Chick-fil-A: Are boycotts (and anti-boycott appreciations) faithful politics?

Facebook is abuzz today (as it has been for over a week) with people showing their support or their distaste for Chick-Fil-A and president Dan Cathy’s recent statement of opposition to gay marriage.  I’m not going to take sides here, but I do want to challenge those who identify as Christians with the question of whether boycotts are ways of engaging those with whom we disagree that fit with our call to follow in the way of Jesus?

A boycott is, in essence, returning evil for evil; you have said or done something that has hurt me, so I will retaliate at your economic existence by withholding my business and encouraging others to do likewise.  I grew up in the thick of evangelical culture in the 1980s and it seems like we were always being asked by the right-wing powers that be to boycott this company or that company because they did something that offended our “family values.” And of course, the boycott has been used as a tool by those on the progressive side of the spectrum too, as we see in the current Chik-fil-A situation.

There are some very deep divides in American culture, as Bill Bishop has explored in his 2008 book The Big Sort: Why The Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing us Apart.  The culture wars have been raging for several decades now, and the boycott is one of the key tactics of both sides.  The boycott and the anti-boycott show of support only serve to deepen divides between us and our neighbors of differing perspectives, as we come to see our identities first in our ideology, rather than as a human created in the image of God.

As I was beginning to write this post, I stumbled on my friend Branson Parler’s excellent article “Why eating at Chick-fil-A isn’t the same as taking communion,” which develops the above points more eloquently than I could do. The heart of Branson’s argument (though I encourage you to read the full article) is:

Christ’s presence produces peace that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, in the 1st and the 21st century. In response, we can disenchant the sacramental world created by the culture wars by simply carrying on with our activities in such a way that doesn’t compute with the logic of the ideologies of both left and right.

So, if I am hungry for a chicken sandwich, I will eat at Chick-fil-A. What is the meaning of this? Simply that I’m hungry for a chicken sandwich. If I want to watch the Muppets, I will. What is the meaning of this? Simply that I find the Muppets amusing. We typically do not ask about the religious affiliation of our plumbers, grocers, accountants and mechanics because we recognize the reality of common grace. In a similar way, we should recognize that the political positions of our retailers, book-store clerks, Internet providers and pharmacists are not as big of a deal as we are often led to believe.

In the end, being pacifists in the culture wars may turn out to be the best way to embody the Christian worldview. Instead of worrying about winning, we can start to truly seek the shalom of the culture to which we’ve been sent.

Although I agree with Branson’s theological interpretation here, I have to wonder about the implicit economic vision: are we bound to the self-narrated economics of consumerism? (i.e., if I want to do this, I will do it, regardless).  Yes, there is freedom in opting out of the culture wars, but I would argue that we use that freedom to begin imagining and implementing local economies of care, where we know the people who produce our food and goods, and where each transaction is one of mutual care: the seller expresses care by offering quality goods at a fair price, and we return the care by paying that fair price (or even more).  Neither side is out to gouge the other.   As we abide over time in these local economies of care, we will build friendships in which we can eventually, and hopefully more peaceably, discuss deeply held political values.   This is a slow, local and conversational approach, it focuses on making friends and not enemies.

Yes, let us lay down the boycott and the other weapons of the cultural warrior, and let us begin to make friends instead of enemies, beginning in our very own neighborhoods.  Let us ask ourselves the question: what is our primary identity? It is in the Right or the Left? Or is it in the People of God that have been called in Christ?

  • tanyam

    I’m sorry, I don’t agree.

    I would identify with the left side of this conversation, and I have a memory of just how important it was to the anti-apartheid movement when colleges, state governments and church pension funds divested from South Africa and boycotted that nation’s cultural exports. It was non violent, but it was confrontational. What you are asking for reminds me of saying, “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Smoothing the waters for the sake of peace in the face of injustice.

