Sometimes a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich. Except, it seems, when it’s from Chick-Fil-A, and you find yourself in the midst of a culture war. In fact, the two of us are passionate participants in that war: Matthew is the lead writer at MereOrthodoxy.com and a socially conservative evangelical Christian; John is a gay man, a religious skeptic, and a well known marriage-equality advocate.
We differ on the definition of marriage, the existence of God, and other important stuff. Yet we’re also friends, not in the happy-pappy “can’t we all just get along” sense, or worse, in the self-congratulatory “look at how tolerant I am” sense, but in a more challenging and thus more meaningful way. We actually listen to each other, even when it’s hard.
Which is how we discovered last week some common ground in the whole Chick-Fil-A brouhaha. Some of it is easy: We agree that Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy has the right to opine as he wishes on controversial topics, however unwise a business decision that may be; that religious conservatives have a right to express their solidarity by eating fried chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, however unwise a dietary decision that may be; and that gays and their allies have a right to boycott the restaurant and to protest peacefully, however ineffectual such boycotts may be. For comparison, consider the National Organization for Marriage’s “Dump Starbucks” campaign. (Starbucks supports marriage for same-sex couples.)
More substantially, we agree that public officials overstepped important constitutional bounds insofar as they suggested that Chick-Fil-A would be denied permits because of its president’s personal opinions. Perhaps most surprisingly, we agree that this whole thing has gotten out of hand on both sides.
In an online Southern Baptist publication Dan Cathy endorsed “the biblical definition of the family unit,” and he later denounced this generation’s “prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.” These remarks could have been an occasion for thoughtful dialogue on a whole host of topics: Christian humility, for example, or free speech, or marriage, or the value of pluralism. Instead, they’ve become yet another occasion for dialing up the heat in the culture wars.
Our main concern is this: Neither of us relishes the idea of a culture where ideological purity turns minor fast-food purchases into major political statements. Although we support being responsible consumers, only pennies (if that) of any Starbucks or Chick-Fil-A purchases ultimately find their way into corporate donations. A greater portion goes to the wages of local employees—some of whom (even at Chick-Fil-A) are gay; some of whom (even at Starbucks) are religious conservatives, and all of whom risk becoming collateral damage when restaurants turn into culture-war minefields. We would like to be able to disagree about Dan Cathy’s position on marriage while agreeing, in the words of the great gay pundit Antoine Dodson, that the waffle fries are bangin’.
Our more ideologically pure friends on both sides will balk at any analogy between the cases. John’s allies might point out that Chick-Fil-A funds organizations such as the Family Research Council, which has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. Matthew’s allies might argue that Starbucks is flouting the commands of God himself, potentially leading people to eternal damnation. In other words, both sides will insist that the cases are different because one side is right and the other is wrong. Either way, food becomes a symbol and a weapon in an omnipresent ideological struggle. Yup, that’s a culture war.
For the record (though this should go without saying), we each believe that our own side is right while the other is wrong, in morally significant ways. And yet we also recognize that if we’re going to coexist peacefully and productively, not every interaction—and especially, not every meal purchase—needs to be an occasion for trumpeting that belief.
This is not to say that we should shy away from argument. Quite the opposite: A culture that proceeds by protests and counter-protests will invariably bury the crucial arguments beneath piles of distractions.
Recently, the two of us did a joint presentation entitled “A Gay Man and an Evangelical Walk into a Bar: Frank Conversation in the Culture Wars.” The dialogue was spirited and rigorous, but it was also warm and civil. Afterwards, we went out to eat. We didn’t consider treating each other to Frappuccinos and Chick-Fil-A, but we might someday. Because sometimes coffee and a sandwich really are just coffee and a sandwich.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the lead writer at MereOrthodoxy.com and the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. John Corvino is chair of philosophy at Wayne State University and the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage.