In the YouTube video that accompanies Rod Dreher’s post about a lamentable culture-war skirmish in Tuscon, Ariz., check out the all-too-common verbiage:
Rachel: “I have to stay neutral on the subject. My personal beliefs shouldn’t be in the workplace.”
Adam M. Smith: “I believe that, too. I don’t believe corporations should be giving money to hateful groups. … This is a horrible corporation with horrible values.”
This now infamous exchange took place in the most ordinary of places: the drive-thru lane of a suburban fast-food restaurant. From their different walks of, and stations in, life — he a successful executive at a medical technology company; she a young service worker — the pair seemed to embrace, every so naturally and involuntarily, the credo of our civic religion of neutrality, the thing that underpins liberalism as it’s practiced in America. In a phrase, it is this: Make Money and Mind Your Own Business.
This is the statement of belief about which nearly everyone in our pluralistic society can agree. It’s not the “thickest” or morally expressive of credos, but it has proved durable. Free-market conservatives are as invested in it as progressive liberals are. The assimilation of blacks in the last century into mainstream American economic life was perhaps its greatest challenge as well as triumph. We told ourselves this: Our constitutional order was only partially flawed — and it was flawed in a convenient way. The problem was not its fundamental morality but rather that it excluded black citizens from their right to Make Money and Mind Their Own Business. The economic liberty of whites to do as they pleased with their private property was circumscribed. But federal coercion was the price we had to pay to uphold the legitimizing promise of the credo.
The assimilation of gays is turning out to be a more devilish task. On one side are traditionalist conservatives who believe, not without justification, that opposing same-sex marriage does not violate the neutralist credo. In this view, gays are free to make money and to live free from persecution. That they may not marry is merely a function of the immutable nature of an institution designed for a man and a woman. Traditionalists are saying, You are free to live as you please — but on the question of marriage, our hands are tied.
Even this justifiable position, though, can at times rub uncomfortably against the credo. Rachel, the Chick-fil-A employee, says she keeps her personal beliefs out the workplace. And so she does. But did the company’s CEO, Dan Cathy, similarly leave his personal beliefs out of the workplace? He of course has a right to express his beliefs as a private citizen, but in his capacity as the public face of a popular company, he manifestly did not.
The Adam M. Smiths of the world, too, are not so neatly aligned with the credo as they imagine. If he agrees with Rachel that one should leave one’s personal beliefs outside of the workplace, and that a company whose executives behave otherwise potentially exhibit “horrible values,” then what kind of company has, say, exemplary values? Starbucks? Does Smith believe companies should publicly affirm no values — or only the values that he shares?
Smith here has collided with George Santayana’s Conundrum. As the Spanish-born philosopher wrote in Dominations and Powers: Reflections on Liberty, Society, and Government:
So, all our grievances being righted and everyone quite free, we hoped in the nineteenth century to remain for ever in unchallengeable enjoyment of our private property, our private religions, and our private morals. … But there was a canker in this rose. The dearest friend and ally of the liberal was the reformer; perhaps even his own inmost self was a prepotent Will, not by any means content with being let alone, but aspiring to dominate everything. Why were all those traditional constraints so irksome? Why were all those old ideas so ridiculous? Because I had a Will of my own to satisfy and an opinion of my own to proclaim.
The logic of liberal neutrality often leads to liberal affirmation. Gays are no longer content to make money and mind their own business. They seek a broader validation. And the credo can’t give it to them.
Eventually, traditionalists are going to bend — because it’s in the nature of liberalism to make them bend.
In the meantime, tempers will flare.