Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making waves as Christian chicken company Chick-Fil-A makes waves as the former threatens to block the latter’s expansion in Chicago. His reason? Chick-Fil-A founder’s S. Truett Cathy’s anti-gay activism.

This whole incident reminded me of something from my childhood.

My parents were on furlough from their mission work in Argentina, and we were making the rounds to the Southern Baptist church camps. I was bored as my parents hobnobbed with local church leaders, so I sat in a corner reading a book or staring off into space.

This large-framed (at least to me) older gentleman struck up a conversation, and, as only a precocious ten-year old could do, I informed this man that my family had just returned from Buenos Aires, which was a city in Latin America, where we we involved in very important mission work. I added that I spoke Spanish as only Argentines do, pronouncing my “yo’s” as “sho’s.”

The man politely entertained my lecture, patted me on the head, and gave me a coupon for Chick-Fil-A. He waved to my parents and walked off into the night.

A few months later, as I accompanied my mom to a shopping mall in Louisville (I believe it was Bashford Manor, which no longer exists), I ran up to the Chick-Fil-A in the food court and proudly presented my coupon to the cashier.

The pimply faced teenager yelled over the intercom to his supervisor, “Look, look! They’ve met him!” “Met who?” my mom inquired. “The owner! The owner of Chick-Fil-A! These are coupons that only he can give out!”

My mother was stunned that her ten-year old had managed to lecture an owner of a highly successful privately held company, and we both have chuckled at the story over the years as an instance of small-world-after-all-ism.

As I would learn later, my run-in with Cathy was not quite so coincidental. He was a highly active in conservative evangelical circles, and has extensively funded the anti-gay movement. My parents were returning from the mission field (ultimately to not return) in the midst of a conservative take-over of the denomination. So its no surprise that Cathy would have popped up at one of these events. Indeed, even moderate Christians liked that he closed his shops on Sundays.

In recent years, many Southern Baptists I’ve grown up with have left the church, or become less active. Some of the ugliness demonstrated by Cathy’s causes have something to do with that. When Focus on the Family materials started making their way into Sunday School curriculums in the 1990s, too few church members voiced dissent, either quietly tolerating intolerant views, or choosing exit rather than a fight. Some simply thought there was a limit to how far right the denomination could go.

Anyone who had hoped the worst away has been disappointed, and too many liberals did too little to save the church. You reap what you allowed to be sowed.

Which gets us back to the story at hand. Rahm Emanuel was a brash White House and congressional operative who could be fiercely progressive, and he will be celebrated by many on the left for his stand against Chick-Fil-A. But he was also aggressively pro-corporate – pushing trade deals like NAFTA and the WTO that created new supranational constraints on policy space. Too few progressives stood up to him on these fronts, often not understanding the fine print.

And what does the fine print say? The WTO’s services agreement, for instance, says that subregional governmental entities can’t limit the expansion of retail firms. Bilateral trade deals limit government actions which are arbitrary or idiosyncratic.

Now, most gay rights activists probably see Rahm’s moves as a fantastic use of government’s bully pulpit. Many wouldn’t think of Rahm’s pro-civil rights stand as “arbitrary.” And I guarantee that none see it as a market access violation. But it’s conceivable that such arguments could be made (provided that investors in Chick-Fil-A registered offshore). So the second ceiling could impose limits on civil rights practice.

It’s hard to know if any of these half-sketched illustrations could actually amount to a successful attack in international law. As Glenn Greenwald argues, the first amendment might pose some restrictions on Rahm’s moves, making an international case unnecessary. Anl, Georgia records appear to indicate a U.S. registration, which would limit Chick-Fil-A’s standing under an investor-state dispute. In a global economy, corporate registration is an easy thing to change, and could be done in a matter of minutes by a smart and activist entrepreneur like Cathy’s family. And of course, who can say whether there might not be foreign investors in the privately held company.

I guess my point is this: in the Southern Baptist church, we failed to stand up to a massively well organized push by the right wing. In domestic politics, we’ve failed to stand up to an even better organized corporate takeover of government, demonstrated by the types of trade deals pushed by Rahm. In both cases, we were seduced by our own, not acknowledging the full reality of what we were dealing with. And in both cases, the nature of these agendas makes successful push-back more difficult.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s