Monday, August 06, 2012

Deep Fried Religious Persecution

Well, at least we now have a template for the open arms acceptance of religious freedom in this country – start a fried chicken restaurant. Well, maybe not a fried chicken restaurant. That market is probably cornered at this point. But the lesson is well learned: provide a service or product beloved by suburban America and any criticism of your business OR religion will be roundly rejected, and thousands of everyday Americans will rally to man the ramparts against your critics. It won’t matter if those criticisms are grounded in facts. If people love your product, your beliefs are unassailable. You will be able to celebrate any controversial position, and not only will your critics be unable to touch you, but those who dare continue their critique will be labeled haters and oppressors.

Yeah, I’m still talking about Chick-fil-a. And I know some of you are already done talking about it. (Y’all can stop reading right now, because this is not something you’re going to want to read.) But I’m also talking about the Ground Zero Mosque and the very real religious persecutions that exist in America – and that is something which I will never, ever stop talking about. Finally, behind it all is the power local governments have to make rules you have to live by, which is a power few people pay attention to because they’re too busy focusing on issues far, far away.

On the chicken sandwich thing, I was vaguely aware of their “Biblical” beliefs and practices for a long time, and continued to eat there. I love the food. Love it. I used to eat it four times a week. When people talked about the “Cult of Chick-fil-a” I thought they were talking about me and SEC football. I figured they could do with their money what they wanted, and that was OK because I patronize plenty of places where I don’t agree with the politics of the owners or that support causes I don’t. As someone who has been labeled a “Cafeteria Catholic,” my access to Chick-n-minis was consistent with my overall lifestyle.

But a funny thing has happened in the last decade. Stuff that didn’t used to bother me has started to bother me. Maybe it is because I live in a town most of America would rather give up to standing water, and because some folks said that drowning this city was God’s punishment. Maybe it is because people who disagree with me on politics have gone from joking about it over beers to seriously asking me why I support a communist dictator from Kenya and policies that will “destroy” America. Maybe it was all the people yelling “MERRY CHRISTMAS” at me back in 2005 because they thought people like me were working hard to cancel Christmas. Maybe it was a lot of things, but at some point in the recent past, someone drew a line in the sand and put me on one side of it.

Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t do opposition research on places where I spend my money. If they deliver a good product and good service, I’ll likely spend money there again.

However, if any business goes out of its way to celebrate and promote the fact that it will use my consumer dollars for causes I find morally objectionable, I will find somewhere else to spend my consumer dollars, simple as that. When the chicken restaurant decided to really start broadcasting what they do with the dollars I spend there, and why, and people started making a big deal about how I should just shut up and eat my chicken, well, that started to bother me. My behavior changed accordingly.

And I’m not going to judge folks who still spend their consumer dollars at such a business. They earned their money, they can spend it where they want. I’ll be getting my food elsewhere. They have their reasons, I have mine. Maybe the issues I find morally objectionable aren’t that important to them. Different strokes for different folks, right?

Wrong. Apparently, not spending my consumer dollars at a certain restaurant indicates my lack of respect for the “traditional” family and God. Apparently, me explaining my own personal reasons for my own personal economic behavior is tantamount to telling everyone who doesn’t share my reasons or behaviors that they are wrong. Apparently, posting irreverent pictures about the issue on Facebook is joining in some sort of widespread campaign of religious persecution or limitation of a certain restaurant’s free speech rights. I guess I’m just on the wrong side of that line in the sand.

The strangest thing is the reaction to my opinion, as if my simply holding such an opinion is considered completely offensive to a bunch of people. Telling is how many people feel the need to try and undermine the reasons for my decision. All I’ve said is that I’m not eating there anymore, and all I’ve done is state the (factual) reasons why. For that, I’ve been called all manner of names for finding this issue important, from silly to hypocrite.

More telling is how many people feel the need to justify or rationalize their continued patronage of this certain restaurant. Hey, folks, you don’t need to explain yourselves to me or anyone else. If you or your kids like the food, go ahead and eat. Enjoy the waffle fries, I live in New Orleans, I ain’t hurtin’ on food options.

Of course, all that being said, the whole issue is an litmus test on how American culture views religious persecution, and that’s where things start to get very interesting. Apparently, the “progressive” mayors or aldermen of several majors cities made a big deal of announcing how unhappy they were with what the chicken restaurant was able to do with their profit dollars. Additional announcements were made about how these mayors would “do everything in their power” to block the chicken restaurant from opening franchises in their cities. Political and ideological opponents of these politicians quickly took up the banner against such oppression on “free speech” and “free religion” grounds (along with the ever innocuous War on Christians), and using these blustery statements that progressives and liberals were at the very forefront of the march to Tyranny! Dictatorship! Totalitarianism! End of Freedom! “Conservative” and “Tea Party” politicians jumped right up on the bandwagon, holding press conferences at chicken restaurants, faces full of chicken nuggets and lemonade stains on their ties to prove how much they believed in Freedom! God! America!

