The Chick-Fil-A controversy.

I’ve been asked to weigh in on this Chick-Fil-A boycott/controversy thing that’s been in the media lately, and I confess that I’ve had no desire to do so. I just don’t like this controversial stuff; I’d rather talk about what can bring us together than what tears us apart.

In this case, not only are people already divided in whether they agree or disagree with Dan Cathy’s remarks, but even my gay friends who disagree with him are divided about whether or not a boycott is the right response. So I’m going to do my best to write something thought-provoking that has a little something for everyone, whichever view you hold. If I fail, well, there’s always next time.

First of all, in case you haven’t kept up on this or have no idea what I’m talking about, here are the basics of the situation:

Chick-Fil-A is a very popular American fast-food chain, famous for their fried chicken sandwiches. The chain started in Georgia, so they’re especially populous in the South/Southeast. (Here’s a map.) They’ve never made any secret of having been founded by Christians, but neither have they typically done anything to alienate their non-Christian customers. They’re closed on Sundays, but they generally function just like any other fast-food restaurant.

A while back, the LGBT press reported that Chick-Fil-A’s charity, The WinShape Foundation, was giving millions of dollars to organizations considered by many to be anti-gay. The criticism wasn’t just that these organizations oppose same-sex marriage, but also that some of them regularly engage in destructive, inflammatory rhetoric about gay people and/or do other things that damage people’s lives.

That sparked calls for boycotts of the chain, but the criticism was largely confined to LGBT outlets until this month, when Chick-Fil-A’s president, Dan Cathy, was asked by a reporter about the company’s “support of the traditional family” and replied that they were “guilty as charged.”

Okay, time out for a sec. I don’t like the phrase “support of the traditional family.” It’s really a euphemism with an implied straw man. What people usually mean by “traditional family” is a heterosexual couple with kids, though calling that (and only that) “traditional” glosses over a lot of unpleasant historical realities about marriage, even in the Bible. The bigger issue, though, is that what people really mean by “I support the traditional family” is that they oppose same-sex marriage. The unfortunate (and, I hope, unintended) implication is that people who support marriage for same-sex couples somehow don’t support heterosexual marriage and families. That’s just not fair. I totally understand if you believe that God ordained marriage to be for opposite-sex couples only, but you can stand for that view without making it sound like those who disagree are somehow against families. Both sides support families, and both sides want to see heterosexual marriages and families strengthened. The difference of opinion isn’t about heterosexual marriage at all; it’s about whether same-sex couples also should be able to get married.

But I digress. Cathy’s remarks about his company’s being “guilty as charged” irritated some LGBT folks and their supporters, but what really got people upset was a radio interview the next day in which he said this:

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 try to redefine what marriage is all about. 

Now, if you’ve grown up in an evangelical environment like I have—and like I assume Dan Cathy did—these kinds of words are nothing new. I hear conservative Christians use language like this all the time to express why they oppose same-sex marriage and why they believe this is an important issue. In the past, I would have said something similar, and I wouldn’t have intended to be hateful or controversial in saying it; I just would have been trying to express my deeply-held beliefs about what the Bible says.

But these are strong words. And for folks who support same-sex couples, they sound pretty harsh.

If you’re a conservative Christian with a “Side B” view (that marriage should be between a man and a woman), let me suggest a way of putting this in context. Imagine that the CEO of McDonald’s made a statement like this:

I believe Christianity is destroying our society. Christians are delusional, shaking their fists in the face of truth and reason, arrogantly refusing to admit that this Jesus thing is completely made-up and harmful to our entire generation. That’s why McDonald’s and I believe it’s so important to fund organizations that promote atheism in schools and in society.

To be clear, I just made this quote up. No one actually said this. But imagine if the head of McDonald’s made a statement like that publicly. What kind of response would you have?

I’m guessing you’d be shocked at first that he would do such a thing, knowing it would offend so many of his Christian customers. But then, once you got over your initial shock, what would you do?

I’m sure there would be calls for Christians to boycott McDonald’s. Some would do so, feeling that they didn’t want to support a company run by such a person or to allow their money to fund causes that oppose everything they stand for. Others would continue to eat at McDonald’s, feeling that such anti-Christian sentiment is widespread, even if not always voiced, and that trying to avoid subsidizing any anti-Christian companies or leaders would be essentially impossible.

What about you? Would you participate in such a boycott?

