The Prideful, Arrogant President of Chick-fil-A

Why ignorance of human sexuality is dangerous.

Eduardo Cisneros (L) and Luke Montgomery (R) kiss in front of a Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant in Hollywood on August 3, 2012.
Eduardo Cisneros (L) and Luke Montgomery (R) kiss in front of a Chick-fil-A fast-food restaurant in Hollywood on Aug. 3, 2012. Gays and lesbians staged “kiss-ins” outside Chick-fil-A outlets last week.

Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/GettyImages.

For several tense weeks, our nation has been broiling unpleasantly in the cultural equivalent of polyunsaturated fat. And despite any profits or political points made during this Chick-fil-A debacle, I think we’ve all gotten a bit burned. As everyone now knows, this entire ordeal—from the Mike Huckabee-orchestrated “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” to the “Same-Sex Kiss Day” that came after, the talking heads, the relentless stream of articles and opinion pieces on the controversy, the thousands upon thousands of online comments, the vitriolic tweets, impulsive Facebook statuses, and equally tart replies, the strained friendships, heated arguments with family members, all of it—began when Chick-fil-A’s president*, Dan Cathy, said in an interview with the Baptist Press that the company was “guilty as charged” when it came to endorsing the biblical view of traditional marriage. Several days later, on the Ken Coleman show, Cathy clarified that when it comes to legalizing same-sex marriage, “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.”

When I first read about this story, it was actually mildly amusing to me. At least, it was amusing in the same way that the Crouches, that dazzlingly peculiar televangelist couple on TBN, unexpectedly paralyze my index finger while channel surfing. You may know the Crouches: She with Pomeranian on her lap, a towering pink wig on her skull, and tarantula lashes affixed to her face; he, slim, mustachioed, in a white suit, capped by a bounty of salt-and-pepper hair; both perched atop gilded thrones and cackling about sweet Baby Jesus while fleecing arthritic widows in Alabama whose most meaningful daily interactions are with expressionless, alabaster-faced dolls. As with these anomalous Crouches, with Cathy there was something so, what’s the word, absurd; something about this truculent, evangelical, Southern fried-chicken magnate getting so red in the face about an issue so completely innocuous as the gender of love. There’s nothing particularly new under the sun about Cathy’s religious beliefs concerning homosexuality, of course, but for him to be such a perfect caricature of scornful, Americanized Christianity, was a welcome diversion from whatever it was I was writing at the time. Imagine if Elmer Fudd had a love child with Jesse Helms’ mother, and there, I thought to myself, you have Dan Cathy.

But then the story became more worrisome than comical. It turns out that Dan Cathy, along with his father, Truett, oversees a “charitable endeavor” called the WinShape Foundation. This decades-old private foundation is fueled by Chick-fil-A revenue and—distressingly so for those in the LGBT community—it’s been promiscuously using high-profit margins from the sale of all those slaughtered cocks to further anti-gay causes, funding notorious groups such as Exodus International and Focus on the Family. “So what’s the problem?” replied Cathy supporters once these facts became widely known. (I’ll paraphrase en masse for both sides what I understand to be the central points of each.) “Free speech is still legal in this country, right? And gosh darn it, a man can do with his well-earned money whatever it is he wants to do with it in the U.S. of A., so long as it’s legal.” “But don’t you understand?” countered the other side. “This isn’t about a business owner’s religious freedom, or his right to voice his opinion and invest in political causes that he favors. It’s about our troubling willingness to patronize a company that so brazenly sinks its funds into hate campaigns and whose president genuinely believes that God will seek terrible vengeance on us for our country’s growing tolerance of homosexuals.”

If it’s not already perfectly clear, I’m firmly on the side of the latter. That is to say, on the side of good and the side of sanity. Sure, fine, technically, Cathy and his compatriots at Chick-fil-A aren’t violating anyone’s civil rights. To the contrary, as many Democrats and Republicans alike have explained, Cathy runs his Chick-fil-A enterprise in the quintessential American spirit. But Cathy’s business sense isn’t the problem. Rather, the problem is that he’s being a real American in another sense, one that is not a compliment to our nation.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when business owners in Southern states proudly poured their riches into segregationist causes. These investment strategies (and the political fruits they bore) helped keep “Negroes” in their place as second-class citizens. And just as we’ve been seeing with the enthusiastic support for Chick-fil-A by the “moral majority,” the racist business models of those segregationists rallied local social conservatives. Like the WinShape Foundation’s shameless use of Chick-fil-A proceeds to support the efforts of the Family Research Council, as well as many other anti-gay outlets designated as official hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a wealthy white citizen’s public segregationist stance back in, say, 1960 Mississippi or Tennessee, and his decision to put his company’s proceeds into racist political causes, was not only perfectly legal but hailed by most of his customer base. After all, just as same-sex marriage is today, the rights of blacks were a “political issue.” People spoke of “personal beliefs” about whether blacks should vote, marry outside their race, drink at public water fountains, swim in public pools, attend schools with white students, or sit in the front of the bus. Those whose “personal belief” was that blacks should be socially quarantined from whites felt absolutely no reason to apologize. People were “entitled to their opinions.”

Fortunately for African-Americans, the U.S. government, which grows sluggishly, if incrementally, in its social conscience, eventually joined them and threw its weight into their tireless crusade against bigotry and prejudice. Federal civil rights laws effectively obviated the “personal beliefs” of those who continued to view blacks as lesser beings, making these people’s “opinions” completely irrelevant as to what African-Americans should or shouldn’t do in our society. In other words, the racists were stripped of their democratic voices—and a very good thing that was, too, as it’s clear even today that many white Americans remain of the opinion that blacks are inherently inferior to them. Racism persists, but at least racists have been formally politically defanged. Homophobes, meanwhile, have not. (Before I get complaints about the semantic misfit of the label homophobe, pointing out that one is not “afraid” of gays but rather disagrees with the “gay lifestyle,” feel free to replace it with “bigoted asshole.”)

