‘Stance’ vs. substance: why evangelicals are confused about the actual harm Chik-fil-A is doing to actual people

Inside the world of American evangelicalism, one must always have the proper stance. Stances, actually, plural, as one must have the proper stance on a whole host of subjects.

“What is your stance on X?” is a common question in the subculture, with X including a wide variety of litmus tests such as abortion, homosexuality, the inerrancy of scripture, creationism, women’s ordination, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, Rob Bell, foreign missions, climate change, infant baptism, predestination, and abortion and homosexuality. These are all regarded as “controversial” matters within the subculture — by which it is meant that these are matters on which no controversy is acceptable.

Acceptability is the whole point of this ritual inquiry — this inquiring or inquisition — about “stances.” One’s stance must be proper, correct and “firm.”

I’ve written about this several times before — in part because I have a sometimes juvenile sense of humor and I enjoy snickering at the awkward, Larry-Craig-ish sight of somberly anti-gay evangelical men boasting of their “firm stance on homosexuality.”

But I think this curious lingo used to enforce tribal codes also points toward a characteristic deficiency in the tribal subculture.

For evangelicals, one’s “stance” determines one’s standing. What does it mean that a stance is the all-important determinant of one’s status and legitimacy in the community?

Part of what it shows, I think, is the way that stance trumps sub-stance. This is a reflection of the underlying theology, in which faith trumps works, words trump deeds, and intellectual assent to propositions trumps what the Bible calls “bearing fruit.”

Every stance will, inevitably, produce some form of action, but when stance is paramount, those actions are an afterthought. In the stance-obsessed evangelical culture, such actions tend to be of a rather passive variety — demonstrations of verbal, financial or political support for a particular stance. (Or verbal and financial support for political action in accordance with that stance.) But when one’s stance is what matters most, the consequences of such actions are viewed as inconsequential.

Thus if this offering of political support results in political acts that harm others, such consequent harm is not accounted against those who supported it because, to them, such harm was incidental and collateral to the primary intent of their action — which was to demonstrate the propriety and firmness of their stance. Any resultant harm should not matter in this view, because nothing outweighs the greater good — the greatest good — of maintaining the correct stance.

One result of all this is a mutual bafflement between stance-obsessed members of the evangelical tribe and outsiders who do not share this tribal preoccupation. Unlike the evangelicals, those outsiders are still laboring under the assumption that harmful consequences count for something.

For a recent example of this bafflement in action, see Jasmine Young’s Christianity Today article on Chik-fil-A’s most recent offensive in the culture wars. Young describes this as mainly a “controversy … over Chik-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s stance against same-sex marriages.”

This misunderstands, and fundamentally misrepresents, the complaint of those who are upset with Chik-fil-A. Unlike Young and the Christianity Today crowd, these folks don’t primarily view the world through the lens of “stances.” They’re not upset with Cathy’s “stance,” but with his actions.

Because those actions matter. Dan Cathy and Chik-fil-A are exerting power against other people. They are using their financial power to leverage political power in order to deny others their rights.

Chik-fil-A’s critics aren’t concerned about Cathy’s opinions, but about his actions — his actions against them.

For Christianity Today, opinions are what matters most. For them, the important thing is Cathy’s “stance” and not the substance of his actions against others. They thus can’t begin to hear, let alone to understand, the substance of those others’ complaint against the fast-food giant. Evangelicals are obsessed with stances and words and opinions, so they assume this must all have something to do with stances and words and opinions.

Thus, for another example, we see ordained minister and Fox commentator Mike Huckabee asserting that LGBT customers are upset with Chik-fil-A “because the CEO, Dan Cathy, made comments recently in which he affirmed his view that the Biblical view of marriage should be upheld.”

Yes, Dan Cathy recently reaffirmed his views and his stance. That’s old news. The new news — the news that has led to calls for boycotts of Chik-fil-A — is that Cathy and his company are bankrolling political groups in an effort to deny other people the right to marry and to deny them the right not to be fired because of who they are.

This isn’t about Cathy’s “views” or his “stance” — his opinions or his words. His history of such comments may have prompted a hilarious drag-queen Wilson Phillips parody (NSFW, and also an ear-worm warning) but Cathy’s words alone did not prompt calls for a boycott.

Those came after it was learned that Chik-fil-A’s corporate foundation was supporting groups like the Family Research Council. The FRC is a political lobby (and also, according to the SPLC, a hate-group). Chik-fil-A’s support for the Family Research Council and it’s viciously anti-gay agenda is a political act. It is an act of power against others and a use of power to harm others.

It seems strange that many evangelicals do not understand why those others — the victims or targets of Chik-fil-A’s politics — might thus be unhappy with Chik-fil-A. But that’s because this unhappiness has to do with substance, not with “stances.”

