From the Archives: Why Chik-fil-A’s LGBTQ Decision Feels a Lot Like Evangelical Anti-Racism

It’s different. I get that. But this week’s furor over Chik-fil-A’s decision to defund anti-LGBTQ Christian groups feels a lot like the debates about race and racism among white evangelicals back in the late 20th century. This morning, I’d like to share one episode from 1970-71 that feels eerily familiar to this week’s Chik-fil-A story.chik fil a protest

Here’s what we know: The chicken chain is doing great, apparently. Chik-fil-A is now the world’s third biggest fast-food chain, after Starbucks and Micky D’s. But its anti-LGBTQ reputation has limited the chain’s growth. As a result, Chik-fil-A announced this week that it will no longer donate to the Salvation Army or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They will direct their philanthropy instead to groups with no anti-LGBTQ reputation.

Conservatives have reacted with predictable outrage. As crunchy conservative Rod Dreher put it,

I love Chick-fil-A, but it’s going to be a while before I go there again. This is nothing but gutless surrender.

Former Governor Mike Huckabee agreed, tweeting,

Today, @ChickfilA betrayed loyal customers for $$. I regret believing they would stay true to convictions of founder Truett Cathey. [sic] Sad.

huckabee chik fil a tweetConservative pundits are not wrong when they complain that moral orthodoxy about LGBTQ rights has changed rapidly. They can claim to agree with President Obama, c. 2008, when he still opposed same-sex marriage. They can insist, like Rod Dreher, that their recently moderate opinions have turned them suddenly into “pariahs.”

That’s all true enough, but from a historical perspective the current LGBTQ debates sound hauntingly familiar. Conservatives won’t relish the comparison, but today’s rapidly shifting mainstream attitudes toward LGBTQ rights feel very similar to shifting racial attitudes after World War II. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, evangelical universities scrambled to keep up with those changes.

This morning I’d like to share more of a story that I didn’t have room to include in the book. One episode in particular seems relevant to today’s battle over the moral status of LGBTQ rights among conservative Christians.

The institution was the Moody Bible Institute, the year was 1970, and the moral question was racial segregation. MBI had invited fundamentalist celebrity John R. Rice to be a featured speaker at its annual Founder’s Day celebration. Rice had attracted notoriety recently for supporting the racial segregation at Bob Jones University.

Members of the MBI community protested. As one anonymous letter put it,

Dr. John R. Rice is an acknowledged racist.  Earlier this year, he invited Lester Maddox, also a racist, to speak at the Sword of the Lord anniversary.  Also, he published in his magazine why Bob Jones University refuses to admit Negroes.  By other statements in the article, he showed clearly his racist position.  We Do Not Want HIM IN CHICAGO.  If you bring him here to speak, we will have one of the biggest demonstrations Chicago has ever seen.  We will have all the publicity we need, radio, television, press, plus public demonstration of course every day of the conference, especially when he is going to speak and on the Alumni Day No matter what reason you have for bringing him here, there will be a demonstration by radical groups Let him stay down South with his racist companions.  You can get all the police and protection, we are still coming.  We are not coming to cause trouble.  We are trying to ‘help’ you wipe out racism.  We ‘love’ John R Rice too much to allow him to dehumanize himself here.  IF you IMMEDIATELY drop his name from the list of speakers, and PUBLICLY declare this IMMEDIATELY, then there will be no demonstration.  BUT again if you don’t, we are coming, black and white included.

What did MBI do? After consideration, the administration of William Culbertson agreed. They canceled Rice’s invitation. The manuscript of Culberton’s public statement shows how fraught the decision was. He went over and over the wording, cutting out sections that he thought would be too provocative. The things he cut are telling. Why, for example, might he have cut the phrase “of any kind?” Here’s the next-to-final draft, with edits included:

The Moody Bible Institute has for eighty-five years welcomed young people of all races and nationalities to its tuition-free training in the Bible.  Through times of changing social mores the policy has always been to emphasize the salvation from God by which all men who believe are made one in Christ.  We have sought, and do seek, to apply the spiritual principles set forth in the Word of God to the practical problems of our culture.  We believe that there is nothing in the Bible that forbids interracial relationships of any kind.

                In the present period of surging change we are grateful that among our racially mixed student body there seems to be little or no dissent, though some former students recently involved in civil rights activities have felt that we might have taken a more leading role than we have.  We are absolutely opposed to injustice and exploitation of any kind.  We are dedicated to the proposition that we are debtors to all men.

Just as with Chik-fil-A’s recent decision, MBI’s decision to disinvite a fundamentalist segregationist did not end the matter. The archival files are full of passionate letters in support of Rice and in support of MBI’s decision to disinvite him.

As one alum protested,

In cancelling Dr. Rice from this Conference you have robbed the Founder’s Week guests from great blessings, insulted a great man of God, and lost an opportunity to re-affirm the posture of Moody Bible Institute…[sic ellipsis in original] which by the way is in some question already, and more so now. … Last March, while attending a Pastor’s Conference in Hammond, I had dinner in the sweetshop at Moody.  To my surprise the students for the most part were mop-headed and unkept and were hardly what one would think of as Ambassadors of Christ. . . . I know that your action has alienated me, my wife and my church.

