Eating and Shopping Just Got a Whole Lot More Complicated

I read with interest Neil Steinberg’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times about boycotts.  In essence, he says they do not work because we really do not care.  As one who does try to think about the connection between business practices and morality, statements like this make me just a little bit sad.  I would like to think the real reason is because it is very complicated to make the right choice.  Here is what I mean.

Though I have never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, I like fast food.  I work hard to limit how often I eat it, but I do give in from time to time.  (After three weeks in Rome, I must confess my first meal (admittedly at an airport) when I returned was at a Wendy’s.)  I like Starbuck’s coffee, though I am the first to admit that I can get pretty good coffee, for a lot less money, at home.

If I listened carefully to Senator Harry Reid, I should be outraged that US Olympic attire was made in China.  I guess it is ok that almost all other attire is made overseas, often in poor countries.  (Try to find clothing made in the United States.  I dare you.)  But I guess it is different if you are wearing what we normally wear at a major international sporting event.

I recently read an article (I forget where) encouraging me to buy sneakers that had little or no leather.  There was another article (ethicalshopping.com) that suggested there may not be as strong a connection as once thought between local shopping and reducing the carbon footprint.

And none of this touches the issue of trying to determine who owns whom.  I may think I am supporting a trendy looking new company, but it may in fact be owned by a large conglomerate.  I love Ben and Jerry’s, but it is owned by Unilever, which is not exactly the little business next door.  At the height of the BP oil spill, I learned that not all BP stations are owned by BP (or even use petroleum supplied by BP) and that other stations that had no outward sign of being owned by BP actually were.

The point is that it is really not that easy.  Shopping is complicated.  My impact on the world is something I find hard to be consistent with in my life.  For example, there is certainly the impact I have just by existing.  Then there is the impact I have in the way I treat others.  Then there is the impact I have with how I use my stuff.  Then there is the impact I have by supporting (or not) causes by where I eat and drink.  My mind is about to explode.

I guess I think all this boycotting and supporting is a way to make us all feel better.  I’ll show those left wing commies — I’ll eat at Chick-Fil-A.  I’ll show those right wing bigots — I drink at Starbuck’s.  Can I just get something to eat and drink?

When is a Chicken Sandwich More than a Chicken Sandwich?

Let me say at the outset that I have never been to a Chick-Fil-A.  And, let me say at the outset that I am convinced we need fewer fast food restaurants, not more.  (Especially because I find myself eating at them far too often.)  And, let me say at the outset that I do not share a Christian fundamentalist world view.  And, let me also say at the outset I can understand the perceptions of many people who hold a variety of opinions on  contentious  issues that cause tremendous divide in our country and elsewhere.  It is far from settled, and like so many things we witness in American politics these days, there are strong numbers of people on both sides of this debate, which means a political solution is not likely any time soon.  There will continue to be states that approve gay marriage and civil unions, and there will continue to be states that enshrine in their constitutions and law the view that marriage is limited as a legal contract between a man and a woman.

It is also easy to see why certain issues raise the anger of people.  Concerning the issue of gay marriage, there are those who see the prohibition of gay marriage in terms of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s in particular, and hold these beliefs quite strongly.  There are others who believe the Bible, or the Koran, or their own philosophy about marriage limits its definition to a relationship between a man and a woman.

The question the Chick-Fil-A decision raises concern more than the beliefs of a CEO about gay marriage.  It seems that more fundamentally this issue, and the question of the Health and Human Services mandate about contraception coverage in the new health care law, is a question about the role of religious beliefs in the public square.

A little history is important here.  Consider the following quote below from the Library of Congress website.

Many of the British North American colonies that eventually formed the United States of America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women, who, in the face of European persecution, refused to compromise passionately held religious convictions and fled Europe. The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives–“to catch fish” as one New Englander put it–but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.

Important then, to the people who settled here, was a protection of beliefs, a protection of people to hold certain beliefs without fear of reprisal from the government.  Put a different way, the role of many protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is not to protect the government from the individual, but to protect the individual from the government.  Because the experience of the early colonists was to escape persecution, it was important to them that minority views and positions be protected from government power.  While I cannot speak for other states, in Vermont the concern about freedom of speech was so strong that legislators were immune from any action for words they spoke in the legislature.  (Article 14 of the Vermont Constitution:  The freedom of deliberation, speech, and debate, in the Legislature, is so essential to the rights of the people, that it cannot be the foundation of any accusation or prosecution, action or complaint, in any other court or place whatsoever.)

