On a clear June day in 2017, two million people lined the route of the New
York Pride Parade to cheer as floats sponsored by Deutsche Telekom,
Nissan, Facebook, and Toronto-Dominion Bank went by. Marchers wearing
#Resistance T-shirts led the way, followed by ranks of New York’s Finest
marching before a Corrections Department van painted in rainbow colors.
Trojan brand ambassadors threw condoms to the crowd like candy. Even the
children stretched out their hands.
All seemed to be well—until twelve members of a group called No Justice, No Pride blockaded the parade. In front of the Stonewall Inn, the Lexington and Concord of gay liberation, they denounced the parade for having become “the world’s longest Super Bowl commercial break,” glorifying an economic system inimical to LGBT rights. Police hustled the protestors into a Corrections Department van (sans rainbow). The parade went on.
The New York Pride Parade is an overwhelming display of establishment power. As the head of the Human Rights Campaign said in 2006, “Corporate America is far ahead of America generally when it comes to the question of equality for GLBT people.” Large corporations donate to LGBT causes, lobby against religious freedom laws, and present gay people as avatars of consumerism.
Liquor brands led the way. In 1981, Absolut became the first major brand to target gay consumers, whom it viewed as trendsetters. Travel, financial, and fashion companies followed suit, making the rainbow flag the banner of carefree cosmopolitanism and unbounded consumption. Fr. James Martin, S.J., a prominent LGBT advocate and self-described capitalist, displays a rainbow-colored Absolut bottle in his office along with his Spiritual Exercises and an image of Christ.
When the Supreme Court took up Obergefell v. Hodges, 379 businesses, including McKinsey, Bain, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Morgan Stanley, submitted an amicus brief. They argued: “Allowing same-sex couples to marry improves employee morale and productivity,” which contributes to “significant returns for our shareholders and owners.” There’s money to be made in gay rights.
Large global firms are especially supportive of the LGBT cause. Darel Paul, a political scientist at Williams College, records in his book From Tolerance to Equality that in 2010, 75 percent of the 1,000 largest firms in the U.S. mandated nondiscrimination for sexual orientation. Among the Fortune 500, it was 89 percent. These corporations set the standard on LGBT rights—then impose that standard on others. When Indiana, Arizona, and Georgia moved to implement religious freedom bills, corporations threatened a capital strike. As Delta put it, such laws were inconsistent with the ethic of “a global values-based company.”
So there is something quaint in the way the Pride Parade blockaders rejected the fusion of corporate interests and the LGBT cause. A similar denial can be found on the right. Leading conservatives celebrate the “creative destruction” wrought by firms like Apple and Uber, even though one of the things those firms have creatively destroyed is the idea of marriage that conservatives hold dear.
As Peter Kolozi argues in Conservatives Against Capitalism, the
unwillingness of the right to criticize corporations is relatively new.
Until World War II, conservative thinkers like the Southern Agrarians and
conservative politicians like Teddy Roosevelt mounted vigorous critiques
of unfettered capital and viewed corporations as political agents that
needed to be called to account.
That changed in 1945, with the beginning of the Cold War and the serialization of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in Reader’s Digest. Free markets became identified with Christian faith and American arms in the struggle against godless communism. This identification became fusionist orthodoxy. Cultural conservatives sought to direct capitalism toward moral ends, hoping the market would discipline Americans into developing “bourgeois virtues.” Lowering the top marginal tax rate was supposed to promote thrift and hard work.
In fact, these policies promoted a less traditional set of values. The main beneficiary of the economic policies championed by conservatives has been a managerial class that prefers sexual liberation to the austerities of the Protestant ethic. This class is more secular, more progressive, and more privileged than the rest of America. Its members have enjoyed growing incomes as the incomes of working-class Americans have stagnated. They have benefited from globalization and support free trade.
Pride parades are festivals of this class’s faith. They present global corporations as the breakers of boundaries—national and moral. Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Human Rights Office, summed up the worldview of this class when she defended the manufacture of gay pride apparel in overseas sweatshops: “Making pride T-shirts in a place where homosexuality is illegal could be considered a way of making inroads toward more human rights.” Free trade meets free love.
Various populists have begun to challenge this faith. Bernie Sanders shocked the liberal writer Ezra Klein by denouncing open borders as a “Koch brothers proposal . . . which says essentially there is no United States.” He drew the ire of pro-abortion activists for saying that Planned Parenthood was “part of the establishment” he opposed. On the day of the Carrier deal announcement, Mike Pence scandalized conservative writers by saying, “The free market has been sorting it out and America has been losing.” Trump chimed in, “Every time. Every time.”
These are the culture war’s true battle lines. On one side are well-scrubbed
members of the managerial class who believe that any constraint on the free
movement of labor, goods, and capital is a violation of “global values.”
They are fully committed to the central project of neoliberalism: the
insulation of markets from democratic pressure. They also wish to protect
desire from any legal, cultural, or moral restraint. On the other side are
unwashed people of varying political stripes who intuit that economic life
should be subject to political authority, which today rests in the nation.
They believe in moral norms and national boundaries.
Christians need to practice cultural realpolitik. No explanation of the meaning of marriage, however rigorously argued or scrupulously secular, can overcome the power of a managerial elite that is wholly opposed to the kind of society for which Christians hope. Refusal to see this has been fatal to the traditionalists’ cause. While arguing against liberal social changes, they have cheered economic policies that harm their natural allies and aid their opponents. They have handed a shovel to their own gravedigger.
Progressives now stand with global capital, as the Pride Parade so clearly shows. Christians in turn should stand with the working class, which is more religious, more diverse, and more patriotic than the managerial elite. Only by reducing inequality and restraining corporations can Christians avoid being buried. Only by challenging the ideology of free markets and open borders can they advance their view of the common good. The struggle between woke capital and the working class will determine the outcome of the culture war.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.
Photo via the Empire State Building.