And if it’s not all about the proper stance, then these evangelicals just don’t understand what you’re saying.

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  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Thought of a good example re the consumer choice thing:

    My local shops has a funky little cafe. It does no advertising and is extremely popular. It is owned and managed by women. It is explicitly gay-friendly and explicitly breastfeeding-friendly. It is vegetarian; at least a third of the menu is vegan and a similar proportion is gluten-free. Its coffee is exclusively fair trade and its eggs are exclusively free range. It composts all its compostable waste and recycles almost everything else. The food, coffee and teas taste great. It makes lovely little baked treats. It has a beer garden out the back, picnic tables out the front and cool bench seats with cushions inside. Its staff are friendly and provide great service. They cook right in front of you. There are a range of newspapers spread out for you to read. They’re happy for you to sit there for an hour with a coffee. The owner works on site, preparing food alongside the other staff. They have funky art on the walls and funky music on the CD player. They support local charities. They host various community events. They have a bulletin board outside that anyone is free to post messages on. They know the name and coffee order of the regulars.

    Any single one of these is an acceptable reason to choose to patronise this cafe over another. It’s no less valid to go there because you support their social model than because you like the taste of the coffee.

  • MaryKaye

    arcseconds writes:

    In particular, we should spend a lot of time considering what our
    employer is doing with the money we earn for them. 

    I do think we should more spend time on this. I think the scientists who work for tobacco companies or for the more evil agrobusiness companies should think about it more.  (_The Insider_ is a good movie about this.)  In hard economic times you may have to choose working for a bad company as the lesser evil, but you should always be consciously making that choice, and looking for ways either to make it less evil or get out of there when you can.

    I let myself be elected to the Faculty Senate (it’s not considered an honor) three times because I think it does matter what the University does with the money I earn for it.  I found out the Senate doesn’t have much power, but at least we used what we had.

    Whatever advice I’d give someone banking at BoA to move to a credit union, I’d be much more emphatic to someone *working* at BoA.  Sure, one employee won’t matter to them any more than one customer will.  But you do yourself much more harm, in my opinion, working for an evil organization than merely doing business with one.  You can get compromised in all sorts of ways.

    If my university started asking for loyalty oaths (there was an intense debate about this on John Shore’s blog recently) or pressuring me to fix grades, I’d know I ought to either be somewhere else, or digging in for a hard fight.

  • arcseconds

    Yes, I agree, but only with the caveat that these decisions are for people with viable economic alternatives.

    I’m not going to tell someone who’s been unemployed for six months who’s just managed to land a job at Chick-Fil-A to resign immediately because of FRC.

  • Ursula L

    When mayors say things like that there is no place for CFA in their city, because CFA provides financial support for discriminatory anti-QUILTBAG political activity, they aren’t merely talking about wanting to deny permits or just following the lead of local voters who elected them or donated to their campaign. 

    They’re also providing leadership.  They’re promoting a particular view of what kind of city they think their city should be.  They’re letting people who support discrimination know that their behavior is inappropriate and discouraged as harmful to the community,even if it isn’t illegal.  They’re letting people who oppose discrimination know that their behavior is desirable, part of being a good citizen, and valued within the community.  

    Political leaders, at least the good ones, don’t merely provide leadership in the policies they carry out politically.  They also use their influence in the community to share and spread what they consider to be good social and political values.

    For example, when Obama finally spoke out in favor of same-sex marriage, some people thought their might be a backlash from the African American community, where support for same-sex marriage and QUILTBAG civil rights was mixed.  Instead, polls after the fact showed a change in what people in the African American community was thinking about same-sex marriage and QUILTBAG rights.  Obama is a respected leader, particularly in that community.  When he explained what he thought, and why, people listened.  And some found what they heard convincing.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/black-shift-on-gay-marriage_n_1540160.html

    When a mayor says that CFA will not find a warm welcome in their city as long as they’re actively working to oppose QUILTBAG rights, they’re speaking about what they want their community to be.  

    A place where if you oppose civil rights, your friends and neighbors, customers and business whom you work with, will all look at you and decide that you’re behavior is as harmful to the community as deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road or lighting fires in the wilderness in the middle of a severe drought.  Randomly dangerous and destructive, with no redeeming purpose.  And that they don’t want to have anything to do with you as long as you’re making the community a worse place to be.  

    The point is to tell CFA not “your politics mean you won’t get permits” but “don’t bother coming here, because since you’re telling us you’re going to actively work to damage our community by promoting discrimination, you won’t be finding very many people who want to associate with you.”  

