Acton Institute Powerblog

Pizza, Pluralism, and the Rise of the Conformity Mob

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Amidst the hubbub surrounding Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the owners of Memories Pizza, a local family-owned restaurant, have been the first to bear the wrath of the latest conformity mob.

We knew they’d come, of course. “They” being fresh off the sport of strong-arming boutique bakeries and shuttering the shop doors of grandmother florists (all in the name of “social justice,” mind you).

The outrage is rather predictable these days, and not just on issues as hot and contentious as this. A company does something we don’t like and we respond not through peaceful discourse or by taking our services elsewhere, but through direct abuse and assault on the party in question (self-righteous tweets included). When Patton Oswalt points out these instincts in defense of an anti-semitic comic, the mob may temper its tone for a season. But alas, there are small businesses to bully, and this is about sexuality, an idol well worth the blood.

This is no way to maintain a peaceful, pluralistic, liberty-loving society. Taking into account the grand diversity of the economic order, these are the types of attitudes that, when given power, will flat-line intangible assets and tear apart the unique fabric of modern civilization.

This is not the impulse of your hum-drum boycott, wherein one removes their dollars to send a market a signal to the powers at be. This is a direct attempt to monopolize that power, rendering the other signal-senders weak, marginalized, and submissive. Group X mustn’t be allowed to weave their religion and morality into their businesses, and Group Y will sure as hell make this known by weaving their religion and morality into their businesses.

Given the hypocrisy, one can be forgiven for thinking this is less about grand commitments to universal ethics than it is about blind conformity to particular idols. When small businesses are spit on by the rich and powerful, and politicians proceed to bite their fingernails in fear and trembling, the small guys have every reason to be suspicious about where this all ends up.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, an open supporter of gay marriage, observes the stakes quite clearly. Religious freedom is the backbone of American society, and such freedom leads to certain diversities, along with certain unities, each overlapping and spreading across the economy, cultivating a peaceful, yet distinctly personal pluralism in the process.

What’s at stake if we ignore this?

What do white evangelicals, Muslims, Mormons, blacks, conservative Republicans, and immigrants from Africa, South America, and Central America all have in common? They’re less likely to support gay marriage than the average Californian. Over the years, I’ve patronized restaurants owned by members of all those groups. Today, if I went out into Greater Los Angeles and chatted up owners of mom-and-pop restaurants, I’d sooner or later find one who would decline to cater a gay wedding. The owners might be members of Rick Warren’s church in Orange County. Or a family of immigrants in Little Ethiopia or on Alvera Street. Or a single black man or woman in Carson or Inglewood or El Segundo.

Should we destroy their livelihoods?

If I recorded audio proving their intent to discriminate against a hypothetical catering client and I gave the audio to you, would you post it on the Internet and encourage the general public to boycott, write nasty reviews, and drive them out of business, causing them to lay off their staff, lose their life savings, and hope for other work? If that fate befell a Mormon father with five kids or a childless Persian couple in their fifties or a Hispanic woman who sunk her nest egg into a papusa truck, should that, do you think, be considered a victory for the gay-rights movement?

Indeed, as much folks say this is about “discrimination” or even “marriage” — and for some, it surely is — this has more to do forcing society to conform to a particular set of ideals, whatever they may be now, or in the future, or in the future after that (yay, progress).

As Matt Welch observes, “The pizzeria discriminated against nobody, merely said that it would choose not to serve a gay wedding if asked. Which it never, ever would be, because who asks a small-town pizzeria to cater a heterosexual wedding, let alone a gay one?” The owners didn’t conform to the cultural cookie-cutter, and setting all real-world applications aside, that has simply become a step too far.

In an entirely different context, PayPal founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Theil recently opined on the way conformity leads to stagnation, and how a propensity for breaking conventions and “prevailing societal attitudes” is necessary for a vibrant, creative economy. He wasn’t talking about religious and moral conformity, but those dots are longing for connection.

To be sure, there  are a range of compelling sticking points and policy measures and constitutional interpretations to consider. But the current commotion doesn’t appear to be all that focused on history, ethics, or the particulars of real-world application.

Disagreements and disruptions will rise, and until we learn to respond without the foam of enraged mobs or the billy clubs of the state, we can expect society to respond accordingly: devoid of creativity and innovation, silent on religion and ethics, hostile to meaningful difference, and fearful or ambivalent about anything the idols might reject.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.