Conservatives have been howling for the last week that the backlash against Chick-fil-Aafter President and COO Dan Cathy expressed opposition to gay marriage amounts to an attack on the First Amendment. Yes, people who serve, eat or profit from the sale of those tasty, Southern-style chicken-and-pickle sandwiches are perfectly entitled to express their political views.
But Mr. Cathy's defenders seem to be confused about what the First Amendment guarantees. It provides him with a right to express his views. It doesn't guarantee that the public will respect those views. The right to speak is not the same as the right to be heard, to have one's opinions taken seriously by the public, or be incorporated into policy. Indeed, citizens who harbor misinformed, logically inconsistent, ahistorical and fact-free beliefs often disqualify themselves from serious public discourse.
The First Amendment is no guarantee against being justifiably ignored. And the truth is that many citizens hold foolish, even self-contradictory opinions on a variety of subjects.
Consider the widespread ignorance about the federal budget, a topic I spend several columns each year trying to demystify. Poll after poll confirms this painfully obvious fact: Americans want to shrink government and pay less in taxes to Washington, but when asked about specific government programs the only two areas which a majority consistently wants to cut are foreign aid and aid to the domestic poor. The problem is that spending on these two programs tends to be severely overestimated by the public, when in fact it is dwarfed by spending on Medicare, defense and various other programs which majorities of those very same Americans want to maintain if not increase. Eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse" and pork-barrel projects are also popular, yet illusory fiscal panaceas.
Citizens have the right to believe that Obamacare and other policies of the current administration have bankrupted America. Believing this, however, requires being wholly (or perhaps conveniently) unaware of the fact that the 2008 Bush stimulus package (almost as big as the Obama stimulus), the 2008 TARP bailouts and the Bush tax cuts (both, it should be noted, later supported by Mr. Obama) and the Iraq War cost the treasury at least $3 for every $1 of new Obama policies. The rest of us reserve the right to ignore those who simply refuse to accept the math.
People have a right to dismiss global climate change as a hoax, even if doing so implies that several thousand respected scientists across a variety of disciplines, institutions and nations cooperated to conceive and perpetuate such a hoax. But the rest of us who are sweating out another record-hot summer — following the winterless winter of 2011-12 — retain the right to scoff at silly claims that global warming is merely some "theory" and therefore not proven as fact. (No theory is ever proven: Good theories survive repeated and rigorous examinations, as both global warming and evolution have.)
Americans have the right to assert that the life of a constitutionalized "person" begins at conception. But the rest of us reserve the right to clarify that the vast majority of non-live-birth conceptions abort naturally and without the putative mother ever realizing she was pregnant. Should Census figures be adjusted to account for these millions of rights-bearing "citizens" who are "born" and "die" every year? Should public death certificates be issued? More to the point, is there any reason to take seriously those who believe the answers to these questions is "yes"?
As for same-sex marriage, citing scripture as the final word on what constitutes a marriage and family is not only dangerous business when crafting secular law, but by such standards it would therefore also be OK for daughters to get pregnant by their fathers to maintain the family name (Genesis 19:31-35). And let's not forget that the statistics on heterosexual marriage and divorce, not to mention out-of-wedlock heterosexual childbearing, are hardly worth boasting about. Meanwhile, studies of children raised by same-sex couples or single gay parents have demonstrated no significant differences — and, in fact, some advantages — over those raised by straight couples or straight single parents.
Though I've eaten my last one, Chik-fil-A sandwiches are undeniably fresh and tasty. Unfortunately, the COO's ideas about marriage are stale and nauseating. People can eat one without swallowing the other.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.