Chicken Sandwich with a Side of Shame

Little Rock Integration Protest

Little Rock Integration Protest (source Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday a right-wing,  fundamentalist preacher/politician/media personality urged his fans to go to Chick-fil-A to show their support for the company’s opposition to LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.  Purchasing a chicken sandwich, or refusing to do so, became a political statement leading to some of the most heated discussions I have ever seen erupting on Facebook.  I watched friendships end in rather dramatic ways, and I read vitriolic remarks of astonishing potency on both sides of the conflict.  Although I weighed in on plenty of these discussions in bits and pieces, I wanted to put all of my thoughts in one place:

It’s not about Freedom Of Speech

One aspect of the rhetoric that initially astonished me was the claim by many of the Chick-fil-A supporters that they were going to the restaurant to support Dan Cathy’s “First Amendment Rights” which – apparently – they thought were under attack.  If I understand their argument correctly, Mr. Cathy exercised his freedom of speech by publicly espousing his support for “biblical marriage” and the media response to his comments was an attempt to squelch Mr. Cathy’s right to speak his mind.

Mind you, no one told Mr. Cathy he could not say the things he said or had no right to say them.  No one refused to publish his comments.  In fact, they were reproduced in every possible media outlet.  They were tweeted and facebooked, they were mentioned on television news, and journalists reprinted them in print and online.  No one said Mr. Cathy should not be allowed to say or think these things.  No one challenged his First Amendment rights.

But “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I believe in Free Speech” is much more palatable than “I’m supporting Chick-fil-A because I oppose same-sex marriage.”  Hiding their true agenda like this is not a new tactic for the Far Right.  They already try to claim that opposing same-sex marriage is about protecting “family values” and “defending traditional marriage.”  Of course, the reality is that keeping people who would make great parents from adopting children is not supporting family values.  Similarly, keeping two people who love each other and want to make a lifetime commitment to each other from marrying is not protecting marriage.

In a similar vein, telling someone that something they said is bigoted and ignorant is not opposing Free Speech, it is using Free Speech in exactly the way the freedom was intended – to hold an idea up to public examination and critique in a way that allows for all sides of an issue to be considered.  Dan Cathy has a right to say any ignorant thing he likes, and we have a right to point out all the flaws in his statements.

The heart of the matter is that support for same-sex marriage and LGBT rights is rapidly becoming the norm in the United States and in the Western world.  Even Chick-fil-A realized this with their hastily-published attempts to back out of the debate.  Opponents of same-sex marriage realize that they have to cloak their rhetoric of hate behind innocuous or falsely positive language.  Otherwise, they will quickly be dismissed as ignorant, bigoted fundamentalists trying to hide a political agenda of exclusion behind empty religious claims.

Yes, this is Bigotry and Hate

All it takes is a quick look at what’s at stake, however, and it becomes clear that their arguments are just that.  I have already discussed how the claim by opponents of same-sex marriage that they are just being “biblical” is disingenuous at best and – more accurately – theologically indefensible.  I’ve also discussed why I insist on using the term “bigotry” when talking about those who oppose LGBT rights, but I am happy to elucidate further.

The only argument against LGBT rights (adoption, marriage, protection from discrimination) is one drawn from a particular interpretation of certain sacred texts, an interpretation is not even the normative one among mainline religious scholars.  When a person uses a selective, minority interpretation of sacred texts to withhold rights from another person, that is bigotry.  We saw this happen with slavery in the nineteenth century.  We saw this happen with religious opposition to women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century.  We saw this happen with the American Civil Rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century.  In fact, fifty years ago religious claims were frequently used to argue for sustaining the laws forbidding “interracial” marriage.

The pattern is the same every time.  When our understanding of biology, psychology, human nature, sex, gender, or ethnicity changes, the only way to sustain the superstitions of past generations is to argue from the religious texts written during those times.  Eventually, of course, even those arguments fail, and in hindsight future generations identify them as exactly what they were:  prejudicial ignorance.  I see absolutely no way in which the debate over same-sex marriage differs from the debate over two people of different ethnicities marrying, and so I label opposition to same-sex marriage as what it is:  bigotry.

That does not, necessarily, mean that it is hatred.  Sometimes prejudice can be well-intentioned in  its cruelty, rather than intentionally hateful.  And yet, many of us have charged that Chick-fil-A funds “hate groups” with their profits.  David Badash in the Huffington Post offered an explanation for why we make this claim.  His citations from GLAAD itemizing the comments from the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg give ample reason why the Southern Poverty Law Center considers FRC a “hate group.”

It is one thing to say (however erroneously) that “my religious beliefs require me to oppose same-sex marriage.”  It is another thing entirely to dedicate millions of dollars to spreading malicious misinformation about your fellow citizens in an attempt to deny them access to the same rights and freedoms others enjoy.  The former is simply ignorance, superstition, or bigotry.  The latter is hateful.

What Else Did that Chicken Sandwich Buy?

Our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, parents and children, teachers and warfighters and public safety workers, bosses and employees, friends and neighbors cannot help but hear it any other way.  For those of you who proudly purchased  a chicken sandwich yesterday, what message were you sending them?

Yesterday you told my two friends in California (who are legally married there) that they aren’t real mothers to their brilliant, charming, beautiful son.  You told them that they shouldn’t be allowed to have or raise children, and that it is biologically impossible for them to do as good of a job as opposite sex parents.  I have seen how they parent with wisdom, intentionality, and love. You are wrong.

