Strengthen the Things that Remain

Counterfeit philosophies have polluted all of your thoughts

Karl Marx has got ya by the throat, Henry Kissinger’s got you tied up in knots
When you gonna wake up, when you gonna wake up

When you gonna wake up and strengthen the things that remain?
                         – Bob  Dylan  (“When You Gonna Wake Up?,” 1979)

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee dubbed Wednesday August 1, “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” encouraging his fellow citizens to patronize the establishment in order to show support for the ownership, which had recently come under fire by several local governments. It seems to have been a rousing success.

What precipitated this unusual event were threats by government officials in several major American cities in response to comments by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy. In an interview with Baptist Press, he said, “We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

And more provocatively on a radio program, he asserted, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is about.”

It’s clear that Chick-fil-A, as a corporation, supports a view of marriage tightly tethered to its ownership’s theological beliefs, anchored as they are in Evangelical Christianity. They are, of course, beliefs shared by a wide diversity of believers outside that tradition including Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews. It should go without saying that under the U.S. Constitution a citizen (or a collection of citizens – e.g., church, mosque, synagogue, eatery), who harbors these sorts of beliefs cannot be punished by the government for holding them.

In the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Nevertheless, this did not deter officials of several major American cities (including Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York) from issuing a series of secular fatwas, announcing that they would in effect include a religious test for holding business licenses.

       Chain gang: Chick-fil-A has a record day

Boston mayor Thomas Menino, for instance, said, “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.” Well, in that case, the mayor’s office should be shut down, since while doing the business of city government it seems intent on discriminating against devout Christians and their businesses based on the degree to which their devotion offends secular sensibilities.

What I believe is happening here is something of a revolution in thinking. As I have noted elsewhere in this space, what many of us have come to know as liberalism was contrived for the very purpose of adjudicating these sorts of disputes. One citizen, for example, may believe that homosexual conduct is morally benign, and thus he comes to the conclusion that same-sex “marriage” should be recognized by the government. Another citizen, however, may believe that homosexual conduct is deeply immoral, since it is inconsistent with not only what Scripture teaches but also with the deliverances of natural law. He, therefore, concludes that same-sex “marriage” makes about as much sense as “square-circle.” 

In either case, the citizen cannot simply “unbelieve” his beliefs by an act of will, since they are organically connected to what he believes about human nature, morality, and the common good. These beliefs are, in a sense, fundamental to the citizen’s identity as a person. He can no more pretend his beliefs are false than he can deny that the sky is blue.

Liberalism, as traditionally understood, recognized and respected this reality. It did so because its advocates believed that in a free society people of good will, equally rational and well informed, are bound to come to radically different conclusions on a variety of issues. For this reason, it allowed for a public space in which citizens and the institutions they form, with their differing and sometimes contrary points of view, can co-exist, without fear of government punishments or reprisals. Things, however, seem to have changed.

Perhaps it is because on the issue at hand – same-sex marriage” – liberalism is conceptually incapable of doing the work it once did. It is one thing to allow and celebrate moral and religious diversity when there is a broadly shared understanding on what sorts of institutions are vital to the common good and civil society. It is quite another when that shared understanding breaks down – when the very question of what is essential to civil society is itself in dispute.

Consequently, in such a milieu, as I believe we find ourselves, appeals to “civility” – as both sides are apt to advance – cannot have a referent, and thus appear to one’s adversaries as nothing more than a self-serving platitude.

Liberalism has been all but defeated in certain enclaves. What has arisen is a secular hegemony, one whose sincere devotees, like their pre-Enlightenment theocratic predecessors, will not tolerate dissent. Thus, we do well to heed what St. John wrote to the angel of the Church of Sardis, “Be watchful and strengthen the things that remain.”  (Rev. 3:3)


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).