Current Events, Faith — August 3, 2012 5:30 am

The Thing Behind The Thing: Free Speech And What Supporting Dan Cathy’s Freedom Of Speech Means

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Patrons wait in line on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day

In my parents house there are a collection of things that belong to me from my childhood. Some books, several pictures, old video games, a few trophies. Most of this stuff doesn’t have much monetary value. But that’s not why I keep them. Their significance is not in how much money they are worth. That’s because their real value comes from the memories attached to them. Do I need to keep the trophy with the basketball figure on top and a cheap “gold” plated face? No. It’s just a cheap trophy.

But it’s actually some thing more.

It’s a memory. There’s something deeper at play than just a trophy. It represents a three-on-three basketball tournament that I would play in every summer with my friends. Our families got together for one weekend and had a great time playing basketball, eating together and above all laughing.

It’s a trophy, yeah. But it means a whole lot more.

You and I ascribe meaning to lots of things in our lives. We say things and act in ways that mean something much deeper than our words or behavior alone would suggest. It’s the thing behind the thing. The meaning behind the meaning.

Rob Bell touches on this in his book Sex God.

“This physical thing – this picture, trophy, artifact, gift – is actually about that relationship, that truth, that reality, that moment in time. 

This is actually about that.

One of the most common objections to my reflection yesterday was that “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” was about freedom of speech.

Readers believed that my argument – that how we responded in the public realm was not a truly loving response to our neighbors – was missing the point of the protest, or appreciation day, or whatever you want to call it.

But as I thought more about it, I don’t think that was the point.

You see this is always about that.

Freedom of speech was never the issue.

I’m not sure how this notion got started. Until the day of the event not a single person I interacted with on both sides of the coin made the claim that Dan Cathy’s freedom of speech was being called into question.

Nobody wanted to censor Dan Cathy for his comments. He has the right to them. And just like his opponents he has the freedom to make them. And when the dust settled yesterday (has it really settled?) both sides affirmed that freedom of speech was still breathing.

That’s not the issue.

This is really about that

A protester outside the Chick-fil-A 16th Street Mall location on Wednesday. (credit: CBS)

James McGrath brings up a good point about what I think was the real issue at play yesterday: where Chick-fil-A’s money is being spent.

“The issue of free speech only comes up in one specific area, namely Dan Cathy’s support for at least one organization (to which his donation was relatively small compared to others) that advocates the recriminalization of homosexual acts and brands all homosexuals as pedophiles. The organization in question is known as the Family Research Council.

I am not sure whether any of the other organizations have taken stances for similar things. And just to be clear, in not focusing on the topic in this blog post, I am not saying that the stances that those organizations do adopt, such as opposing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, are not problematic. I am focusing here on the one organization which I can say with confidence represents a clear threat to freedom of speech. Because gays and lesbians would not be able to be active, vocal participants in the current discussions if they were all considered criminals.”

So as I and many others see it Dan Cathy’s beliefs are not the issue. The issue is where the profits from your money go.

Another common objection was that I was ridiculing other Christians for standing up for a brother who stood up for what he believed.

To which I respond. But at what cost?

Matthew Paul Turner made 5 great points why the church failed yesterday. He discussed why supporting Chick-fil-A on this particular day had its consequences.

“Yesterday’s campaign, while I don’t think it should be considered or called “hate,” neither can it be called love. Christians all over America ignored the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbors. Call yesterday what you want, freedom of speech, a rally behind “family values,” a sincere fascination with CFA’s brand of fried poultry… but it cannot be called love. It was not love.

People felt hate and we ignored that. At the end of the day, regardless of whether or not your Christian understanding of scripture harbors hate or not, a large group of people felt hated. Again, we can debate this point all day long, but that does not change the fact that people felt hatred because of what happened yesterday. Whether or not hate actually existed is not the point, people felt hated. And rather than acknowledging those feelings or trying to understand or engage them in any way, Christians everywhere marched off to their local CFA like it was a cross to bear, a necessity, a battle cry of some sort, the waffle fry’s last stand.

By rallying behind CFA, Christians put an issue above people. And it’s impossible to follow Jesus when issues trump people. Jesus never said “love God, love causes.” That is not the message that gets preached in churches all over America on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard a hundred different explanations from patrons of yesterday’s rally and nearly every one of them gives precedence to “the cause”. We can’t embrace love, mercy, hope, and peace when our causes (or a place of business) trumps people.”

Free Speech Movement rally, UC Berkeley, November 20, 1964

Free speech in a free nation

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. He has written at length about how followers of Christ should serve the common good in his book A Public Faith. In it he gives a sketch of how Christians can engage in public politics. This political project, originally proposed by Nicholas Wolterstorff, has 4 propositions. They are as follows.

