The defense of Western civilization requires a high-calorie diet, so as I near the site of the Texas Faith, Family & Freedom Forum, an evangelical policy conference and pep rally, I detour to a nearby Chick-fil-A. Having missed the cutoff for breakfast, I settle for a spicy chicken sandwich. Two employees are directing traffic in front of the three drive-through lanes like soldiers at the portcullis of a crusader castle. This is an outpost of order in a chaotic world, and these men and women are its sentinels. My pleasure, each one says in turn, as the chicken makes its way to my car. It is the start of a long day.
The forum, at an impressively sized Baptist church in northwest Austin, is a project of Texas Values, whose mission is to “preserve and advance a culture of family values in the state of Texas.” The group has played a highly visible role in many of the most prominent fights at the Texas Legislature in the past decade—most notably, the battles over gay marriage and transgender rights but also abortion, sex education, sharia law. These days, though, Texas Values’ primary focus seems to be advocating on behalf of Chick-fil-A, a wildly profitable Georgia-based fast-food chain that has faced isolated pressure from big cities, including San Antonio, as a result of its charitable donations to what its opponents say are anti-gay causes.
The Texas Values forum comes at an interesting historical moment for the Christian right. Homosexuality is more accepted than ever, but legal abortion is in as much peril as it’s been since Roe v. Wade. Social conservatives are winning on abortion largely because they threw their support behind a singularly un-Christian presidential candidate who, among many other mortal sins, paid hush money to a porn star he knew in the biblical sense while he was married to his third wife.
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There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on, in other words. In the past year, that mental discomfort has taken the form of a debate on the question of what’s sometimes called fusionism. After World War II, the Christian right became more and more politically influential by taking a seat in a messy coalition with free-market advocates and others to fight godless communism. Some think social conservatives got a raw deal. Even as they’ve wielded real power in government, they’ve been dealt one defeat after another by the culture. Some hint darkly about the dead ends of free will and free choice and about the necessity of the government rolling back the culture by coercion if necessary.
But at the Faith, Family & Freedom Forum, the cast of characters was mostly the same as it’s ever been. There are the ex-gays, the “beneficiaries” of conversion therapy, telling painful stories about learning to mistrust their hearts. There are the concerned mothers, standing against the politically correct sludge leaking from the public schools. They circulate a sample of sex-education curricula that features a woman with a beard and David Bowie in a dress and contains talk of “mutual masturbation.” There’s a guy from New England here to tell everybody what life is like in Gomorrah: “It is pretty rough up there,” says Andrew Beckwith of the Massachusetts Family Institute.
There’s a strange moment when a kind older man who runs a clinic in Austin offering alternatives to abortion stops the panel on which he’s speaking to play a video to the crowd. A still image of a plane slamming into the World Trade Center appears on the giant screen above him, and then rolling text slowly tells the story of a Golden Retriever named Daisy who rescued her blind owner from the burning building as well as 966 other people, after which she was awarded the Canine Medal of Honor of New York. The man tells the crowd, “If a dog can save hundreds of lives, you can save hundreds of lives,” an inadvertently dispiriting message, because Daisy is of course not real. The audience applauds.
At lunch, we work our way through a catered meal from Chick-fil-A while Congressman Chip Roy speaks. His keynote address is titled “Chick-fil-A With Chip” instead of the readily available “Chip-fil-Roy.” The chicken sandwich comes too soon after my breakfast sandwich, and I quickly start to feel unwell.
Roy is here because his district includes San Antonio International Airport, the subject of the first skirmish of the Great Chick-fil-A Wars of 2019. In March, the San Antonio City Council moved to bar Chick-fil-A from opening a location in the airport, citing the chain’s charitable donations to groups that opposed the Gay Agenda. The move was arguably little more than progressive posturing, the kind that invites more useless posturing from the other side. It left an infinitesimal dent in the company’s armor and seemed questionable on the merits.
In the aftermath of Obergefell and the failure of the bathroom bill in 2017, the matter of the airport Chick-fil-A provided a raison d’etre for groups like Texas Values. Here was proof that government could and would punish Christians simply for being Christians, proof that Constantinople was falling, the end near. It dominated discussions at the forum, even more so than abortion. In addition to Roy’s speech, the forum features no fewer than two panels dedicated solely to the subject, “Save Chick-fil-A Part I” and “Part II,” and nearly everybody else has at least a few words to say about it.
In his morning address, Senator Ted Cruz told the crowd that the episode represents a shocking “insult from the left to religious liberty,” although, true to Ivy League form, he spends much more time talking about a separate incident at Yale Law School. Beckwith gratefully recalls a pro-Chick rally he attended in Massachusetts and praises a higher power for the fact that a new location opened up close to his office. “My two sons work there,” he says.
Jeff Mateer, whose nomination to a federal judgeship failed when it was revealed he described transgender children as “Satan’s plan,” updates the audience on his work with the Texas attorney general’s office defending the chain. State senator Bryan Hughes explains that the “Save Chick-fil-A” fight was important for the Legislature to take on because “we see that in Europe, even in Canada, those lights of liberty are going out,” Hughes says. “America is the last bastion.”
Jonathan Saenz, the leader of Texas Values, explains to the crowd how important the Chick-fil-A cause is to his group. An April rally at the Capitol, he says, was “the biggest social media day” that Texas Values has ever had. “It literally said on Twitter it was trending worldwide,” he says, with a touch of awe in his voice.
This weekend, while Texas Values was holding its confab, two conservative intellectuals met in New York to debate how conservatives should respond to their diminishing power in the culture—and, particularly, the omnipresent threat of drag queens in public libraries. On one side, David French, a conservative who advocates for a kind of pluralism. On the other, Sohrab Ahmari, a hard-liner who likes to hint at the dark measures he believes will be needed to fix America’s cultural rot. In some ways, it was a re-skinned version of what the Christian right has always argued about. But in other ways it was fascinating, even if at times the jousters seemed to be engaging in silly role-playing.
The Texas Values crowd didn’t engage in the same kind of highfalutin squabbling, but some of it seemed to be filtering down. As a few speakers praised the Legislature, they lamented that Texas lawmakers weren’t seeking truly visionary change in the culture. University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, who in March cosigned a remarkable manifesto that ran in the conservative Catholic journal First Things called “Against the Dead Consensus,” spoke in the afternoon. Chip Roy philosophized on a question crucial to the radicals, the supposition that so-called deaths of despair—from alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse—are on the rise because the culture is broken, instead of, as others suppose, the free availability of opioids.
In that light, the focus on Chick-fil-A is almost reassuring. Many of the more radical voices in the new debate are converts, especially ones who live in blue areas or are otherwise fixated on liberalism. The focus here in Texas, where evangelicals still hold a lot of political power, is still on tokens of the culture war. A few years back it was the defense of Duck Dynasty, and now Chick-fil-A is the cause célèbre. It’s about defending the hermetic seal around this community from external threats and intrusions.
Inside the bubble, kids don’t have premarital sex, boys who like boys can be convinced otherwise, and a Golden Retriever named Daisy saved almost a thousand lives on 9/11. When a sex education teacher or the San Antonio City Council tries to reach inside it, the community slaps back.
Belief is a comfort, and I believe it’s time for dinner. After the closing prayer at the forum, I head back to the Chick-fil-A down the street for a twelve-count nugget box. I had intended to get a fruit cup, but the peanut oil is pooling in my brain. This is what freedom tastes like.