The Prideful, Arrogant President of Chick-fil-A
Why ignorance of human sexuality is dangerous.
Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/GettyImages.
For several tense weeks, our nation has been broiling unpleasantly in the cultural equivalent of polyunsaturated fat. And despite any profits or political points made during this Chick-fil-A debacle, I think we’ve all gotten a bit burned. As everyone now knows, this entire ordeal—from the Mike Huckabee-orchestrated “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” to the “Same-Sex Kiss Day” that came after, the talking heads, the relentless stream of articles and opinion pieces on the controversy, the thousands upon thousands of online comments, the vitriolic tweets, impulsive Facebook statuses, and equally tart replies, the strained friendships, heated arguments with family members, all of it—began when Chick-fil-A’s president*, Dan Cathy, said in an interview with the Baptist Press that the company was “guilty as charged” when it came to endorsing the biblical view of traditional marriage. Several days later, on the Ken Coleman show, Cathy clarified that when it comes to legalizing same-sex marriage, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”
When I first read about this story, it was actually mildly amusing to me. At least, it was amusing in the same way that the Crouches, that dazzlingly peculiar televangelist couple on TBN, unexpectedly paralyze my index finger while channel surfing. You may know the Crouches: She with Pomeranian on her lap, a towering pink wig on her skull, and tarantula lashes affixed to her face; he, slim, mustachioed, in a white suit, capped by a bounty of salt-and-pepper hair; both perched atop gilded thrones and cackling about sweet Baby Jesus while fleecing arthritic widows in Alabama whose most meaningful daily interactions are with expressionless, alabaster-faced dolls. As with these anomalous Crouches, with Cathy there was something so, what’s the word, absurd; something about this truculent, evangelical, Southern fried-chicken magnate getting so red in the face about an issue so completely innocuous as the gender of love. There’s nothing particularly new under the sun about Cathy’s religious beliefs concerning homosexuality, of course, but for him to be such a perfect caricature of scornful, Americanized Christianity, was a welcome diversion from whatever it was I was writing at the time. Imagine if Elmer Fudd had a love child with Jesse Helms’ mother, and there, I thought to myself, you have Dan Cathy.
But then the story became more worrisome than comical. It turns out that Dan Cathy, along with his father, Truett, oversees a “charitable endeavor” called the WinShape Foundation. This decades-old private foundation is fueled by Chick-fil-A revenue and—distressingly so for those in the LGBT community—it’s been promiscuously using high-profit margins from the sale of all those slaughtered cocks to further anti-gay causes, funding notorious groups such as Exodus International and Focus on the Family. “So what’s the problem?” replied Cathy supporters once these facts became widely known. (I’ll paraphrase en masse for both sides what I understand to be the central points of each.) “Free speech is still legal in this country, right? And gosh darn it, a man can do with his well-earned money whatever it is he wants to do with it in the U.S. of A., so long as it’s legal.” “But don’t you understand?” countered the other side. “This isn’t about a business owner’s religious freedom, or his right to voice his opinion and invest in political causes that he favors. It’s about our troubling willingness to patronize a company that so brazenly sinks its funds into hate campaigns and whose president genuinely believes that God will seek terrible vengeance on us for our country’s growing tolerance of homosexuals.”
If it’s not already perfectly clear, I’m firmly on the side of the latter. That is to say, on the side of good and the side of sanity. Sure, fine, technically, Cathy and his compatriots at Chick-fil-A aren’t violating anyone’s civil rights. To the contrary, as many Democrats and Republicans alike have explained, Cathy runs his Chick-fil-A enterprise in the quintessential American spirit. But Cathy’s business sense isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem is that he’s being a real American in another sense, one that is not a compliment to our nation.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when business owners in Southern states proudly poured their riches into segregationist causes. These investment strategies (and the political fruits they bore) helped keep “Negroes” in their place as second-class citizens. And just as we’ve been seeing with the enthusiastic support for Chick-fil-A by the “moral majority,” the racist business models of those segregationists rallied local social conservatives. Like the WinShape Foundation’s shameless use of Chick-fil-A proceeds to support the efforts of the Family Research Council, as well as many other anti-gay outlets designated as official hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a wealthy white citizen’s public segregationist stance back in, say, 1960 Mississippi or Tennessee, and his decision to put his company’s proceeds into racist political causes, was not only perfectly legal but hailed by most of his customer base. After all, just as same-sex marriage is today, the rights of blacks were a “political issue.” People spoke of “personal beliefs” about whether blacks should vote, marry outside their race, drink at public water fountains, swim in public pools, attend schools with white students, or sit in the front of the bus. Those whose “personal belief” was that blacks should be socially quarantined from whites felt absolutely no reason to apologize. People were “entitled to their opinions.”
Fortunately for African-Americans, the U.S. government, which grows sluggishly, if incrementally, in its social conscience, eventually joined them and threw its weight into their tireless crusade against bigotry and prejudice. Federal civil rights laws effectively obviated the “personal beliefs” of those who continued to view blacks as lesser beings, making these people’s “opinions” completely irrelevant as to what African-Americans should or shouldn’t do in our society. In other words, the racists were stripped of their democratic voices—and a very good thing that was, too, as it’s clear even today that many white Americans remain of the opinion that blacks are inherently inferior to them. Racism persists, but at least racists have been formally politically defanged. Homophobes, meanwhile, have not. (Before I get complaints about the semantic misfit of the label homophobe, pointing out that one is not “afraid” of gays but rather disagrees with the “gay lifestyle,” feel free to replace it with “bigoted asshole.”)
Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (July 2012). He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. His next book will be on the curiously scandalous science of human sexuality. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.