Some words for Christians on both sides of the Chick-fil-A war

'Chick-Fil-A Chicken Sandwich' photo (c) 2010, Link576 - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Just some thoughts from a retired veteran of the culture wars—

To Christians speaking out against Chick-fil-A:  

I understand. I too believe marriage is a civil right in this country, and I too get frustrated when Christians appeal to their faith  to withhold this right from their neighbors. I too am tired of selective appeals to “biblical marriage” that tend to glorify the modern nuclear family as the only ideal and render real people with real lives into a mere political/religious “issue,” and I too am reluctant to support an establishment that sends part of its profits to the Family Research Council, an organization that has fed blatant misinformation about homosexuality to Christians for years. I am especially sorry to my LGBT friends who have been bullied in the name of Christ—many of you as Christians  yourself—and I long for the Church to become a more welcoming home to all who want to follow Jesus, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic status, or sexual orientation. You have every right to be tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.

I get it. I really do.

 But I beg you to please remember that not all Christians who speak out against gay marriage are bigots or homophobes, and calling them those names is as unjust as it is unkind. Many of the people I love most in my life fall into this “camp,” and most of them mean it when they say that they sincerely love their friends and relatives in the LGBT community and wish they knew of some way to hold to their convictions without hurting or insulting their neighbors.  

With this in mind, please make your boycott a peaceful and respectful one by simply staying away from Chick-fil-A restaurants or protesting outside of them. I am distressed by plans floating around the internet that encourage folks to demand free food or water from Chick-fil-A restaurants on August 1 or to show up to restaurants in drag.  Plans like these end up affecting restaurant employees more than anyone, and none of this is their fault. In addition, they tend to perpetuate misinformation and stereotypes about the so-called “gay lifestyle.” As one gay man I know put it: “I’ve never dressed in drag in my life! This doesn’t represent me.”  In the past, I’ve bemoaned the tendency for some Christians to confront store clerks during Christmastime, demanding that they play religious Christmas music over the PA and say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” That sort of behavior is petty and unbecoming, so let’s not engage in it. 

Also, we should all be concerned with calls from some city leaders to deny Chick-fil-A building permits, as these raise serious constitutional concerns. As representatives from the ACLU have pointed out, if a government can exclude a business for being against same-sex marriage, it could just as well exclude a business for being in support of same-sex marriage. I live near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where some government officials tried to use this same strategy to ban the building of a mosque in the area, and I spoke out against such a blatant infringement on religious liberty. If Chick-fil-A discriminates based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, then they should be subject to government intervention, but a government cannot and should not punish someone for free speech. Celebrating the withholding of building permits is not only constitutionally problematic, it’s also bad strategy. It perpetuates the fear among many conservative Christians that part of the so-called “gay agenda” involves restricting free speech and persecuting Christians. This will only further entrench the “us vs. them” mentality and break down any potential the sort of meaningful, constructive dialog that actually leads to change. 

Finally, having grown up in the evangelical subculture where boycott is something of a sport, take it from me: boycotts often backfire. Already Mike Huckabee has called conservative Christians to flood Chick-fil-A with their business, and I see many of my friends and neighbors responding enthusiastically.  Remember how you responded to the boycott against JC Penny over Ellen? (For me it was a super-cute floral top.) Well, the same thing is likely to happen in this case. Again, what concerns me the most in all of this is the drawing of unmovable lines between the Christian community and the LGBT community when these lines need not exist. As Christians, we should be working tirelessly to find common ground instead of drawing battle lines. 

In short, we can choose not to patronize Chick-fil-A  without 1) calling those who support Chick-fil-A bigots and homophobes, 2) making scenes that make life hell for Chick-fil-A employees, 3) promoting one civil right while trampling on another, or 4) focusing all our efforts on a boycott to the expense of more productive conversations and actions. 

 To Christians supporting Chick-fil-A:  

I understand.  It is frustrating and unfair be called a bigot and a homophobe just because you don’t support gay marriage, or worst yet, just because you enjoy the occasional waffle fry at Chick-fil-A.  (Mmmm....waffle fries.) Sometimes it seems like tolerance and understanding is extended to everyone except conservative Christians, and when some city governments threaten to deny building permits over an issue like this, you have to wonder where they will draw the line.  I’m sorry that you have been called names and that your motives have been questioned.  

I get it. I really do. 

But please remember, our allegiance is to Jesus Christ, not a restaurant.  Rallying behind Chick-fil-A at this time can come across as tribalistic, petty, and divisive. Please know that when you post a picture of yourself defiantly holding a Chick-fil-A bag on Facebook, it may send a hurtful message to your LGBT friends who—fair or not—have come to associate Chick-fil-A with anti-gay organizations and anti-gay remarks.  There are better causes than "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" around which Christians can rally. (Feeding the hungry perhaps?) There is no need to cause unnecessary offense to folks who have already been so ostracized by the Church, no need to wave a red and white banner through yet another culture war.  If you really want to love your gay friends and neighbors, shoving Chick-fil-A bags in their faces right now is just not the way to do it. 

