I grew up loving Chick-fil-a. Yummy. Tasty. Awesome. After moving to a part of the country devoid of Chik-fil-a, I always looked forward to heading back home where I could depend on some good chicken goodness. Mmmm.... Then, it became a moot point several years ago; I chose a vegetarian diet. All the same, every time I flew back South, the Chick-fil-a signs seems to be a harbinger of the good things from my childhood. Unlike the meat products in other stores, I still salivated at what might be in store at Chick-fil-a, should I ever fall off of the vegetarian wagon.
Then, Chick-fil-a-gate erupted. Surprise. The company that closes on Sunday, plays Christian music, and puts religious signs in their stores...well, it turned out to be a bit conservative socially and politically.
The recent uproar over Chick-fil-a is a bit surprising since accusations of homophobia have been leveled at them for several years, accusations that the company has consistently denied. On their website, Chick-fil-a has this to say, "Chick-fil-A is a family-owned and family-led company serving the communities in which it operates. From the day Truett Cathy started the company, he began applying biblically-based principles to managing his business. For example, we believe that closing on Sundays, operating debt-free and devoting a percentage of our profits back to our communities are what make us a stronger company and Chick-fil-A family.
Unlike the furor around another Southern food chain Cracker Barrel, Chick-fil-a has no policy of discrimination. Chick-fil-a has not been accused of refusing service or employment to people because of sexual orientation. As their own website says, sexual orientation is not considered when selling their yummy chicken.
However, at the same time, Dan Cathy, the president, COO, and son of the founder of the company, recently gave an interview to the Baptist Press, during which, in addition to many things, he said, "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." When pressed to clarify that Chick-fil-a supports a specific understanding of family and marriage, his response was, "Guilty as charged."
Then, on July 7, Dan Cathy appeared on the Ken Coleman show and upped the ante just a bit when he stated, "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."
Needless to say, I don't agree with Dan Cathy. His biblical exegesis is as weak as all of those who toss the Bible around to defend "traditional marriage." When pressed to clarify if they mean polygamy, whether raped women have to marry their rapists, whether goats need to be exchanged at a wedding, whether remarriage after the death of a spouse is possible, and whether divorced people can remarry, they cry foul. They claim that these are red herrings, but they are not. They are all examples of biblical marriage. Paul, if one wants to get "New Testamenty" about it, prefers that people not marry at all, and maintains that people should only marry when physical urges can't be contained, i.e. only the weak need apply for a marriage license. In 1 Peter, wives are instructed to obey their husbands. To discuss biblical marriage, one must, in some sense, deal with the diversity of what marriage means in scriptures written over many, many years in different places to different people.
Moreover, there are those who still shout from the rafters that marriages exist for the sake of procreation - that the human race might become extinct if marriage equality becomes normative. Have these people not read world population statistics? We are closing in on 9 billion people on this planet. We are more viral than any other species. There is only 16% more arable land left on the planet, and we are on course to lift our population by another 2 billion within two decades. Population is a specious argument for traditional marriage. Suffice it to say, I find all of the reasons to "defend" marriage from queer folk to be weak, specious, and bigoted.
Does this mean that the founders and corporate executives of a chicken fast food company can't hold these views? No. If they sell good chicken (which they do) and treat customers and employees with respect (which seems to be the case), then they should be left alone. Voicing an opinion, even one with which I deeply disagree, is not a chargeable offense in this country, and it doesn't make one's chicken any less yummy. Using poorly formed exegesis as underpinnings for a moral stance may be embarrassing to me as a Christian - since I get identified with those making such assertions - but there is nothing egregious about it.
