Friday, August 3, 2012

Some Belated Thoughts on the Chick-Fil-A Nonsense

Wednesday night a friend asked me, "How bout a post on this Chick-Fil-A nonsense doc?"  Initially I was hesitant to do so, knowing that my penchant for idiosyncratic opinions often produces more controversy than the controversies themselves deserve.  Nevertheless, here I go again.

As everyone in America is aware by now, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy recently gave an interview with the Baptist Press in which he proudly (smugly?) claimed to be "guilty as charged" of supporting the "biblical definition of a family."  He continued as follows:
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.
In a later radio interview he upped the rhetorical ante:
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' and 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.
Not surprisingly, gay advocacy groups were upset at Cathy's public comments, not to mention the $3 million donated by the company to such "traditional family" advocacy organizations such as the Family Research Council.  The Jim Henson company pulled their toys from Chick-fil-A kids' meals.  Not to be outdone, a number of big city politicians got into the act.  Philadelphia City councilman Jim Kinney sent a strongly worded letter to Cathy, telling him to "take a hike" and "take your intolerance with you," and promising to introduce a resolution in council condemning him for his intolerance and "hate."  Boston mayor Thomas Menino likewise wrote Cathy, saying "There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it."  Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel pompously declared, "Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values."

In response, former preacher, Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called for a national Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Wednesday.  In financial terms, the day was a rousing success, setting sales records and causing at least one outlet to run out of food because of the heavy demand.

I must say that the whole "controversy" seems contrived and more than a little silly to me.  Nothing breeds theological shallowness more than knee-jerk political Christianity.  But in one sense the matter is exceedingly silly because Mr. Cathy, no matter what his views, is entitled to express them in a free society, and everyone else is free to agree or disagree with him.  What no one has is the right not to have their sensitivities offended by what someone else says.  And I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but expressing disapproval of someone's behavior is not the same as "hating" them.  To equate the two is to trivialize the hate that continues to desensitize public discourse today.

Nevertheless, the salient point is that Mr. Cathy is a businessman.  The matter of his views about homosexuality is relevant only if those views impinge on his treatment of homosexual employees and customers.  My initial reaction to the kerfuffle was to wonder why anyone would care what the religious or political views of a businessman are.  And who would not have guessed that Mr. Cathy, the son of the founder of a famously Christian company that shuts its doors on Sunday (much to my chagrin on many an occasion), held such views?  The point, however, is an elementary one: people choose to buy or not to buy a company's products because of their quality, not because of the beliefs or lifestyle of their owner/CEO — or at least the latter shouldn't be the determining criterion.  As I have often said, if I only rooted for teams with honorable and virtuous athletes, I would watch a lot less baseball and football than I do.  And I shudder to think what I would do if I could only listen to music written and performed by artists whose lifestyles I could approve and views with which I agree.  Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Miles Davis, the Stones, Zeppelin — all would be disqualified (of course, many of my fundamentalist forebears thought they should thereby be disqualified, but that is  matter for another time).

Nonetheless, reactions both from the left and the Christian right raise important issues that I would like to discuss very briefly.  The most glaring issue concerns the so-called "liberal" response characteristic of the three big city politicians mentioned above.  I must say that it is rare to encounter more glaring examples of pure, unadulterated, and unacknowledged hypocrisy.  No doubt, such politicians love to congratulate themselves on their "tolerance" and love of "diversity."  In reality, however, by their statements they only succeeded to champion intolerance in the name of tolerance.  Emanuel's claim that "Chick-fil-A values aren't Chicago values" is odd indeed with reference to a city well-known for the values of criminals like Al Capone and politicians like Richard Daley.  Darryl Hart thinks it "odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct."  Indeed, but such simply demonstrates with breathtaking clarity the effect of presuppositions and prejudices on one's thinking process.  Such views as Cathy's are simply beneath contempt for people like Emanuel and hence, by definition, not worthy of toleration.  But here is one example of where political "liberals" could learn a thing or two about tolerance from the libertarians.

As a Christian, however, I am more concerned with the Christian attitudes and response to the controversy.  And it is here that some cautionary words really need to be said.  There is nothing wrong with vocally supporting Cathy's right to free speech, of course.  Nevertheless, Huckabee's brainchild is somewhat troubling.  Not only, I would argue, does it fight culture war battles using the world's methods ("we'll win by spending more money and making the business more successful;" [even worse] "we'll show who really has more supporters for their view"), it fosters an unhelpful "us versus them" mentality that will only serve to reinforce the tendency to ghettoization of evangelical Christianity that certainly does not serve the church's mandate to mission well.  Indeed, I saw one of the most profound commentaries on the matter on my facebook wall yesterday, in the form of a sign outside of the Lamb of God Christian Ministries (location unknown to the author): "Sure wish the lines to volunteer at the food bank or VBS were as long as the lines at Chik-fil-A (sic!)... God."  Quite.