This is the question facing LGBT and straight marriage equality advocates. Among my gay friends, some feel strongly compelled to boycott Chick-Fil-A and not allow their money to support such beliefs. Others have decided that a boycott would be ineffective or unwise, and aren’t participating.

There are really several separate issues here.

One is about Dan Cathy’s personal religious views. There are some people who would boycott Chick-Fil-A just because its president personally opposes same-sex marriage, but I think most people know that such a view is widely held, and even if they don’t personally agree with it, it wouldn’t be a reason for them to boycott a company.

A separate issue is about Dan Cathy’s comments about marriage equality advocates being prideful, arrogant, and shaking their fists at God. It’s one thing to say that you believe someone is wrong; it’s quite another to make assumptions about their motives. Personally, I don’t know any same-sex marriage supporters who are willfully rebelling against or “shaking their fists” at God. I know many who don’t believe in God, and I know many others who honestly believe that God supports their efforts. Either way, if they’re wrong, they’re sincerely wrong. Cathy’s remarks are unfair depictions of them, and some people might choose to boycott to make a statement about that (just as some Christians might boycott a company if its head made similar remarks about Christians).

And a third issue is about money from Chick-Fil-A (through WinShape) going to fund causes that some people believe are very harmful. If you knew that a place you liked to shop or eat was donating money to a cause you strongly disagreed with, would you continue to patronize them? It’s an ethical dilemma, and not everyone agrees on what the answer should be.

Now obviously, if you agree with Dan Cathy’s words, there’s no Chick-Fil-A dilemma for you. But for those who disagree with him and are considering whether to boycott, here are the things I’d consider:

    • Is a boycott going to make Mr. Cathy change his mind? Not likely. It might even strengthen his views by making him feel like a martyr, standing up for what he believes in. If your concern is with changing his mind, education would be a better approach.
    • Is a boycott going to make the company think twice before taking a public position on this issue in the future? Yes, I’m sure it would, especially if the boycott hurt the company’s bottom line. On the other hand, it seems that the company has already committed to avoiding the issue going forward, and the remarks in question were Mr. Cathy’s personally, not statements from the company, so that’s also worth considering.
    • Is a boycott going to change the company’s future policies, such as donation to the controversial organizations? Possibly, though I’m thinking it would depend on how much attention is drawn to those donations over time, and how strongly the decision-makers at Chick-Fil-A feel about those particular organizations. In my mind, this would be the strongest reason to boycott—to avoid having your money support a cause you oppose. However, if the boycott is perceived to be only about Mr. Cathy’s views and not about WinShape’s donations, it’s also possible that it wouldn’t make any difference at all in the amount of money those organizations receive. If this is something you feel strongly about, you’d need to follow through on it.

As for me, I’ve been asked to participate in many boycotts—both those supported by my Christian friends and those supported by my gay friends. I think there are worthwhile reasons to boycott a company and draw attention to a cause, but I’m very picky about when I participate in one and why. Most of the time, I don’t participate. Occasionally, I do. In this particular case, I’ve decided to blog about the pros and cons of such a boycott but not disclose my own final decision.

As you might guess, though, I do feel torn about it. An incident like this raises a lot of questions. How important is it to agree with the views of the heads of companies you support? How important is it that your money isn’t used to support causes you oppose? Where’s the line? Should food be political, or should you just eat what you like? Are you being naive if you don’t consider the consequences of supporting one company over another? And if/when you do boycott a company, are you clear about why you’re boycotting? If not, it’s easy to come across as just an angry, uninformed citizen, jumping on the latest bandwagon in order to get your way. (The Southern Baptists boycotted Disney for many years. The only thing I know of that they accomplished was to make people laugh at Southern Baptists.)

One last thing. I did hear of one response to this controversy that I think is truly terrible: Some gay folks have proposed a Chick-Fil-A “kiss in” as a form of protest, gathering in Chick-Fil-As across the country on a particular day to publicly make out with someone of the same sex.

If you’re considering participating in that, please, for the love of all that is holy, reconsider.

I don’t want to see anyone, gay or straight, making out at a fast food restaurant. If they do, it doesn’t make me respect them or want to listen to them; it only makes me think of them as immature and inconsiderate. Nothing about that response is likely to make the company change its policies; what it is likely to do is reinforce negative stereotypes and cause people across the country to think poorly of gay people and our ability to tolerate those who disagree with us. It’s just a really bad idea, in my opinion.

So there you go: my thoughts on the Chick-Fil-A controversy. Next time, let’s talk about something more fun and lighthearted.

Like, you know, denominational splits or something.