So, why the uproar? Why have ten universities erupted in protests? Why have politicians from Boston and Chicago made public denouncements against Chick-fil-a? And, why has this become such a big issue? Well, it has little to do with free speech (although speech certainly flamed the fire) and much to do with a little talked about charitable organization called WinShape Foundation. You see, Chick-fil-a's principles include giving back to the community. Just as they take the Lord's Day off, operate debt free, and pay fair wages, they believe in giving back to the community. So, founder Truett Cathy and his wife Jeannette started the WinShape Foundation in 1984. The foundation gets its name from its mission - to shape people into winners. The WinShape Foundation also gives money to ministries. On their website, the WinShape Foundation lists seven areas of giving or areas of ministry. One of these areas is called "WinShape Marriage." In addition to running marriage preparation and counseling retreats, WinShape gives money to outside organizations. Their donations are what lay at the core of real frustration with Chick-fil-a. From the Family Research Council to Fellowship of Christian Athletes, WinShape is providing money to a large variety of moderately conservative to extremely conservative Christian organizations, many of which either engage in direct reparative therapy work (e.g., Exodus, received $1000) or lobbying and organizing efforts that labor to defeat marriage equality and disparage marriage equality in the media and throughout culture (Marriage and Family Foundation, received $1.18 million). These donations are especially pernicious.
So, I arrive at my title: Why the Chick-fil-a Hullabaloo is Overblown. Why I Support the Boycott. Why Politicians Should Monitor Themselves More Closely.
Based upon their use of free speech alone, Chick-fil-a falls into a long line of religiously identified organizations that I would not want to patronize. Their belief in fair treatment of both employees and patrons is commendable. However, their speech is not without cost. There is no real "free speech." I would not want to give them my money because I know that young LGBTQI people hearing statements about "God's judgment" become confused and begin to believe they are bad - that they are ontologically corrupted. They harm themselves. They kill themselves. Speech has consequences. So, I keep my dollars to myself. When enough of us, tempted though we may be by tasty chicken, keep our dollars to ourselves in protest of their speech, this is called a boycott. I approve and support the boycott.
Yet, as much as I disapprove of their stance, they also have a right to speak their beliefs. Our governing principles are based upon this belief. Therefore, the politicians castigating Chick-fil-a should be somewhat moderate about their strong pronouncements. They have been elected to protect free speech, even when it is repugnant. Rather than blocking Chick-fil-a stores, progressive politicians ought to speak against the bigotry of Chick-fil-a while also protecting their rights. That is their job as people elected to serve the rule of law.
However, the issue with Chick-fil-a is not just about free speech. It is about the use of money to fund activities that go well beyond uttering beliefs, quoting scripture, or adhering to personal values. The WinShape Foundation is engaged, in little and in big ways, in the political sphere by supporting lobbying and media efforts geared to defeat marriage equality and to maintain a particular religiously defined understanding of normative sexuality. And, it uses money generated by the Chick-fil-a company to fund this activity. Now, we are no longer discussing free speech but civil rights of LGBTQI people. Such use of money, such activity, is open for public scrutiny and objection.
The fact that such activity is overlooked in favor of the Cathys' right to espouse their beliefs simply reveals the extent to which the queer community remains marginalized in this country. For all of those who try to make the furor over Chick-fil-a a case of truncated and squelched free speech, I call your bluff. It is not. It is about political action geared to reduce and constrict the civil rights of fellow Americans, who, for the first time in history, have gained ground toward some semblance of equality - even if full equality remains a distant dream. As one of these Americans, it is my right to use my free speech against Chick-fil-a, to lift a placard, to withhold my money, to lobby my city council, to participate in write in campaigns, and to pressure companies and organizations that dare to do business with Chick-fil-a. As long as Chick-fil-a wants to use their earnings to reduce my civil rights, I will not "tone it down" or play nice or pretend that this is about a Christian's beliefs coming under attack. I am a Christian, too. I live by Christian principles as well. This is not about the oppression of a Christian organization; it is about a Christian organization attempting to oppress me. Chick-fil-a is lobbying for laws that oppress me, that keep me from living with the same protections and privileges as other Americans. This is not about their free speech. This is about my civil rights.
Are there more pressing injustices in the world? Sure. Do I care about them? I sure do. This one happens to affect me directly. And I won't apologize for lifting my voice, making my case, struggling for my civil rights, or defending my position. Another's injustice does not nullify my own.