    I have gay friends whose inability to marry is not a distant fact of a culture war, but a daily reminder that their primary relationship is not to be taken as seriously as mine. If a partner is disabled, or dies, the other will not receive disability or social security support — even thought they’ve built a household together, raised children together. In nearly 30 states, it is possible to be fired from your job because you are gay. I find that appalling.

    I also don’t view Chik Fil A as a mom and pop small business. They are a multi-million dollar enterprise. By all means, let us treat neighbors and relatives and friends with love and generosity — but the law of love does not require me to spend my money in fast food franchises who will spend a portion of their profits to attack rights I believe should be extended to my friends.

    Finally, have we forgotten history so soon? Boycotts are not “evil for evil.” For King, for Gandhi, they meant non-cooperation with the status quo. They could be done with dignity and resolve, and yes, even with love. They were non-violent — in action and in speech, and the reaction they provoked served to draw the injustice to the surface, and to make it clear to everyone who could otherwise afford to ignore a segment of humanity that something was definitely wrong.

    I think Christians need to re-read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail once a year, and ask if we are “loving our neighbor,” or are simply conflict-averse.

    All this said, I believe the right leaning side of the Christian church may well be getting the message that its boycotts are not winning friends. Boycott Disney for welcoming gay people, gleefully flash a chik-fil-a wrapper at me, and at a good swathe of America, and you will find yourself ignored or despised. But I’d like to think that if I’m hated for sticking up for the families I know, I can totally live with that. Again, think South Africa. Those churches that supported apartheid were rightly said to have supported injustice, those churches that did not, who divested, or individual Christians like Tutu who begged others to boycott, were, by history, shown to be in the right.

  • erbks

    For anyone interested, there’s some hearty discussion of this post on my facebook page:

  • James Williams

    Boycotts are not necessarily returning evil for evil. My observation is that people on both sides of this argument have been returning evil for evil for the entire 15 or so days that it’s been a story. First, (let’s be honest here), a news story publishes Cathy’s quotes somewhat out of context, with the apparent goal of making them seem as if they were regarding same-sex marriage (in fact, two interviews took place, and in one of them, Cathy was talking about a ministry which helps people in troubled marriages avoid divorce and stay together; he wasn’t even talking about gay-related topics at all).

    Second, those who were offended by Cathy’s stance chose to make this a big story. I’m not sure why this blew up bigger than, say, the rainbow-Oreo story from earlier in July. Or the JC Penney thing from a few months ago. But for whatever reason, the folks on one side of the issue clearly are louder than those on the other side. Just sayin’.

    Third, conservative Christians, prompted by Huckabee, decide to stick it to liberals by making plans to eat at CFA on Aug 1.

    Fourth, those who oppose said Christians call for counter events such as same-sex kissing on CFA premises, or going in and asking for free food and/or water, either Aug 1 or 3, depending on what you’re reading.

    From my perspective: both sides are acting like little kids. Cathy gave his personal opinion, which he is entitled to. His company donates money to keep laws in place which are in line with his views. For lefties to call him homophobic without using the same terminology on Obama and Clinton when they opposed same-sex marriage comes across as hypocritical. It seems that party affiliation is more important than anything else.

    And for my fellow bible-believing Christians, we have shamelessly ignored Jesus’ directives to turn the other cheek. It’s perfectly OK to try to be separate from the world; it’s not OK to give the world the finger.

    God gave us plenty of examples in Scripture of how to respond. When Peter was in jail, the other Christians were in a house, praying (Acts 12:5). When Jesus warned that the world wouldn’t like His followers, He said to turn the other cheek, love your enemies, etc. I fail to see how Huckabee’s idea is in line with that.

    • James Williams

      In my list of childish responses, I neglected to mention the mayors of Boston, Chicago, and other cities. Consider it inserted into the above rant.

      • tanyam

        James, I agree with you that the mayors were out of line. And even as a progressive, I am not alone. The ACLU has risen to Chick Fil A’s defense. Glenn Greenwald on Salon is another progressive columnist calling such words out of line.

