will not be joining the supporters of Chick-Fil-A.   I’m not a big fan of the food, and as I’ve gotten older my views on marriage equality have moved from skepticism to open support.   Marriage is a civil contract between the state and consenting adults for the disposition of real property and the custody of minor children.   To Christians, of course, it is a sacrament but those are really excess trappings from the point of view of the state.  We can not insist that the government adopt any particular sectarian understanding of marriage in what is a secular arrangement.   We routinely hear ministers intone that “what God has joined together, let no man bring asunder”.....but the statistics on divorce inform us, bluntly, that fallible human beings not only dissolve marriages, they do so at a rate that can only be described as routine, common and typical.   Apparently what we privately believe marriage represents to God carries no weight with the state.   Thus, the argument from religious tradition as to what could or could not be marriage in God’s eyes doesn’t carry a lot of weight with me.   

At best, those opposed to marriage equality are reduced to appealing to a vague sense of “what everyone has always believed” about marriage   Even that is shaky, however, because there are many examples of societies that condoned homosexual displays and relationships, whether we are talking about shamanism or classical Greece.   In many of those settings, relationships were not merely condoned, but codified.   Were these counter-examples in harmony with the traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of marriage?   In most cases, no, but some are harmonious with other views on marriage that were widespread within the Roman Empire a few millenia ago, views which prevailed in Roman society for centuries.   Only a gross ignorance of classical history could excuse the foes of marriage equality from not acknowledging that these counter-examples exist.   Again, opposition to marriage equality tends to emerge on sectarian grounds, and thus attempts to privilege that viewpoint runs the risk of privileging this or that sect in the public square, and that risks exposing the opponents of marriage equality to legal challenges based on the Establishment Clause.

Now, regarding free speech:  Don Cathy and other like-minded business folk have an absolute right to assert their belief that homosexuality is not compatible with their understanding of marriage.   They have the right to contribute financially to organizations which seek to advance their viewpoint in the public square, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise.   But, conversely, Mr. Cathy and other like-minded business folk can not expect anyone to believe that their freedom of speech translates into immunity from controversy, or to unpleasant outcomes for their business and their shareholders.

Because, you see, consumers like me have an absolute right to assert our belief that Don Cathy is wrong to oppose marriage equality.   We have an absolute right to draw public attention to the fact that Chick-Fil-A donates money to organizations that actively work to oppose marriage equality.   We have an absolute right to urge other consumers to not purchase Chick-Fil-A products, so that our consumer dollars are not used to support policies that we oppose.  That, too, is free speech.

But so much of the public narrative has been turned on its head: when interviewed, many of the folk standing in line in the heat to “support” Chick-Fil-A went out of their way to assert that they weren’t so much opposed to marriage equality, as eager to defend the company’s right to freedom of speech!   What?   This is mind-boggling, though it certainly goes along with the “corporations are people” mentality of many conservatives and libertarians in this post-Citizens United world.   But, of course, no sane person is arguing that Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have the right to contribute financially to organizations that oppose marriage equality.  No one is arguing that Chick-Fil-A’s CEO doesn’t have the right to publicly oppose the marriage of gay adults.   Yet, this is precisely the argument that many of Chick-Fil-A’s supporters are claiming to oppose.  To paraphrase, “Oh, I’m not really against gays.   I just want to defend free speech.”

Well, the supporters are definitely displaying freedom of speech, and to the extent that even a misguided and unfounded belief can be safely shared in a republic like ours, that shows support for the concept of free speech.  But freedom of speech itself was never threatened by those who urged a boycott of Chick-Fil-A, any more than it was threatened when Don Cathy boasted of his lifelong fidelity to one woman.   Apparently, to some conservatives, public opposition to their viewpoint and a threatened boycott amounts to a limitation on their freedom of speech, and this goes hand-in-hand with a narrative in which the Christian majority is said to be persecuted by the secular, presumably anti-Christian minority.

In other words, these folk no longer conceptualize freedom of speech as a right qualified by constitutional precedent, but as an absolute entitlement of privilege.   And, if we are to be truthful, we must admit that in much of this country the views of Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have been historically privileged.  Even when the law did not spell out the sectarian details, communities have tended to elect Christians over non-Christians, and promote a common culture that wraps patriotism in a gloss of Christian piety, and in general to ignore non-Christian ideas: “majority rule”, and all that.

But, my fellow Christians, the world has changed.  Christians should be well-educated enough to not confuse historical privilege within the culture to a constitutional right.  Christians should be sufficiently well-informed that we do not fall prey to snake-oil cottage industries within the churches, that will tell us things contrary to fact and reason.   David Barton, from this point of view, is no different from Kent Hovind, because they are both phony ‘experts’ who derive income from selling belief systems in the churches that superficially seem to be consistent with historical Christianity, but which abuses history of any inconvenient facts.

We need a new term for this intellectual tendency of many political conservatives, especially Christians, who confuse historical privilege for rights, who treat their own beliefs as entitlements and who feel persecuted whenever they are reminded that others do not share, or even oppose, their cherished beliefs.   I suggest “privilegism.”

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