Wednesday, August 01, 2012

"Eat Mor Chikin . . . Just Not Today?": Reflections on Clumsy Evangelical Cultural Engagement

Though I've had some fun with the Chick-fil-A controversy over the past week, I've also had some more serious questions rattling around in my head. Brighter folks actually figured out what they thought in advance, and wrote about it days ago. They also tended to write in traditional essay form, whereas I've just tried to answer my own questions in a goofy self-interview thing. So it is what it is . . .

How many Chick-fil-As (hereafter CfA) are there within five miles of your home?
Four or five.

Did you check on that before you moved there?
Of course.

Why are so many people eating CfA today?
Probably one or more of several reasons, depending on the person.
1) Because it's tasty, and this made a good excuse to eat a piece of nicely-seasoned white meat chicken, fried under pressure in peanut oil to retain it's juiciness. I mean, it's not like the big-city mayors were putting the squeeze on White Castle.
2) Because CfA has become a symbol for the culture war. Evangelical Christians and other cultural "conservatives" feel like they're losing their grip on the America that they know and love, and they want to put their money in the pockets of someone who's on their side, rather than another politician who pretends he is.
3) Because this issue has been cast as a gay-rights issue, and that's one of a relatively small number of issues that's particularly polarizing—as illustrated by the decisive role traditional marriage initiatives on swing-state ballots had in the 2004 election.
4) Because there's a very real First Amendment, religious freedom issue in play. Right or wrong, there is no question that a wide spectrum of religious Americans feel that their rights are increasingly and unprecedentedly threatened by numerous local municipalities, the current presidential administration, judicial decisions, and cultural-commercial forces.
5) Because this was a way to cast a sort of vote, and in a public way. Unlike the polls in November, people know what you're voting for when you stand in an hour-long line. It created a social media event that could be splashed all over Facebook and Twitter.

What message did it send?
I'd be stunned if CfA didn't smash its previous single-day all-stores sales record. That says there's still a significant commercial force that's poised, at least in some cases, to overwhelm any negative impact of a boycott. I'm sure it also sent another in a long series of "us vs. them" messages—that evangelicals hate/fear/are disgusted by the homosexual lifestyle and those that practice it.

Is that latter message the one people were trying to send?
I don't think that's what it was about, at least not for the most part. My sense is that this was about a perceived threat to a way of life, not a statement about a category of people.

Why the breakdown in communication then?
Both sides are at fault. The cultural progressives tend to label theological or ideological disagreement as intolerance. And intolerance must not be tolerated! (As D.A. Carson has pointed out, they're completely blind to the irony of their own inconsistency.) They assume that disagreement—especially one that leads to a moral conclusion—entails personal animosity, even hatred. Cultural progressives can't separate ideas from the people that hold them. That poisons public discourse, whether it's in the political, cultural, or—in this case—commercial sphere.

Evangelical cultural conservatives have sent mixed messages on whether they're more interested in conserving culture or proclaiming the "evangel"—the gospel. That's probably because evangelicals themselves aren't too sure. If you ask a cultural progressive what evangelicals are, he's going to tell you they're religious people who want to impose their beliefs on America by getting political power. Gospel theology is going to be the furthest thing from his mind. And that shouldn't surprise us, because most evangelicals don't talk much about the gospel, and many of them couldn't articulate authentic gospel theology, let alone live a life that's shaped by it. They're certainly not interacting with non-Christians in a way that portrays an accurate picture of the gospel. And by "an accurate picture of the gospel," I mean a biblical understanding the universality of both human depravity and the offer of grace and forgiveness. These foundational truths have not penetrated cultural evangelical hearts in a transforming way: We are all equally deserving of the full outpouring of divine wrath, and none of us has merited the grace we have received.

Should believers have eaten at CfA today?
That depends on two things, I think: 1) why they went, and 2) what the outcome was. Both are difficult to assess, but the latter is particularly troublesome. This opens a conversation that's much too large to resolve in this context, but suffice it to say that I believe Christians may, even should, engage publicly in political and cultural issues. Nevertheless, we walk an arduous path when we do. What will that engagement communicate about our priorities? To what degree will our mission as ambassadors be compromised? How will we guard our own hearts from the corruption that accompanies proximity to power and the hope of possessing it? And what do our Facebook posts and tweets communicate to the hundreds of people reading them, many of whom are presumably not believers and justifiably draw conclusions (whether accurate or not) about what is most precious to us?

Did you eat CfA today?
Yep, sure did. (But only once.) I chose not to rub my homosexual neighbors' or unbelieving Facebook friends' noses in it, but that doesn't mean my presence and money didn't contribute in some way to a cultural polarization that's rooted in miscommunication and misdirected priorities, and which ultimately obscures the gospel.


Greg said...

I'm surprised no one's posted on this yet. Something always rubbed me the wrong way about how people were so excited to make a statement by going to CFA, but there was something equally irritating about Christians who seemed to almost be indicating that we should apologize for supporting a biblical view of marriage. I don't have a CFA within 25 minutes of me, and they are few and far between in the Chicago area, so the waits were ridiculous (3 hours), so I had no desire to go anyway, but in my mind I had pretty much settled where it seemed you did. I probably wouldn't have gone no matter what, but if I had, I wouldn't have been facebooking my every move.

Ben said...

We agree? Go figure. You musta had good parenting like I did.