        I don’t know how you can be sure that one side is “louder” than another — at this point it is all in the blogosphere, and it sure looks like it depends where you look. As long as some states are going to insert into their constitutions that gay marriage will never be allowed, and as long as it is possible to be fired simply for being gay in about half of states, — I’d say the conservatives are winning the larger argument in ways that count. But I do think the tide is turning. … certainly outside of the Bible belt. And make no mistake, those victories have infuriated those who see such legislation as unjust. People holding the minority view have little to do but squawk, and then squawk louder. Chick fil A may have reaped the collective frustration over all that legislation, and story after story of violence against gay people and the suicides of young people. Mr. Cathy’s remarks galvanized frustrated people. And many of us were not unaware of efforts to boycott JCPenneys, or Disney, or Starbucks for their pro-gay policies.

        Finally we shouldn’t be too surprised that any large movement attracts the “immature” as well as the mature. It has ever been so for social movements and their counter-movements. The abolitionists had their John Brown, we have the silly kissing crowd. The conservative side has Mr. Huckabee, and the Westboro folks. I bet we’re all annoyed by the extremists.

        I’m not sure why we need to study the transcripts of Cathy’s remaks — as you have conceded, he has traditional views on marriage, and has given money to support groups which support that view and legislation which would press the point.

        For my part, I’m not going to eat at Chik fil A, though I defend the man’s right to think and say what he wants — I just don’t have to financially support his business, the profits from which support a cause I believe is unjust. I will also write the company a letter, explaining, politely but clearly , why Cathy’s opinion and public comments grieve me. Over the years I’ve writen similar letters, signed petitions, and otherwise protested Don’t Ask Dont Tell, and DOMA — phenomena which greatly disappointed many of us in both Obama and Clinton. I hardly feel I’ve been hypocritical in my expressions of disappointment in all of these men. I also don’t imagine you’d have to spend a lot of time googling to find protestors outside the White House during the time these matters were in the public eye.

        • James Williams

          Thanks for your very reasonable and polite reply. I’ll simply chime in on a couple things I’m not in agreement with, only for clarification, not for the purpose of being combative:
          1. The reason I said the Left is louder is simply because, while there was some complaining about the rainbow Oreo and Ellen/JCPenney, the fact is that the outcry wasn’t nearly as loud as it has been for the Chick-Fil-A story.
          2. I’d question the truth of the assertion that you can be fired for being gay (except in the case of if you work for a religious organization whose core beliefs would conflict with acceptance of homosexuality). Do you have a cite for that stat?
          3. I do agree the tide is turning and conservatives are upset about it. I am a theological conservative myself, but I’m more unhappy about the tide turning within the Church than any laws that are out there. The acceptance of sin is very problematic to me.
          4. I do not agree with your assessment of Huckabee as an extremist.
          5. I’m glad you haven’t been hypocritical. I stand by the idea that those who called Cathy a homophobe, but didn’t send the same kind of venom Clinton or Obama’s way, are, at the very least, inconsistent. Well, it’s very consistent if you consider the party line. Then it becomes this is more about which political party you belong to than anything else.

          For the record, I am alienating both sides with my views this week. I am against the Aug 1 events because it seems to me that Scripture never, ever tells us to take a stand for what we believe, beyond our own personal lives. In fact, my reading of it leads me to conclude just the opposite. And that makes my rightie friends angry, because I’m not following the party line on this one.