  1. Because there is one God, all people are related to that one God on equal terms.
  2. The central command of that one God is to love neighbors – to treat others, as we should like them to treats us as expressed in the Golden Rule.
  3. We cannot claim any rights for ourselves and our group that we are not willing to give to others.
  4. Whether as a stance of the heart of as outward practice, religion cannot be coerced.

Whether or not a religious community will actually embrace this kind of project depends on a number of factors. Religious communities are more likely to adopt this political arrangement if they are in the minority, because without it their voice will likely fly under the radar. However if it is in the majority, which whether you think so or not, Christianity in America is, then it may reject this project because it might hurt their privileged status.

This is where I believe American Evangelicals are today. Unwilling to hold their beliefs closely, but privately even though it infringes upon the rights of others. Because let’s face it we are in the majority and have enjoyed the benefits of it for a long time. Not in every arena, but that’s a part of democracy: compromise. And that’s okay. Christianity has survived in a lot more oppressive environments. We do the name of God no favors by failing to love our neighbors by an unwavering stance of moral superiority.

So let’s revisit what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

J.R. Daniel Kirk, in his book, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?, asks two important questions that Christians ought to wrestle with when we deal with this issue.

“What does it mean for me to love my homosexual neighbor as myself?

What does it look like for me to do unto my homosexual neighbor as I would have done to myself?”

Christianity is not the only tradition with a Golden Rule type teaching. However, Jesus’ words are unique. Other traditions urge that we avoid the negative: “Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Jesus’ words charge us with the positive: “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” (Matt. 7.12)

Kirk argues,

“In other words, it is not a sufficiently faithful enactment of the Christian story to refrain from going out with the “God Hates Fags” sign. Abstaining from such action is refraining from doing unto others what I would not have them do unto me. But it is not yet doing what I would like to have done for me. It is incumbent on us to show the homosexuals in our communities that we will work tirelessly for them to have what we would never stand to be deprived of ourselves.”

And in this case it’s equal rights.

Is showing up to support Chick-fil-A based on one man’s belief despite the many people that are hurt in the process because they are unable to have the same rights as you and I the best way to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Sure, our natural inclination is to stand up and be heard. To not back down. But is that the kind of model we see in Jesus’ ministry? Or was his a more humble, servant like attitude that didn’t seek political power in that way? It seems to me that we find Jesus more at odds with the religious leaders who believed that they had a monopoly on morality and they exhibited a moral superiority over others. With these people do we find Jesus clashing with the most.

Let me close by saying this. Christians – good, kind, compassionate Christians – on both sides of this issue are entitled to their beliefs. In my last post I encouraged that one hold on to one’s convictions. I still believe there is an appropriate time and place for that discussion to take place. I just do not believe it was on August 1 at Chick-fil-A in front of a watching world that now has one more reason to think Christians are judgmental and unfair. Just because you have the right to say something or gather or support an organization through a mass outing does not make it right to do so.

I was hoping to think of the perfect way to close this piece but Rachel Held Evans said it far better than I could ever dream to.

“As Christians—conservative and progressive, gay and straight, activists and slacktivists—we must direct our efforts instead toward bridging this divide, which is going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of disappointment, a lot of tears, a lot of compromise, a lot of honesty, a lot of mistakes, a lot of apologies, a lot of listening, a lot of forgiveness, a lot of meal sharing, a lot of gospel.

In other words, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more effort than either eating or avoiding a chicken sandwich.”

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7 Comments

  • Gus Macker.

  • Dig it, apparently theological educations do still matter!

  • At what cost indeed. As much as I love the First Amendment, I love Jesus more.

  • It’s inarguable that if we make this issue solely about gay marriage, it’s a loss for Christians. I would hope that conservatives and Christians would support any organization that had its rights threatened and received hate for the personal beliefs of one of its leaders, because we especially know the damage done by persecution and restriction of speech.

    That said, you lose me and reveal your “bias” (for lack of a better term) when you say things like, “despite the many people that are hurt in the process because they are unable to have the same rights as you and I.”

    There isn’t one right that “we” have that homosexuals do not have. Homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals. And before you say that “gay marriage” is an example of a right denied to gay people, remember that straight people can’t be married to the same sex, either.

    Additionally, whether or not actual hate existed DOES matter in these issues. People, including Christians, do not have the right to simply take offense because they want to. Offense is taken, not given, and people can choose to not take offense simply because of someone else’s beliefs.

    All that said, I do agree that making this about anything other than free speech is a mistake.

  • It’s also worth pointing out that the First Amendment provides protection from government-censored speech. With the notable exception of Boston’s mayor threatening to keep Chick-fil-a from his city (which was stupid, kneejerk rhetoric), none of this has ANYTHING to do with free speech.

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