Erasmus and Chick-fil-A or Why I am an Erasminian

Aug 2, 2012 by

Erasmus by Holbein: "Now consider this: the scriptures attribute to the foolish a candid and generous mind, while the wise man thinks himself superior to everyone else."

It is an odd thing, but I thought liberalism meant (a la Voltaire) that even if I disagreed with every stupid thing that came out of your mouth I would defend your right to say it. And yet the mayors of Chicago, Boston and innumerable others have disagreed with me. Liberalism is apparently only a guise through which you get the city council to shut down your business until they have created homogeneity of opinion. The Chick-fil-A fight is not a fight over anyone’s sexual rights. It is a test of true liberalism.

Dan Cathy, the head of Chick-fil-A recently ignited a storm over his belief that “…”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.”1 Soon thereafter the Jim Henson Company removed their toys from Chick-fil-A’s children’s meals and the battle lines were drawn.

The fast food fight became a political fight when Mayor Rham Emmanuel of Chicago insisted that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values.”1 This is an interesting point, considering that Mr. Emmanuel worked as chief of staff to a presidential administration that held the exact same policy until about a month ago. The Catholic population of Chicago must also be very interested to know they do not have “Chicago values.” Who in this is the persecutor; who the persecuted?

In high school I had a picture of Erasmus in my locker. It hung between Thomas Jefferson and General Lee. Erasmus was the middle voice of his age, the voice of reason, prudence and tolerance. In his time (the Reformation) religious brand was the issue of contention and Christians debated amongst their various sects how many angels could stand on the head of a pin and what the optimal way of convincing their intellectual opponents was: The thumbscrew or the stake.

"If you look at history you'll find that no state has been so plagued by its rulers as when power has fallen into the hands of some dabbler in philosophy or literary addict." Erasmus, the Praise of Folly

This type of thinking, this type of conversion always befuddled Erasmus. After all he posed, “What authority was there in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument?”2Clearly the central message of Christ has been lost on those who seek to change another’s mind through force rather than to negotiate with another’s intellect and soul. As Folly observes, “Christians would show sense if they dispatched these argumentative Scotists and pigheaded Ockhamists and undefeated Albertists along with the whole regiment of Sophists to fight the Turks and Saracens instead of sending those armies of dull-witted soldiers with whome they’ve long been carrying on war with no result.”²

Erasmus sought to change the Catholic Church internally and hesitated to follow Luther’s schism. He was attacked by Catholics for supporting many of Luther’s ideas of reform and attacked by Protestants for not unflinchingly siding with them. Finally in 1524 he openly broke with Luther on a topic he thought critical, the freedom of the will. Nevertheless, he was attacked by the Catholics for being too conciliatory and the Protestants for taking the sides of the Catholics. For a time he was run out of several towns and once narrowly avoided having his house burned over his head. His response was that he intended to convert Luther, to persuade him of his position, to leave room for an intellectual debate without personal rancor.

What Erasmus knew was just because I disagree with your position does not mean that I am “anti-you.” But our

"The entire world is my temple, and a very fine one too, if I'm not mistaken, and I'll never lack priests to serve it as long as there are men." Erasmus' The Praise of Folly

discourse is littered with so much non productive verbiage that it is little wonder our labels prevent us from achieving real communication. We make cartoons of one another’s ideas.  Being pro-traditional family does not make you anti-gayany more than being pro-choice makes you pro-abortion. But how can we hope to persuade someone that their position is wrong, if we do not first understand their position; perhaps understand their position better than they do?

Liberalism was once the great champion of tolerance. Liberalism once demanded that even the most bizarre, the most obscene ideas be allowed to have their hearing, and that good sense and reasonable people would choose the best ideas. We have increasingly perverted the notion of tolerance. Tolerance does not mean that I will go along with, agree to, or support everything you say. Tolerance means that I really don’t like, perhaps even hate your opinion. But I am not going to kill you/burn down your property/do a dance on the rubble of your life. In point of fact, if tolerance means embracing your view than there is little to tolerate, we would then be in agreement.

Our type of American protest, the kind that stands outside your business waving signs with slogans does not do much to change anyone’s mind. It is the least common denominator of communication. It registers your opinion but then closes down the hope of dialogue. “Convert or else,” is the message it conveys. That is not to say that protest does not have its political place. But it is most meaningful when all other avenues of discussion have been denied.

Sir Thomas More, by Holbein: "I doubt if a single individual could be found from the whole of mankind free from some form of insanity. The only difference is one of degree. A man who sees a gourd and takes it for his wife is called insane because this happens to very few people." Erasmus, The Praise of Folly

Erasmus’ most enduring book is no doubt In Praise of Folly; dedicated to Sir Thomas More, before More was killed for possessing his own opinions. In it Erasmus gently pokes fun at every class, age, gender, job, and possibly person that has ever lived: Because the truth is that not one of us possesses the complete truth. We all have odd opinions, we all think that our “squint eyed child is lovelier than Venus herself,” or our religion (or lack there of) is superior to everyone else’s.

And that is just the point. We all have our own folly; and wisdom, if there is any, is not in shutting down someone else’s business, or in trying to score political points by raving against an opinion you tacitly supported a month ago, but in having the modesty to think “hmmm…I believe this today, but I just might be wrong.” This is the only brand of liberalism that will change people’s minds and lead to what Erasmus hoped would be a truly catholic, truly universal culture of learning and tolerance.


(Disclosure: The author has never dined at a Chick-fil-A, nor does he intend to. In fact he once walked out of one after seeing their prices)



Works Cited

1. Cline, Seth. “Chick-fil-A’s Controversial Gay Marriage Beef.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 27 July 2012. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <>.

2. Erasmus. The Praise of Folly. New York: Classics Club, 1942. Print.

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