Second, please don’t cry “persecution!” As unfair as this boycott may seem, calling it religious persecution is insulting to the blood-stained history of the church and to the many Christian men and women who suffer very real persecution in the world today. (Keep in mind too that LGBT folks are often subjected to bullying, violence, and hate. ) We should all be grateful to live in a country where free speech is protected—whether it’s Dan Cathy’s comments on gay marriage or a protestor’s homemade sign—and we must be wary of victimizing ourselves over something like this lest we render the word “persecution” meaningless. 

Finally, I urge you to take a few moments to listen to the stories of gays and lesbians who have been negatively affected by the organizations that are supported by Chick-fil-A.  Last week, Alise Wright highlighted some of the problematic elements of Family Research Council in particular, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has consistently tried to link gays and lesbians to pedophiles. She concludes: “This is why I, and many others, choose not to patronize Chick-fil-A. Not because we disagree with the owner’s views on marriage equality. Not because we believe that denying marriage rights means that you hate those to whom you are denying those rights. Not because we believe that Dan Cathy’s statements constitute hate speech. But because Chick-fil-A has funded a hate group.” 

Conor Gaugham weighed in with a Huffington Post article explaining that protestors are not simply “arguing over chicken,” but over the 5 million in donations that Chick-fil-A—(the restaurant itself, not Cathy personally)—has sent to organizations that “fight to discriminate against [gays and lesbians].” 

“Eat all the chicken sandwiches you want,” he said. “But, realize that behind this debate are real people -- kids like the girl in Kentucky who fear for their safety, women like Sally Ride's widow who are denied their spouse's Social Security benefits.” 

Our friend Justin Lee jumped in yesterday and explained why Cathy’s words are hurtful to a gay Christian like himself and reminded us that just as folks who don’t support gay marriage as a civil right should not automatically be accused of homophobia and bigotry, so folks who do support gay marriage as a civil right should not automatically be accused of “pride,” “arrogance,” “inviting God’s judgment” and “shaking their fists at God.”

And today Alise warns against dismissing the concerns of Chick-fil-A protestors as silly or unimportant, reminding us that “for a lot of people, this is real injustice.”  

“...Up to 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBT," she writes, "and of those, almost 80% left because their families rejected them when they came out...There are more than 1100 federal benefits denied to same-sex couples...LGBT youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers...That’s a real injustice.” 

Indeed it is, and I think evangelicals in particular tend to turn a blind eye to the ways in which some of these religiously-based organizations may be inadvertently contributing to these problems rather than helping  alleviate them.  Most of my gay friends have had interactions with one or two of these groups, and when they tell me their stories—of wanting to kill themselves after trying desperately to change their orientation, of feeling forced to keep their same-sex attraction a secret and date members of the opposite sex in hopes that marriage would “fix” them, of being compared to pedophiles, of being told they would suffer forever in hell for their orientation, of their parents being blamed for being “absent” or “controlling” when they weren’t and when there are absolutely no studies to suggest this makes children gay anyway, of watching gay friends get married and then divorced because they couldn’t keep up the charade, of thinking they deserved the bullying because God hates them too—it breaks my heart. 

I urge you to take a few moments to listen to people like Conor, Alise, and Justin so that you understand their perspective better, and I urge you to research the organizations funded by Chick-fill-A before jumping on Facebook to enthusiastically support them. Ask yourself - Is this a cause I really want the world to see Christians mobilizing around? Does this really advance the gospel and show the love of Christ?

So, in short, you can choose to patronize Chick-fil-A without 1) rubbing it in people’s faces, 2) crying persecution, and 3) closing your ears to the concerns of others, particularly those from the LGBT community.

In conclusion, we would all do well to remember that the genius of the culture wars is that they convince us we change the world through bumper stickers, boycotts, and ballot boxes. They mobilize us around insignificant "wins" that, in the long run, only make things worse. The truth is, this whole Chick-fil-A storm will probably blow over in a few weeks, and when we come out from our hiding place in the basement, I fear that the only thing that will have changed is the unnecessary divide between the Christian community and the gay community will have grown wider.  

And as much as we might like to, we can’t turn around and head back to the basement. 

As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies, a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel. 

In other words, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort than either eating or avoiding a chicken sandwich. 

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For a group that’s doing good work to bridge the divide, I recommend the Gay Christian Network, which welcomes both conservative Christians and progressive Christians to the table for conversation. 

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Closing the comment thread at 6 p.m. EST. Dialog has been mostly civil and constructive, but until I can get a team of moderators, it's too much for one girl to handle. Thanks for understanding!

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