    And it is to tell the people in the community “these folks at CFA, who just built a new store, have told us that they want to harm our community by promoting discrimination.   Just thought you’d want to know that, when you’re deciding where you’ll buy lunch.  And I think we should be the sort of people who’d rather buy lunch and a place that doesn’t actively promote discrimination than at a place that does actively support discrimination.  Don’t you agree?”  

  • Tonio

    The point is to tell CFA not “your politics mean you won’t get permits”

    While the statements I’ve read from the mayors come close to threats to deny permits, overall I agree with your point. Even if the mayors did intend to use the force of government to keep CfA out of their cities, trotting out the sad violins for the company shows a lack of perspective. 

  • Ursula L

    While the statements I’ve read from the mayors come close to threats to deny permits…  

    If mayors could unilaterally grant or deny permits, I’d be concerned about that.

    But in most places, mayors can’t do that.  There are zoning boards, and city counsels, and established departments in the city government that deal with permits routinely.  

    So it isn’t a case of a mayor or another elected official declaring that they’re going to decide one way or the other, and having the power to do so.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen mayors and other elected officials go miles in the other direction.  Picking a business that they think will be good for the community, and exerting considerable political will to help that business.  Pushing for the appropriate town/city/county/state/national legislature to approve tax breaks if the business moves in.  Advocating for approval of zoning variances and other things the business demands in return for moving in to a location.

    For example, here in Buffalo, a few years back, there was a huge official push to try and get a Bass Pro store in a particular location.  You saw all kinds of local elected officials going out of their way to make the city look appealing to the chain and advocating for public policy decisions that would get the chain to agree to establish a store in that location.  


    Communities have laws establishing things like zoning, construction permits, and acceptable design of new construction to meet the needs of the community. Such as requiring a certain amount of “green space” and limiting the height of buildings to avoid blocking sunlight from adjacent properties.  

    Communities also have provisions in those laws to allow construction in any given way, even if it violates some of the provisions of the basic code, if the builder/business owner can justify it and convince the appropriate officials and the public.  For example, pairing a plan to build a store and parking lot that has too little green space with buying land next to a public park and donating it to the public park so that it remains green, and the community has more green space than if they’d followed the code in the desired location and someone else followed the code in the proposed park space.  

    And there are also often regulations that require that development and construction to be formally approved, even if it meets the letter of the law. With public notice, and an official time during which anyone can comment on the plan and speak for or against approval. So that people in the community can have a say if the project will affect them.  Policies intended to manage the situation where there are powerful negative consequences to the proposed change that are clear in the specific situation at hand, even if they weren’t anticipated when the codes were initially written.  

    The process is supposed to be dynamic, to balance all the different interests that come together to create community.  


    In the context where advocating to modify and adjust public policy to favor this or that business is considered normal, then explicitly stating that you’re not in favor of a particular business moving in has little to do with directly blocking approval of bureaucratic approvals that fall within the current law. 

    Rather, it is about saying that any support for encouraging decisions to favor the business moving in isn’t happening.  If the business wants to move in, then it needs to follow the letter of the law and appropriate codes and regulations and on making the case for any needed variances on its own. Because the individual in question isn’t going to help with getting any needed variances in codes/regulations that fall within the law but which are not routine but rather subject to request, public comment, and decision making that is  intended  to help the community organize change in a way that is good for the whole of the community. 


    When the law is intended to be somewhat flexible, to balance the needs of the community and of individuals in the community, then it is the job of elected officials to use their power, both official and unofficial, in a way that benefits the community.  

  • Emcee, cubed

    Oh for fuck’s sake. Can we please not have another round of “but pedophilia is EXACTLY LIKE two consenting adults who want to spend their lives together”, and just tell the troll to go fuck themselves?

  • DCFem

    Deear Fred,spray for trolls.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    If this is to be a general principle, we should consider where all our
    money is going, not just what we might have spent at CfA.   That’s going to be pretty onerous.

    (Note: This may say “in reply to Lori” but I’m actually quoting arcseconds. I think.)
    This strikes me as a false obligation. I mean, yes, we all make the best choices we can with the resources we have, but one of those resources is “spoons.” You’ve only got so much time and energy and brainspace, so you pick your battles.

    Also, insisting that someone who would participate in a boycott must participate in ALL THE BOYCOTTS or else they are a DESPICABLE HYPOCRITE — isn’t there an item like that in Derailing for Dummies? Something like “Don’t You Have More Important Issues To Think About”? It’s often used as a silencing tool against feminists: If you’re so riled up about this woman getting fired for getting pregnant in Anytown, USA, why aren’t you also fighting against FGM in Africa? Why aren’t you fighting ALL THE BATTLES FOR ALL WOMEN THE TIME?!