More significant is the all-too-typical typical shock and offense taken by so many Christians that the gay community and "liberal media" would take offense at Cathy's comments and advocate a boycott the business.  Such "shock" and offense ring more than a little hollow, however, since all they homosexual advocates were doing was mimicing classic evangelical political tactics.  Case in point: many evangelicals, including such organizations as the USA Christian Ministries, boycotted Starbucks back in May because of the coffee titan's support of gay marriage as a "core value of the company."  Well, what's good enough for the goose is good enough for the gander.  And, just as the boycott of Starbucks was ineffectual, so will the boycott of Chick-fil-A, especially in its home turf of the South.

What has often gone unexamined in Christian responses to the controversy are the twin matters of Cathy's actual statements and the (perhaps unintentional) public stance many Christians have taken toward the gay community.  It is one thing to believe that the Bible's teaching on marriage and homosexual activity are normative.  That, however, does not necessarily answer the question of how such beliefs could be made normative in a secular democracy (see my reflections on such matters here).  Claiming a position to be "biblical" may carry weight in the Christian community, but the Bible cannot, and hence does not have such an authoritative status in American law and public policy.  And I wonder how many of us have ever tried to consider how pompous and self-righteous ("we're still married to our first wives") such statements as Cathy's sound to those who do not operate with such presuppositions.

More troubling is Cathy's typical pop evangelical belief that societal approval of gay marriage will invite God's judgment on the nation.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard and read 2 Chronicles 7:14 applied indiscriminately to any nation (usually the USA).  But America is not analogous to Old Covenant Israel.  We have no "special relationship" with God.  We are not even a Christian nation, and never have been.  For all its virtues, America is a nation founded on rebellion and the displacement of the aboriginal American population.  It is a nation that practiced and tolerated slavery, and later discriminated against those same people who were "freed" from their bondage.  It is a nation that still thrives on greed and too easily engages in warfare.  The sins of this country, like all others, are legion.  And to pretend that societal declension from biblical standards in this one area somehow is more problematic than similar declension in so many others is, at best, naive, and, at worst, an inexcusable example of selective outrage.

St. Paul concluded his epistle to the church at Colosse with a very important exhortation:

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone. (Colossians 4:6-7, NET Bible)
"Redeeming the time," "buying back" time that would otherwise slip away along with the opportunities it affords, necessarily involves action.  The monastic , self-absorbed and often cowardly "holy huddle" is thus no option for a faithful, missional church.  But not all action is profitable action.  In Paul's view the only conduct pleasing to God and effective to "outsiders" is action characterized by wisdom.  And nowhere is this more relevant than in the area of our speech.  According to the apostle, such speech must be characterized by charis, a "graciousness" that finds its motivation and pattern in the charis of God that lies at the foundation of the gospel.  Furthermore, such gracious speech must be "seasoned with salt," characterized by a winsomeness that engages others without resorting to the blandly insipid platitudes that only serve to confirm the worst of stereotypes.

As often, I question both the wisdom and graciousness of the Christian response to the shifting cultural landscape in this matter.  I understand that homosexuals in our society will not be satisfied until their lifestyle is as accepted by the general public as the heterosexual lifestyle is.  Call this an "agenda" if you will, so long as one admits that the conservative Christians have an "agenda" as well (in other words, the term "agenda"  does not have necessarily nefarious connotations).  And I understand the societal and cultural implications for my religion if such an agenda ultimately becomes successful, an eventuality which, at this point in time, appears to be inexorable.  But I wonder if enough of us have contemplated how we appear to those Paul characterizes as "outsiders."  As one who works in a factory, I hear what people really think about Christians every single day.  It is not pretty.  Even worse, it is often deserved.

Christians are called to be wise in their speech and behavior.  Such wisdom entails more than just standing for the truth.  Truth, if it is to make any headway, must be spoken in love, and must be situated in the context of a cross-patterned life of service to others.  Cruciformity, indeed, is incompatible with any sense of aggrievement or the siege mentality that so often rears its ugly head.  Would that Christian fried chicken lovers everywhere would concentrate less on their self-righteous political games and more on actually working to love their homosexual neighbors as themselves.  That is the real issue from which no amount of "correct" moral views can excuse us.


  1. The Family Research Council financially supported Uganda's "Kill The Gays" bill. Therefore, Dan Cathy , as a donor to The Family Research Council, gave money to fund the execution of gay people. As a Christian, do you support that? Do you believe, as Dan Cathy does, that gays should be hunted and killed simply because of their sexuality? If it was revealed tomorrow that the president of Burger King was funding the murders of Christians in a foreign nation, what kind of repercussions do you think would befall him? How would you feel if people lined up in record numbers to buy Whoppers in the weeks after that information was revealed? Would you feel safe? Would you want the nation's political leaders to take a stand, not just against the corporation, but for you?

    1. Susan Komen/Breast Cancer research fund has recently been exposed has having sent lots of money to planned parenthood. Does that mean all who supported Susan Komen/races for the cure all support killing of babies?
      I think not.


