Chick-Fil-A and the lost art of political persuasion

Having established my theory that faith and politics are in perpetual tension, with each seeking in a strange way to emulate the other upon the American politicoreligious landscape, let’s talk about persuasion.

Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day has passed us by. Thousands of people who genuinely believe that gay marriage is (to put it mildly) Very Bad a Thing lined up to express their sentiment with an act of economic rebellion, voting with their wallets, to strike a symbolic blow at those they perceive to be persecuting them. It was gloriously American. But it was also deeply divisive, serving not to bring people together but to underline and emphasize the differences that tear us apart.

As a political liberal and a religious conservative, I have tried to articulate a more inclusive and pragmatic position on gay marriage that I think serves as a starting point for a common discussion we could be having instead. Any hope of having that discussion is dead. And those who stood in line at CFA across the nation may think that in so doing, they have won a victory, but in fact they have lost an opportunity to rethink the gay marriage debate in terms that do not divide us but rather brings us together and makes us all the stronger for it.

As far as the liberal anger at CFA goes, I disagree that CFA could or should be prevented from opening restaurants in Chicago or Boston. The reasoning is the same as my reasoning for why the Park51 project and the Murfreesboro, TN mosque should also be allowed to proceed – but I wager that many of the people standing in line at CFA, including many of my colleagues here at Patheos, would disagree.

As I’ve said, we treat politics like religion – and thus in our politics, conflict is magnified and positions are chosen on the basis of group identity rather than reasoned consideration of the issues. It’s easy to focus our fire on the other side (in fact that is what we are expected to do) but it is healtheir for our own respective “side” to self-critique, which is why I would like to share some comments from a friend who lives in North Caroline about CFA. Understand that this friend is indeed a raging liberal whose opinions on every issue are anathema to the majority queued at CFA on August 1st. Here’s what she had to say:

I’ve been wanting to say something about Chik-Fil-A. It bothers me that we’re slamming them really hard right now, though there’s nothing like a boycott to get a company set straight. Seeing the muppets pull out of their promotions with them bothers me. This is a company that does “walk the walk” in a lot of ways. I look at the history of kids meal toys at other fast food places, and I see garbage. Sometimes fun garbage, sometimes stuff I’ve gone out of my way to get even, but not educational toys…just marketing garbage in promotions agreements between Sony or Marvel or Pixar or other just-exist-to-get-your-money franchises and the people selling terrible food to get our money. Worse, IMHO, a lot of the time there’s a “boys toy” (which is usually cool and fun) and a “girl’s toy” (which is typically pink or worse). Companies like McDonalds are responsible for massive deforestation, some of those companies are completely wretched to their employees, they’ve put more styrofoam in landfills over the decades than we’ll ever be able to overcome…really, most fast-food companies have zero redeeming qualities whatsoever!

CFA has quite a few redeeming qualities. Their food may not be a good thing to eat every day, but it’s a whole lot better than most fast-food health-wise. They’ve had kids-toy promotions with PBS many times over the years, and their other toys have been things like books and educational activities. CFA is closed on Sunday. How many fast-food workers can actually count on a day off each week? I don’t approve of the bigotry of their stance on gay marriage. Obviously. I’ll respect my friends and the protest going on and pass by CFA for a while while folks are trying to educate them. But in the same way I’ve got very dear friends who have their heads up their butts on one issue or another (some of the nicest folks I know are sexist goobers)…and in the same way *I* have good points and bad ones (more bad than good some days)…I’ve gotta say that I respect CFA as a company more than I respect most companies. I’d much rather see McDonalds die a fiery death than see CFA go down. Protesting Walmart? I’m 100% on board. No redeeming qualities there. But I’d be happier seeing this be more “hey, we like you, you’re usually awesome, we’d like to talk with you about something you’re kind of a bigot about, and we don’t feel like we can buy your stuff while you’re spending the money we give you on that hurtful bigotry…it really seems out of line with everything else you stand for actually…can we discuss that? Could we negotiate something where you spend that money on better causes that we can all get behind, like how you support orphanages and scholarships and things…could you just maybe do more of that and less of the 1800’s-era homophobia thing?” More the way we might talk to a racist grandparent than the way we’d talk to Walmart or to a sociopath.

Just my $.02. Sometimes “firebrand” isn’t the most helpful approach.

This isn’t just about Chick-Fil-A or gay marriage, it’s about the basic point that “firebrand mode” is anti-persuasive. And persuasion is the lost art that we have lost, an art that one would think the religious community would have the most affinity for. Just as with interfaith relations, we do NOT need to accept each other’s point of view, but accept that we do have those differences and convictions, and then turn our energies towards positive action.

A GREAT example of this is Pastor Rick Warren’s speech at the Islamic Society of North America in 2009, which is a landmark example of how to reach out to those with whom you disagree on very important things, but also agree with on other equally important things. But here’s the broader point explained even more powerfully by Neil deGrasse Tyson in an exchange with Richard Dawkins:

Incomplete but key transcript, as Tyson rebukes Dawkins directly:

“You’re a professor of the public understanding of science, not a professor of delivering truth to the public, and these are two different exercises. Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there’s gotta be an act of persuasion as well. Persuasion isn’t always, ‘here are the facts, and you’re either an idiot or you’re not.’ It’s, ‘here’s the facts, and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind’ and it’s the facts PLUS the sensitivity that when convolved together, creates impact.”

It is that sensitivity to each other’s state of mind that politicians like Mike Huckabee and Rahm Emannuel desperately want us to forgo in favor of a raw tribal partisanship that sets us at each other’s throats.

The context of Tyson’s remarks were aimed at Dawkins in his role as an advocate of science and an aggressive atheist, but it also applies to our broader political identities. It’s an attempt to treat politics as a genuine and productive debate rather than something we take on faith.

Related: a post by a devout Christian blogger who explains in simple terms why he loves Chick-Fil-A, but chose not to eat there on August 1st. Also, a post by my colleague at Patheos, Nancy French, reporting from a local CFA on Appreciation Day and talking to ordinary people at the restaurant about why they were there.

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