People kept asking me on Wednesday whether I was going to go to a Chick-Fil-A to stare at the evangelicals on Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day. "You live in Florida," they said, "it's probably gonna be awesome." I guess because they were going to be evangelical outside, in lines.
I've never understood or particularly liked this orientalizing impulse of subcultural tourism. With the Amish it makes some sense, but many of these social distinctions feel so abstracted that you might as well try to watch, say, communities of people who can tolerate Jethro Tull albums from the 1980s. It's like visiting New York and saying to your native New Yorker friend, "Let's go see the Dominicans."
"What Dominicans? You mean like my landlord?"
"No, the Dominicans. All of them. Let's go watch them be Dominican."
Besides this "exoticism" sounding socially horrible, it would be old hat to a New Yorker. Similarly, any prolonged time around loud-and-proud Christianity gets boring. If you're some kind of asshole, you can "ironically" listen to DC Talk, but it's dull when the people who start bands like that are coworkers, people toward whom you feel gentle things because you see them smile or worry beside you every day.
Likewise, the phenomenon of "prayer warriors" and cordons of people ready to incant prefab "EVIL-B-GONE" word spray whenever a Satanic force enters their midst loses its novelty. As neat as it can be to hear those people who shout "Bort!" and "Snuh!" and "afgaf gafaf bafaf" because they believe they're genuinely speaking in tongues, after a while it all sounds like someone throwing up a bowl of Alpha-Bits. Then you stop liking Alpha-Bits. Which sucks.
Anyway, I was going to pass on the whole thing when I saw this tweet from the Tampa Bay Times's Ben Montgomery:
The crowd at Chick-fil-A in Hernando County broke into The Star-Spangled Banner. Also, a man had an 8-foot cross. I give you America, 2012.
- Ben Montgomery (@gangrey) August 1, 2012
Okay, I thought. If people are singing at these things, there could be spontaneous loyalty oaths. And there's cosplay. I'll give this a shot.
I tried three different Chick-Fil-As (Chicks-Fil-A?), and the same tableau revealed itself at each:
- Visibly irritated police officers trying to corral people into lines and keep them from queuing up in the street.
- People sitting in their cars, as rings of sedans, trucks and SUVs spiraled out from the drive-thru and circled the building, then spilled out into major roadways and blocked lanes of traffic. When it's time to reclaim America for Jesus, there's a lot of climate-controlled sitting involved.
- Not a single minority.
- One alpha-dog organizer type, who was clearly the Man With The Most Talking Points, who walked up and down the line and interdicted anyone walking up to determine if they were one of the flock.
- People gathered to celebrate the wonder-working power of redemption through Christ—which, instead of what all those pipe-organ songs seem to suggest, is cause for intense, simmering resentment.
These were not happy people, but expecting happiness misreads what a lot of this was about. Certainly, large numbers of the people at Chick-Fil-As across the country were Christian, muttering familiar hypocrisies about love and dispensing the self-pardoning bigotry that, "I don't hate gay people. I just hate their sin, the defining act that makes them gay people." That these were organized events was confirmed by a drive past a couple college-basketball-arena-sized churches and seeing the parking lots empty on a Wednesday night—a day second only to Sunday in terms of organized observance.
Indeed, you could be forgiven for assuming that this was solely a protest in favor of religion, but it was as much about Free Market Jesus as it was about the original version, with the poor people and the repudiation of material things. A large motivating factor for the Chick-Fil-A celebrants was aggrieved rhetoric from the far right that portrayed gay activist groups as violating or suppressing the First Amendment in two ways. One, that citizens boycotting a business constitutes active suppression of speech, and that Obama/The Gays/The Left were "criminalizing" pro-Christian speech. Two, that the original text of the First Amendment read, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, unless that speech or assembly affects a corporation's bottom line."
These perverse cries of oppression spoiled what could have been a universally respected—if not supported—exercise of first amendment rights and the power of one's own purse. Demonizing boycotts as a tool has a far more chilling effect on speech than boycotts themselves do, because it removes one of the few powerful amplifiers for the voices of the powerless. Most businesses have the luxury of adaptation; average citizens are prisoners of the limited products available to them that they can afford. Doubtless both sides of the political fence would approve of a boycott if the next Apple ad featured, "The Revolutionary New iPad: DEATH TO ISRAEL," and many Christians had no problems with boycotts against JC Penney and Oreo.
Cynical and ginned-up claims of victimization turned the focus away from estimable things like political activism and instead highlighted an strong undercurrent of malice. We moved from talking about civil rights and exercising them to a collective gesture of, "Tell the other side to shove it up their ass."
Take Montgomery (and Danny Valentine's) article in the Tampa Bay Times:
Coulter, of Lakeland, planned to eat all three meals at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday....
"I hope what happens is that we hear from Chick-fil-A tomorrow that they had the biggest sales day in franchise history," he said.
Look at the ugly nature of the protest. While some people donated the Chick-Fil-A they bought to the homeless, the protest outlined by Mike "ain't a Huckabee alive that can eat at Taco Bell for $7" Huckabee—a minister—suggested celebrating Christian values not by going out and doing something very like Jesus Christ but by buying a bunch of shit you don't need. Chick-Fil-A restaurants could have, for example, become collection centers for one of the largest canned-food drives in history, showing that we must heed Christian teaching because of the astounding power of its generosity. Instead, Chick-Fil-As became ground zero for the mass purchase of the Go Fuck Yourself Sandwich.
This is the shape of a Christian protest: numerous participants expressing a dehumanizing spite of other citizens' human rights via loading up on meat-and-bread wads dropped into a deep fryer by a minimum-wage-slave. We've crossed the line between our great national sloth and skyrocketing levels of morbid obesity into Hate Obesity and Gluttony with Intent to Harm. What an exceptionally American achievement.
Image by Jim Cooke.