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

‘Stance’ vs. substance: why evangelicals are confused about the actual harm Chik-fil-A is doing to actual people July 30, 2012

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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