Pondering the Legacy of Truett Cathy

Truett Cathy

S. Truett Cathy –  source: Wikimedia Commons

In reading the reflections of my fellow Berry College alumni on the passing of Truett Cathy, I am reminded of the complexity in examining the life and legacy of an influential figure.

Mr. Cathy was a gracious man, unpretentious in every way, who always displayed kindness and compassion to the individuals he encountered. Most of my friends have said the same of him, although I must admit that other folks I know have mentioned past negative interactions with Mr. Cathy. I can only speak from my own encounters, which might have been influenced by the fact that as a southern, white, cis, male there would have been no reason for him not to be gracious to me.  Nevertheless, I think on the balance it is fair to describe him as a man who is widely praised for being exceedingly kind to strangers and who had a good heart.

On the other hand, he endowed a massive scholarship program at our college, and the recipients of that scholarship were required to live in accordance with Cathy’s fundamentalist values and participate in weekly sessions meant to inculcate and reinforce those values. The scholarship program itself, in its promotional materials, explicitly opposes “pluralism” – one of the fundamental values that Berry – or any college – should actively work to nurture.

From an alum’s perspective, I was there when the anti-LGBT language and the anti-sex language was put into the Viking Code. I saw the harm that it did, and I am fully aware of the destructive force those policies, and the others for which he advocated, are in the world.  The pro-LGBT group we tried to form on campus was rejected by the Board of Trustees (as a result, we were told, of the Cathy family’s influence); and it took many years for the group to finally receive official recognition.

The program founded by Mr. Cathy continues to advocate for the same extremist ignorance, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism that I saw regularly in the “theology” of the WinShape program back in my day at Berry.  His family, his company, and his church all appear to do the same. I am horrified by the fact that the man used his money and my alma mater as a way of reinforcing – rather than eliminating – the religious bigotries and ignorance of Berry College students. Who knows how many hundreds of people are out there now, continuing to harm countless others because they think their prejudices and ignorance are “biblical.” 

This is exactly why I (along with many others who study religion) identify fundamentalism as, by any functional definition, a force for evil in the world – however much good it may appear to accomplish along the way. In examining the legacy of Mr. Cathy, it is worth pondering how the pernicious and deceptive nature of fundamentalism – which hides behind the mask of biblical fidelity and morality – allows a good person with a kind heart and good intentions to do harm in the name of their god(s).

We are faced with the same enigma that arises when we consider the “good” people of the nineteen fifties who were also passionate segregationists. Likewise, we have the history of our nation’s founders who were simultaneously slaveholders. That fundamentalism – like slavery, racism, or misogyny – is evil is, I think, beyond debate for educated people. What we should ponder is how someone with good intentions and – according to all accounts – a good heart, could further promulgate evil to such an extent.

My intent is not to ridicule Mr. Cathy.  I have dear friends who loved and respected him greatly.  Some of them tell impassioned stories about how he changed their lives for the better. By all appearances, he wanted to be a force for good in the world. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about Mr. Cathy’s life, we must grapple with the conundrum of the identity of a kind man who meant well and did a lot of good while also doing a lot of harm. By doing so, we can not only offer a more honest eulogy, we also can make some headway into confronting the dangers of fundamentalism.

If history is any indicator, the legacies of people like Truett Cathy grow more tarnished with time, as society moves farther and farther from the superstitions and bigotries of past generations. Digging past the corrupting influences of religious fundamentalism might be the only way to preserve his legacy. At the very least, it might allow his life to be a cautionary tale for those of us who do not want to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.


As a PostScript, here is my response to the colleague from Berry who resented my characterization of fundamentalism as ignorant and evil:

Fundamentalism is – fundamentally – anti-intellectual. It rejects science and biblical scholarship in favor of a bizarre approach to selective biblical literalism that is based solely on its self-serving agenda. Fundamentalism has no place in an academic environment.

Fundamentalism is also a force for evil. It allows people to promulgate ignorance and bigotry under the smokescreen of belief. When the Church persecuted the scientists who argued (based on their literal interpretation of Scripture) that the Sun went around the Earth, the Church was doing evil work. When Christians used their literal interpretation of Scripture to defend slavery, they labored for evil in God’s name. When fundamentalists today fight against science or rights for women or LGBT persons, they are doing evil work.

Not all beliefs are equally valid or deserve equal “tolerance.” Just because someone believes something does not mean it should be exempt from critical analysis or logical inquiry. Fundamentalism holds up to neither. It is ignorance shielding itself with religious rhetoric to avoid exposure to the light of day.

Fundamentalism is not simply one belief system among many.  Fundamentalism is a separate approach to belief, one that ignores critical thinking in favor of dogma.  It deserves a place at the same table where all irrational and destructive behaviors are consigned, but it does not deserve a place at the table with healthy, mature approaches to faith.

(My colleague questioned whether or not this view is consistent with his strawman construction of the “liberal value of tolerance.” As a social liberal, I have never argued that tolerance is, in and of itself, a positive value. As I state above, not all ideas are equally valid, and there is no reason to tolerate ideas that are rooted in ignorance, superstition, or bigotry. If an idea can be substantiated with logical consistency, then it has earned the opportunity for tolerance.)


And a second PostScript

One thing that I want to make very clear is that the purpose of that post is NOT to advance any political agenda. (I’m not really sure that opposing fundamentalism is even a political issue outside the South any more.) I was trying to reconcile the two sharply contrasting portraits of Truett Cathy that I have noted in my friends’ recollections of him. To some he is a benevolent mentor. To others he is the embodiment of evil. I wanted to wrestle with how someone could be both.

I suppose, to some extent, I did, because my friends who liked the man think I was too hard on him, and my friends who despised him think I was too generous. He is a public figure, and the question of his legacy is a relevant and timely one; and I think it is particularly important to reflect on these questions now so that we can look at them again some day through the lens of history.

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