There is, of course, the little problem of God, so often the common denominator in human conflicts. Cathy’s thunderous sermon about the hazards of upsetting this irritable arbiter of our souls resonated with the religious right. So let us deconstruct Cathy’s words to see if we might better understand their seduction:

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.

Cathy does at least preface this by saying, “I think,” but otherwise this to me is the hoary language of a man who has little familiarity with texts that were not [ahem] dictated by the Almighty and who has therefore missed out on so many infinitely more talented and intelligent authors, those who were more godly than God. On opposing sides of that yawning moral crevasse dividing liberals and conservatives, a gap that has widened several new inches by this surprise Chick-fil-A quake, the rhetorical turns of phrase we find in Cathy’s Armageddon script tend to mean very different things. For instance, for liberals, “prideful” would be read in this context as “scientifically literate,” “arrogant attitude” is perhaps best translated as “open-minded,” and “audacity” means simply, “the courage to think for oneself.”

In my first book, The Belief Instinct, I explain how scientific studies are revealing how the human brain conjures up the subjective feeling of a morally concerned God that “communicates” his displeasure to us through natural disasters and other misfortunes. (Notice that in cases such as Cathy’s warning of God’s wrath, the believer never asks exactly how God causes such natural events, but only why he does so.) God may seem real, but he is almost certainly all in our heads—a complex cognitive illusion melded by mindless evolutionary forces. At the very least, the chances of there being a God disproportionately focused on the sexual behaviors of one particular creature, a depilated primate, out of the billions of distinct species that have ever walked, flown, crawled, slithered or hopped upon his earth, is so minuscule that the idea requires a prodigious degree of egocentrism to entertain. Actually, that, Mr. Cathy—this frail assumption of yours that human beings are the epicenter of life on this planet—is where most liberals apply the word “arrogance.”

My other book, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?: And Other Reflections on Being Human, is a collection of essays dealing mainly with the science of human sexuality. In it, I play tour guide through a number of research areas that are especially relevant to Cathy’s rumblings about marriage equality. These include the developmental origins of sexual orientation, the mental processes thought to underlie homophobia, and the startlingly high rates of depression and suicide in gay youth.

One of the great frustrations faced by science writers is that, more often than not, we’re preaching to the choir. People who really need to be exposed to critical scientific information regarding homosexuality are, frankly, either too unintelligent to understand the research or—more unforgivably—they’re perfectly smart enough, it’s just that they’re too incurious about the deep complexities of human psychology to bother to learn. Now, for many subject areas in science, such cognitive dullards and intellectual sloths are easy to ignore, even when they display remarkable naivete. To be unaware of the chemical composition of water, for instance, is certainly sad, but such ignorance is usually pretty harmless. But with a basic scientific understanding of sexual orientation, ignorance can be sinister. Knowledge may not trump hatred in all cases, but for most reasonable individuals, it tends to facilitate humanity.

If you’re doubtful of the danger of stupidity, consider a sampling of public tweets I’ve dredged up by combining gay epithets with “Chick-fil-A.” (Try your own search on Twitter; the concentrated hate goes on for miles. Or more here.) I should warn you in advance that this list is chilling, especially if you or someone you love, perhaps your child, is gay or lesbian. But for those of us normally surrounded by at least moderately bright and kind people, it is too easy to lose sight of the animus that gays and lesbians face in American society. I also think it’s important to be aware of just how Cathy’s religious statements—no matter his “love the sinner, hate the sin” jargon, no matter the issue of free speech—actually translates for a populace that is always ready to pounce on an opportunity to dehumanize its most vulnerable. In implying that God sees homosexuals as evil, Cathy declared open season on us.  

It is society that is sick, not the sexual minorities. Yet the most tragic thing about this admittedly odd cultural flare-up involving a chicken chain and gay rights is that there are countless—and I mean that quite literally, since I suspect many will be inspired to retreat permanently into their closets after an incident so vile as this—gay teenagers and young adults who have been watching in silent terror as it has all unfolded. For them, every single body on proud display at the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” not to mention those leaning out of their car windows to scream “faggots!” and “dykes!” at gay couples milling about or kissing, was a tangible reminder of just how much they really do have to fear in this country. (Meanwhile, we’re trying to convince them that “It Gets Better.”) So know this: From the unspoken perspective of all the petrified, closeted 15-year-olds out there (I used to be one myself, after all), it makes absolutely no difference, none whatsoever, what your motives are in rallying behind Chick-fil-A. All they see is your raw hate.

Let Aug. 1, 2012, go down as a day of infamy and national disgrace. On that day, at-risk gay youth all over this country watched as an endless, self-righteous trail of Americans wrapped itself round and round Chick-fil-A franchises across the land. And in this rare agglutination of the moral majority, they glimpsed the living, breathing presence of a brutal force whose sole aim it is to bully them into one of three equally disastrous directions: that of sham heterosexual marriage (and the deception of an opposite-sex spouse); the repressed life of a hypocritical moralizer, or that of virginal, social reclusion. My message to any young LGBT people who’ve been understandably rattled by this depressing affair is this: If these kinds of “lifestyles” are preferable for the religious right over the “alternative lifestyle” of living honestly and openly with the person you love, in matrimony, then fuck them. Oh, and by the way, fuck you, if you’re one of them.

Correction, Aug. 6, 2012: This article originally misidentified Dan Cathy as CEO of Chick-fil-A. He is the president and COO of Chick-fil-A, but his father, Truett Cathy, is the CEO.