If you’ve ever wondered how hyperbolic our political discourse has become, just let that last vision sink in a little.

But this whole Mayors vs. Freedom thing has a lot more to do with the TV cameras and the website pageviews than any sort of creeping totalitarianism. City officials “doing everything in their power” could be either “not much” and a “whole lot.” How does that work? Well, there are about a thousand different zoning requirements, city ordinances, and permits any restaurant has to get to open their doors in almost any municipality in America. If someone who works for the city wants to sink your business, they can almost certainly bury you under permits, fees, fines, paperwork, and inspections the likes of which would stun the average small-business supporting American. And it is all perfectly legal, because a lot of folks are more concerned with the Rush Limbaugh radio spot or Daily Kos to pay attention to what goes on at their own city halls. It ain’t like local newspapers cover those proceedings anymore.

Thing is, the chicken restaurant is very good at navigating zoning, ordinances, and permits to get their franchises open. They’re a $4 billion/year restaurant business that has a piece of four major college football games. Say what you want about their politics, but they have the compliance within the law down to an art (or, if they believed in evolution, a science).

That means these “progressive” mayors only recourse would be to change the laws at the last minute in order to place restrictions on the franchises based on their religious behavior. Not only will the chicken restaurant’s attorneys have a field day with that one (as the attorneys for these cities will tell these mayors), but it is tough to change laws and city ordinances on short notice. That’s why so many outdated and obsolete ordinances that hinder small business are still on the books in many municipalities in the first place!

So viewing the host of obstacles in front of them, I have to assume that these proclamations are more thunder than rain; as are the equally hyperbolic responses to this sort of fake institutional tyranny. Each side gets to rile up their respective bases, maybe make some cash via campaign donations, and get their names in the papers (or twitters).

But the rush of so many to “defend” the chicken restaurant’s “religious freedom” against personal boycotts like mine and toothless attention grabs by politicians rings quite hollow to my ears. That’s because this country is experiencing a very real assault on religious freedom that few individuals are talking about.

Basically, there are a bunch of “conservative” politicians and pundits all over this country that have been announcing how unhappy they were with members of a certain religious group owning property and building places of worship. Announcements are constantly made about how these politicians will “do everything in their power” to block members of this religious group from building places of worship, places of education, or places of business in their city. And that's the best case scenario, when this religion's places of worship and business aren't being burned to the ground by arsonists, or when houses of worship of completely different religions are attacked because they appear similar to ignorant gunmen.

Only this one religious group is singled out so adamantly by these politicians, and this religious group has been so thoroughly demonized in American popular culture, hate groups can't even figure out which religion it is that they hate. Even those who would take up the banner against such oppression on “free speech” and “free religion” grounds are said to be anti-American or anti-Christian. Advocates of extending such rights of speech and religion to members of this religion would place those advocates at the very forefront of the march to Tyranny! Dictatorship! Totalitarianism! End of Freedom! As a matter of fact, even portraying members of this religion in a positive (or even a normal) light, or in any way that may contradict the current cultural zeitgeist is viewed as an attack on American values.

Going even further, this whole specific religious group vs. Freedom thing started out having a lot to do with the TV cameras and the website pageviews, but has really become a cottage industry of actual creeping totalitarianism. The difference is that people in government are actually working and passing legislation authored to specifically restrict the rights or demonize this particular religious group. As a matter of fact, politicians fall all over themselves promising to “do everything in their power” to restrict this religion in America, and they have very real legislative goals in mind, even if those legislative goals include forbidding completely unrealistic concerns. And America’s culture-of-fear being what it is, it isn’t difficult to get local, regional, and national news outlets to contribute to the fear.

Of course, you won’t hear about the very real attacks on this group’s religious freedom in the United States, because most of the politicians organizing that attack are the same politicians up in arms over the very fake attacks on the chicken restaurant’s religious freedom. And I’d wager that an awful lot of the people who waited in lines to show “support” for the chicken restaurant’s religious freedom yesterday will vote in November for politicians and policies that restrict the other group’s actual religious freedom.

And that’s why I’m still talking about the Chick-fil-a thing. It ain't just about fried chicken, and it ain't just about homosexuality.

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