In an American election year issues become fascinatingly over-the-top

America, during the year running up to an election, is for a European observer a most fascinating spectacle. The issues are the same: but the chance is enormously increased that they will become so heightened as to reach utterly surreal heights. I am now an addict of Fox News between 6 and 8pm, our time, when the wondrous Megyn Kelly presides over the most fascinating news show on television. She is relaxed, beautiful, intelligent, well-informed and funny. She is a former courtroom attorney with a mind like a razor. Forget Jeremy Paxman: this is real forensic interviewing, without the slightest element of Paxman’s unpleasant hectoring. And she has a wonderful sense of the absurd.

But that’s not where I discovered the most absurd story of all so far (absurd but also deeply sinister): that was in The Times, yesterday:

One of the worrying things about modern America is just how politicised daily life has become. The clothes you wear, the church you attend, the things you eat – in the paradigm of the culture war, everything becomes a statement about political values…

In mid-July, Dan Cathy, the president of fast food chain Chick-fil-A, told an online Baptist journal that his company was “Very much supportive of the family – the Biblical family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family led-business and we are still married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

…. when the quote hit the national media, the LGBTQ lobby went wild. The Jim Henson Company (of The Muppets fame) severed an agreement to make children’s toys for meal deals. Nearly 6,000 people signed up online to boycott the chain and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called for a kiss-in at local stores.

There was a lot more of the same kind of thing, of which more presently. First, though, the views of Dan Cathy, who is now being portrayed as the embodiment of all that is homophobic, repay a little more study: for as far as I can discover, all he has ever done is to defend the traditional, biblically defined, family and therefore to oppose gay marriage.

He has for some years supported organisations which oppose gay marriage. Chick-fil-A, For instance, last year co-sponsored a conference on marriage, together with the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an organisation which has campaigned in favour of California’s Proposition 8, the ballot title of which you no doubt remember was Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry. Initiative Constitutional Amendment. Its proponents called it the California Marriage Protection Act, and it was passed in the November 2008 state elections and subsequently challenged in court. After being overturned in several courts it was finally appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday: so it’s a particularly topical issue in the US (as gay marriage remains here, indeed: the online petition against the wretched Cameron’s plans has now reached 589,946 signatures—if you haven’t signed, do it now here).

So, that’s where Dan Cathy is coming from on this issue, and it’s exactly where the Catholic Church is coming from. We are not against gays: we are in favour of marriage as God instituted it. This is precisely the view which Mr Cathy feistily defends. But he is interpreted—or wilfully misinterpreted— by the gay lobby as being explicitly and with deliberation homophobic. But he isn’t; he’s just not mealy-mouthed. On one syndicated radio talk show, he rather splendidly said “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’. I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about’.”

Earlier this month, the [ital] Biblical Recorder [end ital] quoted him, when asked about the opposition to his company’s support for the traditional family, as saying “Well, guilty as charged. We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. … We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that. We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live.”

Well, good for him, say I: but is it still true, as once it was, that he does live in a country where he can share his values and operate on biblical principles? Not if various potentates of the Democratic party have their way. Following this interview, Thomas Menino, the Mayor of Boston, stated that he would not allow Chick-fil-A to open franchises in the city “unless they open up their policies.” In Chicago alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno announced his determination to block Chick-fil-A’s bid to build a second outlet in the city. Moreno received backing from Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel: “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values,” Emanuel said in a statement. “They disrespect our fellow neighbours and residents.” The Mayor of San Francisco last week tweeted that “Chick-fil-A doesn’t share San Francisco’s values & strong commitment to equality for everyone.”

But what was all that stuff we have been hearing over here for many years about America’s superior commitment to freedom of speech? What about the First Amendment? For the Mayors of Boston and Chicago to threaten to refuse business licences because of the political views of a firm’s CEO is surely mindbogglingly un-American: it’s more like Putin’s Moscow. And can it really be true that a Southern-fried chicken sandwich on a soft white bun with a couple of pickle slices (see, I’ve done my homework) has come to symbolise in such an absurdly confrontational way one of the country’s major social and moral issues?

The really sinister thing about all this is the way in which what was yesterday a normal and universal view—that marriage is between one man and one woman—has been subverted by an Orwellian process of language manipulation and consciously engineered distortion of the truth. What was the consensus has been redefined as “bigotry”; the term “homophobia” has simply been attached to the old consensus: and the job is done. If you believe in marriage as it has always been understood you are now, it seems, consumed by hatred for homosexuals and practise cruelty and discrimination against them. What was thought by everyone positive and wholesome has become cynically redefined as a foul and loathsome prejudice against decent and tolerant values. Those like Dan Cathy who hold fast to what they have always believed are not to be argued with: that would give them the dignity of respect for their views. Whatever happened to Votaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

Meanwhile, the Republican right is having a field day with all this. Mike Huckabee is organising a Chick-fil-A appreciation day; Rick Santorum has urged his supporters to visit their local Chick-fil-A outlet as soon as possible: “Help us fight for traditional families”, he says, “and eat chicken at the same time.” Sara Palin has posted a picture of herself on Facebook tucking into some Chick-fil-A, and even introduced the stuff into a speech, saying to her aide, Jason Recher, “We drive by a Chick-fil-A. We don’t have that in Alaska. Love me some Chick-fil-A. So we’ll go there, Jason, on the way, OK?”

Liberal opinion in the US, however, is by no means universally happy about the actions of Mayors Emmanuel and Menino. “Which part of the First Amendment does Menino not understand?” asked an editorial in the Boston Globe last week; “Chick-fil-A must follow all state and city laws. If the restaurant chain denied service to gay patrons or refused to hire gay employees, Menino’s outrage would be fitting. And the company should be held to its statement that it strives to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender.” Well, there’s no reason that I have been able to discover to doubt that those who run Chick-fil-A are entirely sincere in that declaration. They just believe in the family, and they believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. That’s all.

But as Catholics have known for some time, if you don’t accept some militant gays at their own valuation they just won’t believe that you don’t hate them. The only thing they will accept is your abandonment of all your own beliefs and values. Well, sorry, that’s not going to happen: and that’s why they hate us. But we don’t hate you. Got it?

Extreme irritation is another matter.