Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pressed Chicken

Every Aug. 1, Christians who have lashed themselves to the liturgical calendar commemorate a member of the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem's council of Jewish elders, who issued a minority opinion on whether to persecute Jesus to death. Joseph of Arimathaea is famous not only for his defiance of majority rule but for giving up his own tomb to make sure that Jesus would get a proper burial.

Joseph is a patron saint of doing the right thing. What can his diligent discernment teach us on his feast day, when one of the questions before the American people was whether to feast at Chick-fil-A?

If the Foster Imposters really had their feathers set on giving their lives to be boneless breasts, this may have been their chance. At some Chicks-fil-A, white meat and tempers were sizzling. In the wake of CEO Dan Cathy's proclamations about biblical marriage, gay marriage advocates called for a boycott. The mayors of Boston and Chicago are trying to use the hammer of state power to ban new franchises. In response, Gov. Mike Huckabee and other boycott opponents called on friends of the company to get a tasty sandwich today. Even the ailing Billy Graham ordered in.

Here's how I serve up the issue.

If you don't like chicken hash, don't open the can. If my employees and franchisees depended, as Cathy's do, on selling as much chicken, fries, and ranch dressing as possible, I would confine my expression of my views about potential customers' race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political party, and positions on the Afghan war to Bible study, the dining room table, and Al-Anon meetings. That would be especially wise when it came to a flash point issue like gay marriage, which has split the American people almost exactly in half.

Boycotters should also count the chickens after they're deep-fried. I agree with Andrew Sullivan, who argues that marriage equity should be won at the ballot box and believes that the best response to Cathy's contributions to anti-gay marriage groups was Jeff Bezos' $2.5 million gift to the other side (chicken may by the only thing Amazon doesn't sell):
There is no contradiction between marriage equality and a robust defense of the rights of those who oppose marriage equality - including maximal religious freedom and maximal free speech. In fact, it is vital that we eschew such tactics, as they distract from a positive argument that has been solidly winning converts for two decades.
We may never learn whether boycotters are hurting the company more than Huckabee and Graham helped. Given the social and cultural demographics of those who are still eating a lot of fried chicken, not an especially enlightened food, Cathy may actually net out with even more eggs to pass along to his pet causes. The photo above, which I took tonight, doesn't do justice to the hundreds of cars and customers descending on the Yorba Linda store. Most probably don't like gay marriage. Some just may not like being told where to eat.

Chick-fil-A has a bone to pick with New Gingrich and Sarah Palin. Messing with the First Amendment is a treacherous business. When Gingrich was planning his presidential run, he found it politically expedient to stigmatize Muslim U.S. citizens who wanted to add a cultural center to an existing worship space near the World Trade Center. Palin and others joined in, doing considerable damage to our social and cultural consensus about bedrock constitutional principles. No one should complain about the infringement of Chick-fil-A's freedom of speech by the mayors of Boston and Chicago who didn't oppose the wannabe presidents who tried to deny freedom of religion to millions of Americans.

So call me chicken, but neither the boycott nor Chick-fil-A Day was for me. I voted against Prop. 8 and preached in the south Orange County, California parish that I serve in support of The Episcopal Church's recent decisions to permit the blessing of same-gender unions and prohibit discrimination against transgender persons who want to be deacons, priests, and bishops. As one might imagine from a glance at public opinion polls, not everyone at our church agrees. We remain together in community anyway. That may be just a little harder to do now that activists have labeled loyal Chick-fil-A customers as bigots.

Ross Douthat argues that, as with many wrenching social issues, the case for gay marriage is being made by appeals to reason as well as other means:
The cause of gay marriage has indeed advanced because many millions of people have been persuaded of its merits: No cause could move so swiftly from the margins to the mainstream if it didn’t have appealing arguments supporting it and powerful winds at its back. But it has also advanced, and will probably continue to advance, through social pressure, ideological enforcement, and legal restriction. Indeed, the very language of the movement is explicitly designed to exert this kind of pressure: By redefining yesterday’s consensus view of marriage as “bigotry,” and expanding the term “homophobia” to cover support for that older consensus as well as personal discomfort with/animus toward gays, the gay marriage movement isn’t just arguing with its opponents; it’s pathologizing them, raising the personal and professional costs of being associated with traditional views on marriage, and creating the space for exactly the kind of legal sanctions that figures like [Boston and Chicago mayors] Thomas Menino and Rahm Emanuel spent last week flirting with.
Boycott supporters are probably more interested in hurting Cathy's bottom line than pathologizing his customers. But now that the chicken wire has gone up, once again dividing us against one another, my junk food choices are complicated by political as well as nutritional considerations. I've had no chicken sandwiches and one hamburger since resolving to give up 30 pounds for Lent. But the next time I want one, I'll probably give Cathy and his local franchisee my business, because they make the best chicken sandwich in town. It's like the scene in "Broadcast News" in which a TV producer played by Holly Hunter tells a Nicaraguan contra to put on his boots if he wants to, not because her camera is recording the moment. I'll choose my chicken strictly based on what tastes best when I'm hungry. You can hold the secret semiotic sauce.

Is that what Joseph of Aramathea would have done? It depends on what he thought about the ethics of the marketplace, where he evidently had thrived. As long as businesspeople obey the letter and spirit of the law, they deserve to profit from hard work and reliable products. Boycotters should also think about the franchises' employees, who don't deserve to lose their jobs in this chicken-feed economy because of their big bird's big mouth. When it comes to politics, the same rule applies to Cathy and his critics. They belong in the voting booth, not the drive-through.


Unknown said...

This is "Spot On." Thank you for an insightful commentary on the all-to-hyped chicken wars. It is exhausting and distracting to constantly be fighting against something. Let's get on with the business of life at the center of the Holy.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, David. Blessings!