    If you’ve got a bigotry you don’t want to see opposed, you can easily craft a version of this argument to your needs.

    So, no. I’ll be as careful as I can with my money in as many ways as I can, but bandwidth is limited, so I have to prioritize. It’s a human thing.

    (ObCFA: I grew up eating Popeye’s and I will die eating Popeye’s. The one time I had CFA it was wholly unsatisfying. Give me a crispy crunchy juicy 2-pc dark meat with sides of coleslaw and red beans & rice every time. AND THE BISCUITS OMG. So it would be disingenuous of me to say I’ve joined the boycott; CFA already weren’t getting my money.)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Aside on CFA:

    1. I always thought it was “Chick-Fill-uh” until Deird (?) explained the proper pronunciation.

    2. It doesn’t exist in Canada, so I didn’t even know what the Chick- (Chik?) Fil-A logo looked like until I saw the drag queen Youtube video.


    if CFA wanted to draw my attention as a tourist, they’ve succeeded … negatively. 

    EDIT to add:

    The moral of the story is that a company doesn’t need to do much to get my dollars. Even just a simple statement that they hire without discriminatory practices and make every effort to accommodate their employees (such as allowing same-sex partners on medical plans, etc) would be enough to give me a pleased feeling about shopping there.

    It’s always the jerkoid businesses whose CEOs seem to think showing off their personal bigotries and/or complete lack of concern for the well-being of ordinary people who earn ire very quickly.

  • Trixie_Belden

     I always thought it was “Chick-Fill-uh” until Deird (?) explained the proper pronunciation.

    Mee too!  I’m glad I’m not the only one.  I’m glad to say we don’t have any in my neck of the woods, so I guess that explains my misunderstanding.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Of course it is, but so is the seizure of property and assets. Although
    demagogues in the US have implied the latter as a straw man

    You should look up civil asset forfeiture in the USA sometime. It’s not just a crime combatting measure, it’s a veritable machine of wealth and income misappropriation by police and federal agents.

  • Tonio

     Yes, I’ve read about that, and I agree that it’s grossly unjustified. My point was limited to seizure of assets for the express purpose of reducing the wealth at the top and increasing it in the middle and at the bottom.

  • Regnarski

    Unfortunately based on what I am reading, there is a lot of hate on both sides.  :(

  • AnonymousSam

    What would be the more appropriate emotional response to being told that you’re a despicable, disgusting creature who wants to promote pedophilia as a form of spiritual enlightenment?

  • Tonio

    You might have a point if we were talking about a vocal minority of anti-theists who hurl insults at believers. But there’s no equivalence on the issue of same-sex marriage. One side seeks to limit individuals’ choice of spouse to only the other gender, and the other side seeks freedom of choice on the matter. Equivalency would be the other side seeking to ban opposite-sex marriage.

  • Amy

    EXCELLENT analysis, Fred.  As a former evangelical who is currently denied marriage equality in my state of residence, I understand both sides of the debate.  This piece is right on the money!

  • http://about.me/st.jon St.Jon Clark

    I really enjoyed this post and have watched this angry debate play out all day across my Twitter and Facebook with sadness.  
     I’m an Episcopalian and about as left leaning as they come, attended Duke Divinity for a year and all my normal compatriots are on the boycott bandwagon. I had been somewhat fond of Chik-fil-a’s Iced Tea, I had always thought being closed on Sunday was principled and I liked that they did so much for the local communities they were in. So I was pretty dismayed when the latest interview broke with Mr. Cathy. I think what bothered me most wasn’t so much his “stance.” Two things really bugged me. First, I’m a passionate Christian. The things he was describing as  Christian sickened me. It actually was very Old Testament stuff. I just don’t see Jesus lining up next to a very wealthy judgmental dude who is all about excluding people. It really offended the heck out of me that now even more Americans were going to link Christianity with this guy’s interpretation of it, and it wasn’t a merciful, compassionate loving interpretation. Second, it’s one thing to believe the way you do, but as your article points out, when you try to bring that into reality for others crosses the line. I heard even more recently that they are being sued for firing a female employee because the manager believed she should be a stay at home mom. It’s that tone, that kind of “we know best and we are going to force it on you” that’s so appalling to me. I just don’t support funding groups that promote hatred, intolerance or try to bring their religious worldview into reality through laws. Scary. I posted on my Facebook asking that my family and friends refrain from eating there because however they feel, it’s fast food and it will kill you. Not only is it true, after reading the interview and knowing where the  money goes and what they of God…it would leave a terrible taste in my mouth. 

  • Steve

    This is a really good read for me.I like the way you describe all the things and the examples.Thanks.