‘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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  • 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.

  • Victoria

     I think you did exactly right.

  • Ross Thompson

    Dierd tells me now there was a bill in the UK in 1833 – I actually thought it would have been illegal due to common law before that.

    There was a ruling in 1701 that  under common law, “no man can have a property in another”. So, you’re right. But: in 1729 the high court declared that the African slave trade was legal, and it became a fashion statement for the upper crust to have a young black slave (often a child). There’s little evidence that they were ever especially mistreated or overworked, but there were still numerous slaves in mainland Britain, not to mention many, many more in far worse condition in the colonial sugar plantations.

    It was in 1763 that slavery in mainland Britian became officially illegal (“as soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free”)*

    In 1807, it became illegal under British law to buy or sell slaves, but it remained legal to own them in the colonies until 1833.

    *Actually, that raises a good point; I’m talking about British law as a monolithic thing, but Scotland has an entirely separate legal system; does anyone know the history of slavery in Scotland?

  • Victor Savard

    (((This holds true even when the dissenting opinion is “Your belief that the government should endorse and enforce your faith is good reason for you to leave and found your own nation, this one has a first Amendment and we kinda like it, you privileged, self-entitled, jackass.”)))

    “IT” is a shame that to live does not allow U>S (usual sinners) to respond to everything that we would like to and if this remark is directed to Victor then you’re being too soft on him by simply calling him a jckass. What as the Anchoress turned Fred into! This is not the guy I knew of old, I mean comments here are to soft on Victor and………

    ENOUGH ALREADY sinner vic! Do you want to have me committed again? Did I not for you convince a Senior doctor that I was not all there and did he not check “IT” out by sending me for help and to top “IT” off did “I” not verbally go by-polar on this doctor who will remain nameless. Anyway, did me, myself and i not try to provoke him into keeping me at the hospital? Look sinner vic! This doctor in question after having read some of my writing simply said in so many words, “We can’t keep you here cause you’re not crazy!” So then who’s really the crazy “ONE” “I” ask? :(

    I hear ya folks! HEY VICTOR! WHY DON’T YOU ASK salvage?

    Come on guys and gals! We bigots and gay haters know that this salvage can no more exist than this so called “Jesus” who keeps allowing babies to be called a fetus just so “IT” can be killed. Hey NOW! I know why you’re so UP SET with U>S Victor?  You’ve probably heard that we planned to clone these fetus and use them as sacrifices at the altar in our new owned  world nation just like they did before this so called “Jesus” saved “The World” with HIS LAST SACRIFICE!

    Come on sinner vic! Do you really believe that and/or are ya just teasing again?

    GO FIGURE! :(


    Just ignore sinner vic cause like salvage, he’ll never change his ways folks!

    People are ya  just interested in a piece of sinner vic and/or a piece of salvage?


    Piece of cake! Right? :)


  • I get the feeling that people like this believe that businesses are entitled to every citizens’ money, regardless of whether or not they provide a useful service, regardless of whether or not they do a good job of attracting and retaining customers. To them, boycotting a business is like tax evasion; worse, even, since  a lot of them don’t have problem with the idea of not paying taxes as long as it was safe. It’s probably more like theft to them; you’re holding onto money that Chick-Fil-A is entitled to.

  • aunursa

    I haven’t gotten that feeling.  It’s true that some of the tens of thousands of people who are crowding into Chick-fil-A restaurants today* do so out of a matter of principle — they oppose politically-based boycotts in general.  But I expect that the majority of those in the overflow crowds are the same people who would happily boycott a business that promotes values or causes that they find offensive.

    * Several patrons are reporting lines as long as 1 1/2 to 2 hours at their local CFA.

  • 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!

  • arcseconds

    2) Sugar plantation slaves. North Queensland. Look it up.

    Thanks for this, I was not aware of it.

    In my few minutes of looking it up, these sites give the best overview:



    The wikipedia article required a wee bit of link following to get to.

    Interestingly, this happens for some time after the 1833 act, and while I’m sure this is either a hair-splitting difference or a purely notional one, often seems to be termed ‘indentured servitude’ rather than slavery.


  • PJ Evans

     Certainly the one that I see (from the train) had a lot more customers than usual this evening. About three times as many as usual.

  •  Sorry, that was meant as a reply to Loki1000’s Mike Huckabee quote about boycotts being a form of “economic terrorism”. The only way such a mindset would make sense is if the speaker (Huckabee) believes that businesses are entitled to everyone’s money, and that choosing not to shop somewhere or eat somewhere is the same as throwing a pipe bomb through their windows. Well, either that or Huckabee’s a total slimeball who constructs arguments to fit the situation with no regard as to how they would fit into an overall cohesive framework.

    I didn’t mean to generalize that belief to all of the people who support CfA’s stated stance; obviously many if not most of them oppose the boycott because they agree with Cathy, not because they think that boycotts are inherently evil.

    (I don’t know why Disqus left the “in reply to Loki” thing off of my post.)

  • aunursa

    Ahh, your comment makes total sense in that context.  Alas, Disqus failing to attach my comment to the comment to which I’m replying is one of several frequent frustrations.  However in this case, the mistake is mine, as I failed to click on the link to view the original comment.

    At any rate, I abhor the misuse of “terrorism.” to describe things that have no relationship to crimes against humanity.  And Huckleberry is an idiot.

  • Jvesper

     Wow, spectacular missing the point there!

  • Ross Thompson


    However in this case, the mistake is mine, as I failed to click on the link to view the original comment.

    Holy crap, you can do that? Wow. That makes Disqus almost usable.

  • Guest

    We should be encouraging the haters to go then. LOL

  • 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. 

  • Veggie Girl

     Planned Parenthood provides health services.  I went there for my well women care, because I was a student, my husband was the only one working, and money was tight.  I wasn’t going there for abortions.   Abortions make up a very small percentage of the services offered and rendered.   If a restaurant supported Planned Parenthood, which would mean that other young, married but financially not so great women could receive health care, I would be all for it. 

  • Veggie Girl

     You did right.

  • amycas

    You did the right thing. The part that irks me most about this story was her assumption that “all the shops around here are going to feel the same.” That’s privilege speaking and it’s not necessarily true. Also, even if the owners of the other shops help the same view, they probably weren’t all supporting a referendum or legal action. I have met people who are personally against same-sex marriage but would never advocate for laws against it. As Slacktivist put it so eloquently: I’m concerned with actions, not stances.

  • amycas

     NOM and organizations like it have in the past actually written the laws that are then proposed for legislation. They campaign for those laws. They make political ads for those laws and spread misinformation and outright lies about the implications of those laws. It’s not just speech. They actively campaign for anti-gay laws.

  • Russ

    I would find them respectable.

  • Steve

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