Of course, putting this in writing and acting upon it are two different things.  It is clear the colonists were not always tolerant of other positions.  But, the fundamental protections sought by holders of minority opinions enjoy a long history of being upheld in the United States.  In fact, significant protection is afforded religious institutions, and individuals who belong to them, the freedom to practice their faith.  The courts have protected this right time and again.  Whether it is the right of students in a public school to protest by wearing armbands, the right of parents to choose a Catholic school for their children, or the right of members of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at funerals, the fundamental right is clear.

One could make the case this was accepted until such time that the United States became a country of greater diversity.  When the population was a essential Judeo-Christian, the question of religion was easier to understand.  As people of other traditions and faiths, such as Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews arrived in the United States, they forced the question of religious and political tolerance.  With the arrival of the Enlightenment, and the increased acceptance of reason alone to answer questions once left to religion, there were also those who accepted no religion at all.

But a case could be made that in an age where diversity is encouraged, it is a limited diversity.  The portrayal of people of faith is always the extreme.  Radical Muslims, Christian fundamentalists, or religious terrorists are often the way people of faith are portrayed.  I remember talking to the US Bishops Spokeswoman on Pro-Life issues a number of years ago, when Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics.  She was scheduled to appear on national network news programs, in particular to stress the Catholic Church, while opposed to abortion, did not support violence against clinics, or the individuals who worked there, or sought services there.  However, before she was to appear, more than one network cancelled her appearance because they had found a fringe Christian who supported the bombings.

At the heart of the debate, I believe, are fears on both sides.  People of faith, are becoming more and more concerned about the prevalence of the view that religion is only a private matter, and that expression of Christian beliefs is only appropriate if they are kept to oneself.  This is not simply the question about the views of the CEO of a fast food company.  It is the view that certain religious beliefs, if held, exclude a business from locating in a particular area.  For those who decry the beliefs of the CEO and argue the appropriateness of statements by certain political leaders that limit its location in certain areas of the country, this is a logical extension of a belief, as they see it, that opposing gay marriage is standing against bigotry and is then to be challenged.  They are quick to point out the issue is no different than the opposition to interracial marriage.

But those politicians who are speaking out against Chick-Fil-A on the basis of the beliefs of the CEO, and are stating they will use the government to prevent the location of Chick-Fil-A in certain areas, tread a very dangerous path.  It is not that much different than the dangerous path tread by the supporters of Arizona’s immigration law, who believe the way a person looks is grounds to stop and ask for documentation.  That rather than “innocent until proven guilty” there is an increasing belief that one must now prove their innocence.

The support of free speech cannot be selective.  I cannot support free speech only in instances when I agree with the speech being expressed.  Unless there is evidence that Chick-Fil-A broke the law, then the views of the CEO, whether supported or reviled, cannot be the grounds to keep a business from locating in a particular area.  I suspect the reason that some politicians backed off from their original statements was because their legal counsel warned them about first amendment issues.

The point seems to be that we are not comfortable that we cannot force those to accept beliefs that appear so clear to us.  To that end, people on both sides of this issue (and others divisive issues) are angered as much by the lack of control over another’s beliefs as they are about the specifics of an issue.  A reasonable argument could be made the decline of religious practice in areas like Europe (and North America) has as much to do with the unhealthy combination of religious and secular power as it does with specific beliefs and dogma.  But those who seek to be “thought police” run the same risk.

The frustration of this inability to control is evident in just about every single issue of importance.  This evidence of this is everywhere.  There are “good PACS” and bad PACS.  There are people who donate large sums of money to causes that are good and those who are bad.  But for the person of very strong beliefs, the irony is that those on the far right and the far left, the liberal and the conservative, are often persons who have the same personality, one that finds it hard to admit there is grey in the world, and that not all things are black and white.  This is true not only of those who hold traditional beliefs, but also of those who argue against traditional religious beliefs.  The fundamental issue is not a belief, but is becoming increasingly a question of winning and losing.

It is hard to know how many people who stood in lines at Chick-Fil-A did so based upon religious conviction, and those who did so based upon the overreach of government concerning the first amendment, and those who did so simply because they were curious.  It will be equally hard to know if the people who attend the Chick-Fil-A Kiss-In, are there based on conviction, a belief that certain ideas are simply too dangerous to hold, or they are simply curious.  Individuals are right to debate (even very passionately) about controversial topics.  But the right to hold beliefs should be held sacred, and great care needs to be taken to protect the right of people to hold them.  (A word that is not used lightly.)

So, if the issue is control, perhaps the real discomfort is that we will not find consensus on most issues as long as people on both sides of any question are adamant their view must prevail.  The messy part of democracy is that there are issues I support that will become law and there are issues I do not support that will become law, and vice-versa.  But what the founders recognized as essential, the ability of citizens to practice religion or not, must remain sacred.