For years, Chick-fil-A has been a useful case study for fusionists and libertarian-minded social conservatives. The company has coexisted with woke businesses while normalizing Christian values, honoring the Sabbath, and treating customers kindly—and it has done so purely on the strength of its product. It makes a great chicken sandwich. It has friendly employees, clean dining rooms, and play areas for kids. As a result, it is now the third-largest fast food chain in America.
Because Chick-fil-A offers a superior product, so the story goes, it is immune to cultural pressures. The market is free and fair. Rod Dreher, no fusionist himself, recently described this narrative: “Quality work and a good product will always win out, even over left-wing prejudice. It was possible to look at Chick-fil-A and draw that conclusion.” This is conservative fusionist theory applied to Chick-fil-A: The soft power of cultural norms is marginally important at best. In America's pluralist society, conservative Christians are best served by arguing for viewpoint neutrality while aligning themselves with the forces of economic progress, thus carving out a space for themselves alongside progressive businesses. When they do that well, they can thrive and be insulated from woke cultural forces.
This week that narrative was called into question. Chick-fil-A announced that it will cease charitable giving to the Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, two organizations that progressives have attacked for not affirming LGBTQ+ individuals. (The Salvation Army in particular is an odd institution to attack for being non-affirming, but that is a marginal point.) “There’s no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are,” Chick-fil-A President Tim Tassopoulos said. “There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message.” Despite their remarkable growth and ability to thrive even in liberal bastions such as New York City, the company has decided to stop supporting conservative organizations, due to progressive pressure.
I suspect that this is because progressives, unlike conservatives, are willing to say, “We know what the good life is and what human beings ought to be.” And this is so powerful that even businesses that seemingly have no commercial need to do so, like Chick-fil-A, feel pressure to give ground to that vision of the good. The conservative fusionists are wrong about how societies work. Pluralistic societies and neutral markets without a shared vision of the good aren’t natural; human beings need shared loves and a coherent narrative about human identity and common life. That is what the nation’s progressives are offering (however imperfectly) in their story of expressive individualism and LGBTQ+ rights. They know what they believe about human identity. And they know that society ought to reflect that ideal. As Calvin College professor Jamie Smith said years ago, human beings are first and foremost desirers rather than thinkers, believers, or workers.
In order to understand how social conservatives should respond to this story, we need to press this point further. The fusionist story is not just failing politically, but is actually grounded in false ideas. Fusionists have argued that societies are inherently competitive (Kevin Williamson made this point recently, when he accused his own church of teaching fascism). According to this view, the best thing we can do is create structures that utilize competitiveness in ways that grow wealth for everyone. We do this via unregulated markets, where competition becomes a tool for improving goods and services. We do not need churches or governments to impose any kind of telos upon us. Just let the market do its work—and if Christians will participate in it, play by its rules, and value excellence, they will succeed.
The foundational problem with this story is that societies are not inherently competitive. As Andrew Willard Jones has argued, the natural human condition is not defined by violence, but by peace. The good life is not found via creating offsetting conflicts within a society to mitigate the harm that humans will otherwise do to one another. It’s not only Catholics that have traditionally understood this—the German Reformed political theorist Johannes Althusius saw it too, as did Dutch Reformed theologian William Groen van Prinsterer. Human beings are naturally gregarious because we are made by God to exist within communities of love and mutual care.
Humans move toward a peaceable life together as surely as water runs downhill. That movement is fraught, of course, for humans are sinful and prone to greed, anger, acedia, and all the other vices that undermine our attempts to live together. But the desire still exists. Progressives understand this and they are presenting a powerful narrative and goods that bind us together. And people are moving toward that narrative and those goods.
Christians can, of course, make the same kind of appeal but with a far superior narrative. But to do that we must get over our false ideas about human society. Some on the American right—including Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Josh Hawley, and author J. D. Vance—realize this. They argue that markets exist to serve the nation, that there is a larger community to which markets are accountable and by which markets can, legitimately, be constrained and regulated.
Human beings desire coherence. They desire a holistic way of understanding their life and making sense of themselves, their work, and their people. The progressive narrative of expressive individualism offers this. Conservative fusionism does not. Until conservatives recognize this, they will continue to lose major cultural battles.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World. He writes from his hometown of Lincoln, NE.