          • tanyam

            Hi again James,
            1) I see where you’re coming from, that this incident has produced more “heat” than the others — I’m just not sure in the end whether there will be more people running to eat there today, or boycotting or going to kiss there — whenever that date is. Or, from whichever side, shouting, or blogging, will be more rigorous.
            2) The Human Rights Campaign (a gay advocacy organization) has this page with information about what states have adopted laws that protect workers for sexual orientation –like age discrimination protection. You can find it here. It also tells you about hospital issues, etc. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act is a piece of federal legislation that has been kicked around Congress for the past couple of decades. Organizations like HRC would like to see it passed because it would be federal legislation that would protect lgbt people from job discrimination and that way this would not require passage, state by state. But Congress isn’t showing any enthusiasm to deal with it. But I’ll give you this — generally speaking, people don’t say, “I’m firing you because you are gay.” But if there is a law that prohibts that in your state, as there is in mine, then you can sue if you suspect that’s why you were fired, and sometimes, though likely not often, you can prove that this was the reason. I do know someone, a lesbian, who believed she was fired from an office job because of her sexuality, hired a lawyer, went to court, and demonstrated a pattern of weird comments and behavior by her boss, and won a judgment, which included some financial compensation. Had the law in my state not stipulated that protection explicity, she would have had nothing but her unemployment check. 3) Maybe the accurate thing to say is that the tide is turning and everybody is mad. Conservatives are angry because they are losing in some corners, progressives are angry becasue they are losing other battles, but are maybe more optimistic that they can fight and win. So I suspect there will be more pushback at comments like Cathy’s. I have no crystal ball, but I suspect we’ll see gay marriage legalized in more states,and generally speaking, wider acceptance. But what happens in the federal government may impact that one way or another.
            4) Actually, I meant for Huckabee to stand as a more moderate spokesperson, in contrast with the Westboro people. Not as an extremist. Sorry I wasn’t clear about that. I had abolitionists/John Brown, and meant for it to say Huckabee/Westboro as the contrasting figures for the other side.
            5) I understand what you mean about a double standard– but I’ve only known people who squawked less about Obama or Clinton because it was 15 years ago and people had less hope of legalizing gay marriage, or they decided, in politics, they were making choices between two politicians, and suspecting Obama might come closer on some things like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (which he did) than the Republicans ever would. Some people, like me, never believed that Obama was totally committed to keeping gay marriage illegal. Anyway, I just don’t know people who treat this as merely an issue to wield for some partisan gain. But sure, people picked their battles and when gay marriage seemed impossible, they were more likely to shrug it off.

  • Paul Chaplin

    I think I basically agree with all of what tanya said.

    I think too it’s important to distinguish between 3 different scenarios:

    1) Business owned by those who (to keep us on story and avoid abstraction) are against gay marriage, but don’t associate those beliefs with their business, and corporate profits do not fund anti-gay marriage campaigning.

    In this case I think a boycott is totally unacceptable. The business has nothing to do with their beliefs, and this would be revenge or punishment or warfare.

    2) Corporate profits are used for anti-gay marriage campaigning, but the company is not publicly declared as having a political agenda.

    Here, a boycott seems entirely legitimate – I would not want to contribute to funding a business that I believed to be furthering injustice.

    3) Whatever is going on in the background with funding, a business making a declaration that the business itself, as an entity, is against gay marriage.

    The tough thing here is that it’s an absurd and stupid thing to tie a view on gay marriage to a chicken store. Basically, if you’re going to politicise you’re business in such way, then a boycott is simply a vote against – I don’t personally see a problem with it. Hopefully other businesses will learn that it is ridiculous, and dangerous, make such declarations on any sort of political-moral question.

    Thankfully, if I ever return to the US, I’ll have enough reasons not to eat at Chick-fil-A (stupid name, sounds gross, I’m a vegetarian) to not have to traverse that moral obstacle course : )

  • J.g. Brown

    The boycott against Chic fil a was done in anger and was a vicious response to one mans right to say I do not agree. To now bring Christ into this and say in essences he would not agree with those who choose to fight that boycott not with violence or threat but with support is to do Christ harm. on one side we have violence and threats and condemnation of persons on the other we have people from all view points standing and saying the other is wrong. for in all the interviews I heard one fact rang through”we are here to support his right to speak and its not about the great chicken” they were and are supporting everyones right to freedom of speech. and friends Christ was not a pascifist….