You told my dear friends, one a professor and the other an artist, that their relationship of over thirty years is somehow inferior to the opposite-sex marriages we see falling apart all around us.  You said that their love, commitment, and sacrifice for each other – in the face of the additional hurdles of prejudice – don’t matter and aren’t worth the effort.  You have said that their love should not be honored, and that their values don’t support strong families.  I am in awe of the depth and maturity of their relationship.  You are wrong.

You told my various gay and lesbian friends who are pastors openly serving congregations that they have no place in the pulpit, and that their communities of faith are not welcome at your Eucharistic table.  You have said that the Sunday afternoons spent in hospital rooms, the 2 a.m. phone calls, and the lifetime dedicated to study, prayer, and service in answer to God’s call are meaningless and a source of shame to the Church.  You are wrong.

You have supported every parent who threw their child out of the house for their “sinful lifestyle choices” or shipped them off to be “re-programmed.”  You have supported every charitable group that fired a leader or denied a volunteer because their love for another person contradicted the organization’s “values.”  You have sided with the hospitals who have blocked people from sitting beside the deathbed of their lifelong partner.  You have joined your voice with the chorus of people who, through actions large and small, have insulted, wounded, marginalized, and excluded our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters.

You are free to do so.  Likewise we are free to point out that such behavior is shameful and has no place in twenty-first century society.

Final Thoughts

Dan Cathy, Mike Huckabee, the Family Research Council, and all those who supported their prejudicial policies of exclusion and ignorance yesterday are on the losing side of history.  They know this, and that is why they are trying to hide their reprehensible “values” of intolerance behind empty and irrelevant rhetoric of Constitutional freedoms.  We must look past the innocuous-sounding language to the actual consequences of their policies.  The reality is that anti-LGBT laws and practices destroy families, break hearts, scar souls, deprive children of loving parents, block hard-working professionals from experiencing the fruits of their labors, and in every way make us weaker, poorer, and less healthy as a society.  It is our duty as citizens, and as neighbors, to correct that shameful injustice by consistently and unequivocally standing against bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head:  in the classroom; in the legislature; in the pulpit, bima, or minbar; and yes, even in the fast food line.

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Avatar is not Anti-Christian

Neytiri - Avatar ScreenshotThis piece was picked up by Religion Dispatches and published here.

The conservative, evangelical Christian community has an automatic response to nearly every widely popular artistic creation.  As soon as a new one hits bookstands (Harry Potter), televisions (“Glee”), or the movie theater (Twilight), the far right has to condemn it.  The most recent example is James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar.  The movie’s worldview is the subject of countless critiques on conservative websites, and a discussion of its theology even made the New York Times editorial page.

Many of these articles attack the religion of the indigenous people of the alien planet Pandora for its pantheism and planet-worship.  Other articles challenge the anti-imperialist themes of the movie and their implied critique of current U.S. foreign policy.  All of this manufactured outrage – which presumably serves primarily to tack a political agenda onto a new cultural phenomenon – misses the mark by a wide margin.

First, Christians have always been able to find theological depth in stories and traditions that are not explicitly Christian or Jewish.  The first creation myth in Genesis, for instance, is a polytheistic account of a world made by a host of heavenly deities who appoint a sun god to “rule the day” and a moon god to “rule the night.”  Later in Genesis an ancient story about wrestling with a river god becomes the story that provides the nation of Israel with its name.  Much later on, the author of Revelation use the myth of Apollo’s birth as an image for the birth of the Messiah.  Christians can and should find truth in the beliefs of other cultures.

And the Na’vi are an alien culture in every sense of the term.  There would be little point in Cameron spending fifteen years creating the ecology and culture of another planet only to impose Christianity on it.  The religious beliefs of the Na’vi are completely consistent with the realities of life on Pandora.  Immersing ourselves in that world means experiencing the otherness of its theology along with its biology.

Of course, the beliefs of the Na’vi are not completely foreign.  Although they are in part shaped by their unique ecosystem, they also reflect a somewhat idealized synthesis of the nature religions common to the indigenous peoples who have borne the brunt of Western imperialism over the past few centuries.  Part of the genius of Avatar is reframing the conflict of imperialism away from battles among different ethnic groups.  Instead, in Avatar, all of humanity bears the collective guilt of imposing its selfish whims on an entire planet.

Avatar makes the sins of commercialism and Western triumphalism into universal, human sins; and it does so after helping us to lose ourselves completely in the lives of the native people threatened by human avarice.  As trite as this message might be, the human propensity for recreating these mistakes would seem to warrant Cameron’s retelling of this familiar cautionary tale.  Even were that not true, the beauty and passion with which he tells the story alone would make the repetition worthwhile.

It is the seductiveness of that vision that is the real threat to which these conservative pundits are responding.  There is no moral ambiguity in Avatar, and the clear villains are those who claim a manifest destiny for humanity and human commerce.  This is a direct threat to a hierarchical understanding of creation which, in placing humans at the top of a divinely ordained pyramid, is often used to justify the exploitation of the environment for short-term gain.  Such a view is not inherent in Christianity, but it is an essential tenet for those who wish to subvert Christianity into the service of their ethnocentrism and their greed.

The artistry of Avatar is not a threat to Christian belief, but it is a threat to arrogant assumptions about our own exclusive claims to truth, power, and wealth.  Dig deeply enough and it becomes clear that it is in fact these desires which many people actually worship (after layering a veneer of Christianity over them).  Unlike our fragile, human egos, the God of all creation is not threatened when we explore all of the possible permutations of that creation.  Nor is God minimized when we seek to understand those who honor that creation in different ways.

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