Thursday, August 2, 2012

Chicken and Freedom

I’ve never eaten at Chic-fil-A. In fact I don’t think I’d really been much aware of the chain’s existence prior to the current controversy. Not that I don’t like chicken! In fact, I love chicken! And, back when I still ate sandwiches, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to turn down any brand of chicken sandwich. I guess that particular chain and I just never crossed paths. (Even now, I don’t know where I’d have to go to find it, although a quick Google search is showing me that there actually are several of them in the Knoxville area).

So, I won’t be either patronizing or boycotting Chic-fil-A anytime soon. Personally, I have never been big on patronizing (or not patronizing) particular stores or brands to make a political point. It is a time-honored American tradition, however, which has sometimes proved very effective. Patronizing (or not patronizing) a store to support (or oppose) its owner’s beliefs – and organizing others to do the same – is perfectly acceptable in a free society, where the right to offend one another is reciprocal.

What is, however, totally unacceptable in America is for a public official (in this case, several mayors and a putative future mayor) to try to stop a company from having a store in a city because the mayor disagrees with the owner’s religious beliefs.

To his very great credit, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg said what every public official ought instinctively to know and ought immediately to have said, “You can’t have a test for what the owner’s personal views are before you decide to give a permit to do something in the city.”

Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from having one’s religious beliefs criticized or opposed. On the contrary, no one should ever feel entitled to go through life without his or her sensitivities being insulted or offended. (To expect that is to play into the victimization pathology, which permeates post-modern society – at great cost to us all). What freedom of religion most certainly does mean, however, is that one may freely profess one’s faith without overt government interference. The same applies analogously to freedom of speech, which does not protect one from being disagreed with or criticized or insulted or otherwise offended, but does protect one from government punishment for one’s opinions. (That is why the concept of punishing a “hate crime” – that is, punishing the beliefs behind the crime, rather than the crime itself - is so problematic in a free society).

Government is a great good. But, precisely because it is so powerful, coercive state power must be constrained within legitimate limits. The founders of the American republic obviously thought this important enough to improve upon their newly adopted constitution by amending it to make explicit its citizens’ freedom of religion and of speech. Sadly, after more than two centuries of experience, in which the many benefits of a free and open society ought to have become clear, the totalitarian impulse still seems surprisingly strong.

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