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Wallace Best, Ph.D. Headshot

Chick-fil-A and the Standard of Love

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When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks criticized President Bush during a concert in London in 2003, the response was fast, furious and nasty. Maines announced from stage that she was "ashamed" that Bush was from her native Texas. She and her bandmates, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, were quickly blacklisted from country music stations, their CDs were publicly destroyed and their lives threatened. Despite subsequent successes, their careers have never really recovered.

I thought about this recently as I watched with great interest the unfolding of the Chick-fil-A controversy. Both incidents have to do, on some level, with "free speech" -- its power, its purpose and its limits. The Dixie Chicks case was interesting because as an American, Natalie Maines could express her views just like any other citizen. But not on foreign soil. Historically, an American's freedom to speak critically of America ends at the borders. Still, I marveled at the orchestrated efforts to silence her. There were those who attempted aggressively to deny her the right as an American citizen to criticize Bush and the war in Iraq. The message from her largely Christian and conservative fan base was clear: Shut up and sing, or face the consequences.

Many of these same people stood in line for hours last week to get a chicken sandwich in support of Dan Cathy's "free speech." Cathy, the COO of Chick-fil-A, had come clean about his and his company's opposition to same-sex marriage. "Guilty as charged" he said. Speaking as a Christian for a Christian company, Cathy asserted, "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."

Millions of people agreed with him. The statement became an instant flash point in the "culture wars," and when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared "Chik-fil-A Appreciation Day," the line in the sand of American social values was never clearer.

Of the many issues that emerge from this, I think three things are crucial. First, the irony of the support for Dan Cathy is embarrassingly obvious. Given that many of the same people likely tossed their Dixie Chicks CDs in opposition to Natalie Maines's comment about Bush, it is ironic that they ate lunch in support of Dan Cathy's comments. Free speech is free speech. Right? What, then, is the qualitative difference between Maines and Cathy? Well, whether or not you happen to agree with the positions they take. Certainly. The long lines at Chik-fil-A showed us that most Americans believe in "free speech" in a particular way; they believe in "free speech" that aligns with their social, religious and political values. In other words, they support "free speech" with which they agree. All other "free speech" is held as suspect, dangerous and, as Cathy himself intimated, subject to God's judgment.

Second, I think a bit of thoughtful substitution is in order. Substitute "black," "Jews" or "women" for "same-sex marriage," and I don't think we would have had the long lines outside those restaurants last week. At least, I hope not. If Cathy wants to assert his freedom to actively work against one particular group and financially back organizations that share his views, we need to take that freedom to its logical conclusion. What if the issue was "interracial marriage" or "inter-religious marriage"? He would be well within his right as a Christian and an American citizen to express his opposition to those unions. But would all those people have lined up to show support if Cathy had responded "guilty as charged" to the claim that he didn't believe blacks should marry whites or Jews should marry Christians? That, too, is "free speech." We must ask ourselves why it is socially acceptable to show visible disdain for a certain segment of the population and the unions they form. Remember, it was just as socially acceptable to show that level of disregard for blacks, Jews and women's rights not that long ago. And many did so in the name of their Christianity.

Which brings me to my third point. Perhaps the most disheartening thing for me is the way many of Cathy's supporters have justified their support. "It's not about hate," they say, "it's about religious freedom." From a Christian standpoint, to say something is "not about hate" is a very low standard and entirely misses the mark. Anyone can say his or her actions are not born of hate. Indeed, I've heard members of the KKK say that very thing. They don't "hate" blacks, they just wish they'd keep to themselves or simply disappear. Some people would claim they don't hate Mexicans, they just wish we had stronger immigration laws and a long fence at the border. They don't hate Muslims; they just don't want a mosque in their neighborhood. They don't hate Sikhs; they just wished they didn't look like Muslims. They don't hate women; they just wish they'd stop yammering so much about their "rights." This is why Jesus' commandment to his followers -- to "love one another" -- was stated in the positive. Jesus didn't say, "don't hate one another"; his commandment was to "love." Love is the standard.

So, to all those who stood in line last week to get a sandwich for "free speech" and "religious freedom," you tell me it wasn't about hate, but was it about love? The honest answer to that question will tell us everything we need to know.

I support Dan Cathy's "free speech" and religious freedom. But he must respect my freedom to say that his comments were about hate and ignorance and were not about love. Love must be the standard, or when it comes to issues like the Chick-fil-A controversy, there are no standards.