by Quin Hillyer
As I write this on August 7, crowds still seem heavier than normal at the Chick-fil-A restaurant across the street from my office. Six days after the scheduled rally to patronize the restaurant chain, in response to bullying comments against it, Americans still seem to be enthusiastic about showing support for free speech and/or traditional marriage.
And all of this occurred in response to threats from government, against government interference, not because of government’s exhortations or mandates. In other words, nobody built these rallies but the people themselves. No third party provided money for it. Nobody used tax dollars confiscated from citizens to make it happen. We Americans built this movement through individual action and private initiative voluntarily channeled through word of mouth and social networks. Nobody “helped us do it.” Yet it was a complete and utter triumph.
A lesson lies therein.
Or several related lessons.
The first lesson, widely covered elsewhere, is that Americans treasure free speech and will react against efforts to squelch it. The second lesson is that most Americans recognize that it is decidedly not “bigotry” for anybody to support the traditions of marriage that have been practiced for millennia of human history – and that Americans are therefore utterly unembarrassed to show up in support of somebody whose free speech was used to further that cause. The third lesson is that Americans particularly resent bullying attempts when they come from government and its officials.
There are, however, some other lessons that are less obvious, but no less important. Among those, Lesson A is that the United States traditionally has left it up to individuals, not government, to decide how to live their lives, how to spend their time, which businesses to patronize, which charities to support, which causes to champion, and how to define and reward success. Directly related to that is Lesson A1, which is that when Americans do engage in collective action, they even then do so via voluntary means, without government direction much less government compulsion.
Now this next exploration of that reality moves a bit away from the Chick-fil-A controversy, but the principles are directly relevant. The Chick-fil-A support movement, after all, did result from publicity via an intermediary, in this case private radio stations broadcasting the radio show of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – later joined by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and embraced by countless bloggers and others acting in enthusiastic solidarity with the two former political leaders.
In an absolutely superb National Review essay this week
by Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center , the author made the case for the importance of “intermediary institutions” of a free society. These are organizations that provide a buffer between citizens and government, doing the work of caring for the poor, offering succor to the bereft and, yes, providing space for the faithful to act through the mysterious grace of the Lord. Chief among these institutions, of course, are churches, synagogues, and faith-based charitable and educational institutions. They also include non-faith-based civic organizations by the tens of thousands – and they definitely include private businesses which react to market incentives and simple human decency to provide efficient services and quality goods that benefit the greater community.
The opposite view – the disparagement of intermediary institutions – was evident when the Department of Health and Human Services decided which organizations to exempt from the infamous “mandate” to provide free sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs to employees. As Levin explained:
The final HHS rule defined a religious employer exceedingly narrowly, as an institution that primarily serves and employs people of its own faith and has as its basic purpose the inculcation of the beliefs of that faith. This leaves no room for most religiously based institutions of civil society — no room for hospitals, for schools and universities, for soup kitchens and homeless shelters, for adoption agencies and legal-aid clinics. Religious institutions may preach to the choir, but otherwise they may not play any role in society. Especially when they disagree with those in power, they must be cleared out of the space between the individual and the state.
And, with apologies to Levin for stealing his conclusion, he says it very well here: “To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work together, but government is just one of the many things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.”
And, as the widespread support for Chick-fil-A showed, Americans often don’t even need any formal institutions, not even private ones, in order to act together in support of cherished beliefs. Still, the use of government to downplay or counteract private initiative, whether done by individuals or formal groups, is almost always alien to the American tradition. All of us are right to reject such government, and to act with open hearts according to our informed consciences.