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July 31, 2012
by Dr. Benjamin Wiker
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side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar What did Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, say that caused the passionate chain reaction? In an interview with the Baptist Press's Biblical Recorder, Cathy clearly affirmed his biblical faith, his determination to have his faith inform how he runs his business, and his support for the "biblical definition of the family unit."

Cathy's comments set off an immediate national reaction by those who support same-sex marriage. "Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired back. "They disrespect our fellow neighbors and residents." His message to Cathy: You won't be building any more Chick-fil-A restaurants in my town. Ditto said Boston Mayor Tom Menino.

Then in a radio interview, Dan Cathy replied, "I think we're inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, you know, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes marriage.'"

In response, the Muppets company denounced Cathy, and publicly pulled its connections to Chick-fil-A. The creators of the politically correct Berenstain Bears issued a statement that implied it was unhappily caught in a promotion deal with Chick-fil-A, but hinted that those concerned should write to their publisher.

And now August 1st has been declared "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" where supporters of Cathy show their support by stopping in for a meal. To no one's surprise, gay rights activists have plans both for boycotts and protests.

Is this any way to carry on a public debate?

Yes and no. Or better, no and yes.

First the no's.

"No" number one. The two mayors, Rahm Emanuel and Tom Menino, are way out of line. They presume to speak on behalf of their entire cities, and as it turns out, they do not. Chicagoans, for example, are divided right down the middle, for and against same-sex marriage. The much more liberal Massachusetts has a majority affirming same-sex marriage, but the obvious question arises: should a political leader simply override a significant minority, and pretend that it's of no political or moral consequence?

The problem is that we are, for better or worse, currently divided in our society about the status of same-sex behavior, and hence about same-sex marriage. It is a very deep moral divide, one that threatens our ability to function as a society. Therefore, it's not the place of elected political leaders to cut short the debate by declaring that principled disagreement is impossible. Nor is it, we may add, the function of the judiciary to impose the judges' favored solutions using governmental power.

We are a house divided, morally and hence politically, therefore the debate must go on, unhindered by government officials who would like to cut it short.

"No" number two. Unprincipled pluralism is not the solution. The debate about whether society should affirm same-sex behavior (and hence same-sex marriage) as good, must not be avoided by declaring that morality demands that we affirm a plurality of sexual views, as if the fact of a multitude of rival and irreconcilable views was itself a kind of moral achievement.

That's unprincipled pluralism—the view that there is no real right and wrong, good or evil. There are no moral principles, so there's no need to have a debate. 

Not good. We need principled pluralism. The truth we must face is that we are deeply divided in regard to sexuality. The plurality represents real disagreement, and hence real arguments about what is right or wrong, good or evil.

Principled pluralism takes seriously that we are arguing about the most important things, things that must be settled for us to continue as a society. Until that happens through debate and persuasion, we must tolerate the diversity of views, and be civil about it.

"No" number three. As I've said before, toleration is not a virtue. The Latin tolerare means "to bear or endure something." Toleration isn't the "whatever floats your boat" of unprincipled pluralism. That's nihilistic toleration. Real toleration is a kind of bearing or enduring of moral disagreement in a divided society until moral agreement can be achieved. That's realistic toleration, the willingness to engage in debate about the most important moral questions, under the assumption that that these questions have real answers.

"No" number four. Majoritism is not an argument. The debate about same-sex behavior and same-sex marriage cannot be settled by opinion polls. An opinion poll taken in 1750 in the Carolinas would show overwhelming support for slavery. An opinion poll taken today among members of NAMBLA would show overwhelming support for pedophilia.

A majority of Americans may at this time reject same-sex marriage, but just the sheer fact of being the majority opinion doesn't tell you same-sex marriage is wrong. "Most Americans believe…" is not an argument, but a description. The real question is why same-sex behavior is wrong.

Or why it isn't. That's what real debates are about.

If we allow majoritism to be an argument, what will happen is just what is in fact happening: proponents from both sides will skip the debate, and get right down to the nasty job of manipulating public opinion through rhetoric, scare tactics, fear mongering, emotion peddling, etc.

Are there any Yes's?

"Yes" number one. Corporations are not governmental agencies. They are economic entities. They do not have to stay neutral in the great moral debates in which we must now engage.

Chick-fil-A can make it known that it is a Christian company that affirms the biblical understanding of marriage, but it must be prepared for economic reactions. Supporters of same-sex marriage may take their business elsewhere, just as supporters of traditional marriage may flock to Chick-fil-A to show their support.

The Muppet company and Berenstain Bears can show support for same-sex marriage, as long as they are willing to take a hit economically from those who disagree.

But no one from the government—such as mayors Rahm Emanuel or Tom Menino, or some federal judge—should be taking it upon himself to use public power to punish an economic entity. Emanuel and Menino may announce that they personally will not eat at Chick-fil-A. But they can't use public power as an instrument of their own personal boycott.

We should be aware, however, that economic reward and punishment are not themselves a debate. They only make clear to corporations who've staked sides how serious and how numerous those who agree or disagree with them are. That's a good beginning point for taking each side seriously, but it only prepares us for the real debates we've got to have.

Are there no more yes's?

I wish there were. Sadly, we are caught in a kind of downward spiral in regard to public debate, in which especially the media itself has embraced a sound-bite, shouting match view of presenting contentious issues. Thus, the very people who have the moral responsibility for framing and presenting public debates, are doing everything they can to make sure that real debate doesn't happen.

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We live complex lives. We strive to sort out priorities that sometimes conflict or seem incompatible. A moral framework is needed to help us understand the reality around us. Our Judeo-Christian heritage provides a framework to help us comprehend the choices we make and the conflicts that arise over them. It is not only the main source of our spiritual values, but also many of the secular values we depend on.

tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.
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Ben Wiker Trans Benjamin Wiker
Author and speaker Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University (OH).

Dr. Wiker has written ten books, including Ten Books that Screwed Up the World, and Ten Books Every Conservative Must Read. His newest book, coming out in September 2012, is Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700. Please visit his website, www.benjaminwiker.com.
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