  2. I certainly don't support the Family Research Council or what they support, especially in Uganda. But I don't support or refuse to support a business based on the beliefs of its owner/CEO. For a secularist who argues the same way I do about the silliness of the controversy, watch Jon Stewart's clip at the Huffington Post: My main point in the post was to criticise evangelical Christians for their short-sighted and small-minded response to the issue.

  3. An American CEO is funding murders overseas and the controversy over it is "silliness"? Point taken.

  4. I respect your right to remain anonymous. Criticism usually works best when you're yelling from the crowd in anonymity.

    If you've ever shopped at K-Mart, Sears, Nike or Ralph Lauren you've, under or rhetoric, supported sweat shops and the human rights violations of other countries. For that matter, if you say you haven't bought from them, I'm sure you haven't dodged paying your taxes, and we haven't had the best track record with overseas controversy.

  5. I'm not so concerned about gay marriage as the mean spiritedness that comes out in the name of God. What must He think of us and our nasty attitudes towards our fellow man.

  6. This post makes so much sense yet the knee jerk reactions always are most publicized. I have heard and read such vicious commentary from both sides. Thank you.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Another great article! Thanks to Tim Zuch for re-posting on facebook. The last article I read was June 25, also on homosexuality coincidentally enough. I like everything you're saying, mostly agree with it, and it certainly gave me a lot to think about.
    In the forth paragraph from the bottom you mention the mislead belief that the US is a covenant nation. This is an important point for US citizens to reflect on, as are the former and current sins of this nation's leaders and populace. The only problem is that there are many references to secular nations receiving - or about to receive - God's judgement as a result of sin: Nineveh, Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon, etc. Wouldn't these examples support Cathy's statement? I know that the New Testament doesn't have any examples like this. Paul met the crowd on Mars Hill with pity, feeling sorry that they worshiped a God with no name. I think that's the kind of response you're encouraging Christians to have toward homosexual behavior. But when should we speak like Jonah (eventually) and when should we speak like Paul?

    1. The main point I was trying to make on that is thatstatements such as Cathy's assume that we have been blessed because of our "Christian" qualities, yet ignores the other egregious sins that have always characterized our society. What would make him presume this sin is any worse than others that we as a nation glory in?

    2. Just because Mr Cathy did not say something did not mean he is 'presuming' this sin as the worst. Free speech, dude, free speech. Stop bashing the church.

    3. James, thank you for the response. I really enjoy this dialogue. My understanding of your response is that if we are going to take to streets or airwaves of a secular nation and deliver a Jonah-esque message of repentance, then it must be a complete gospel message. We cannot focus on a particular sin. This makes sense, and this is what pastors do every Sunday. The sin of homosexual behavior is only a small part of the big picture of Creation, Fall, Salvation, and Glorification.
      In response to JustNTure, we don't know that Cathy presumes homosexual behavior is the worst of all sins, but it does look that way to the secular world. We uphold his freedom of speech, but as his brothers in Christ we loving exhort him to speak with more wisdom.

  9. Whatever side you are on anti-gay, pro-gay, whatever. Whether Mr Cathy should have said what he did, how he did or not, or how Christians responded is NOT the issue. Maybe he did not mean it just as he said it. I'm tired of Christians beating up Christians.

    I'm also tired of people telling Christians to just be silent until they can speak line by line 100 percent correct. Or politically correct and never offend. The Gospel is always offensive to those who do not like it.

    The issue is about FREE SPEECH, that free speech was slammed by the media left. Whether we speak well or precisely (and we should do our best) us not nearly as an issue as our desire to just sit back and never say the truth.

    Free speech must be exercised. It is not exercised nearly enough by the Church and thus, when we do today, the Left is mad. Their agenda is moving forward because we are not 'out there' speak, out fear of being rejected or the ultimate, fear of offending someone.

    Shame on us for being ashamed of the gospel.
    And I remain anonymous because I do not have time to set up the required account.


    1. I agree with Mike.

      I would also add that it seems you are protecting another's feelings. Those who stand for gay rights were offended, that is they felt offended. Has Christianity come to protecting another's feelings?

      Wasn't Mr Cathy talking to his circle of believers in Christ? And the liberal media brought it out in the open? I am not saying I agree with how he said things. But he had a right to express his opinion.

      The issue is about free speech, not about 'gay-rights' or 'marriage rights'.
      Let's not over-inflate it as "non-sense."

      I pray that free speech is never reduced to a mere discussion called "non-sense." Please THINK people!

      "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." --D.Bonhoeffer

    2. Again, this is not Christians beating each other up. This is an exhortation to speak with more wisdom and deliver the whole gospel message. To be fair to Cathy, it is a difficult task. The secular media only wants to engage on this one issue, and from the secular perspective, a ban on homosexual behavior taken out of context comes off as laughable and obtuse. The challenge with each of these discussions - and the challenge for each of us on a daily basis - is to turn the "gay question" into an opportunity to share the full gospel. Just as Jesus would deflect the questions of the Sadducees and Pharisees start talking about salvation.

    3. wow....thank for deep thought and reflection. Peace to you