Other members of the expansive MBI community celebrated. As one faculty member wrote,

I have never been prouder to be a member of the Moody Bible Institute faculty.

The files in Culbertson’s archives are full of similar pro- and anti- letters about the decision to ban John R. Rice. The controversy proved so heated that MBI ended up canceling its entire Founder’s Day celebration for 1971. There just was no way they could continue without an embarrassingly public dispute about their moral commitment to racial integration.

anti john rice demonstration warning letter

Evangelical anti-racism, c. 1970. Does this smell like today’s Chik-fil-A?

It’s impossible not to hear echoes of the 1970 debate at MBI in today’s debate at Chik-fil-A.

We need to be careful, of course. The history of racism and segregation cannot be simply equated to today’s LGBTQ debates. The process by which evangelical institutions make these decisions, however, seems remarkably similar.

When mainstream moral values change, conservative evangelical institutions have difficult decisions to make. Do they go along with the changes? Do they re-examine their own moral assumptions in the light of changing social mores? Or do they stick to their guns, deciding that traditional ideas about issues such as racism and sexuality are in fact part of their compromise-proof religious commitment?

Are Christians Allowed in New York?

It makes conservatives furious, but is Dan Piepenbring right? Piepenbring recently blasted Chik-fil-A’s “creepy infiltration” of New York City in the pages of the New Yorker. The brouhaha shows how little most of us understand about New York’s real status in our continuing culture wars. It has never really been the Great Sodom that conservatives excoriate and progressives celebrate.

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The Christians that never sleep?

Piepenbring is mad that Chik-fil-A is sneaking into his city. He dislikes the conservative evangelical politics of the chain’s founder. More than that, though, he seems put out by the Midwestern aw-shucks-ism at play. Piepenbring seems offended by the way Chik-fil-A imported a family-values vibe into his grunge-chic citycape. The company’s trademark Cows exemplify the problem. As Piepenbring puts it,

The joke is that the Cows are out of place in New York—a winking acknowledgment that Chick-fil-A, too, does not quite belong here.

Conservatives reacted with predictable hauteur. For example, American Conservative’s Rod Dreher blasted Piepenbring’s “Yankee bigot[ry].” “In terms of parochial, un-self-aware narrow-mindedness,” Dreher opened,

it is hard to beat this piece from the New Yorker on how the a [sic] popular purveyor of delicious chicken and waffle fries is making Manhattan into an unsafe space.

It should be funny, Dreher notes, to read anything that soberly invokes phrases such as “suburban piety.” In actual fact, Dreher concludes, Piepenbring’s half-baked screed is more than a sad joke; it serves as yet more evidence of widespread “anti-Christian bigotry.”

I can’t agree with Dreher’s main point about anti-Christian bigotry, but I do think that Piepenbring’s brand of “keep New York weird” rhetoric misses some important truths. Full disclosure: I share the desire to sponsor local over chain. Up here in sunny Binghamton, I go to Laveggio instead of Starbucks; Consol’s instead of Olive Garden. But even though I share Piepenbring’s anti-corporate aesthetics, I can’t help but think he is willfully ignoring some fundamental truths about his city.

It’s beyond obvious, of course, that New York City is the headquarters of America’s financial and corporate culture. Less obvious, perhaps, is that New York has also served as a center of conservative evangelical intellectual culture and activism.

A century ago, progressive New Yorkers were similarly riled by the fiery fundamentalism of New York’s John Roach Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist and one of the undisputed national leaders of the 1920s fundamentalist movement. I spent some time with Straton’s archived papers a few years back and they are chock-full of ardent correspondence with all the top conservative evangelicals of his generation.

Again and again, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists praised Straton and acknowledged his New-York-based leadership of the national fundamentalist movement. In 1922, for example, the president of fundamentalist Wheaton College in Illinois wrote to Straton

to thank you for the attack you are making on the infidel teaching of our time.

Beyond any dispute, Straton used his New York City headquarters to fight evolution and theological liberalism. He used the cultural clout of his big-city address to add oomph to his fundamentalist activism. Yet even his fundamentalist admirers tended to assume that fundamentalism was not a true product of the Big Apple. Straton himself sometimes agreed. In spite of the fact that he had built his fundamentalist empire from Manhattan, Straton told the New York Times in 1925 that fundamentalism was a Southern thing. As Straton put it, fundamentalism represented

a rising tide of spiritual earnestness preparing in the South and West which will sweep the country.

Even today, New York City is home to some of conservative evangelicalism’s most vital institutions. Most notably, The King’s College moved downtown in order to exert its presence in the heart of Gotham. As one enthusiast put it, by moving to New York, TKC could be

a counter cultural Christian college in New York City that leads with academic excellence and ‘convictional civility.’

Though both conservatives and progressives have tended to assume that conservative evangelicals don’t fit in New York’s hurly-burly cultural landscape, both sides have frequently missed the long, continuing tradition of New York’s role as a capital city of conservative evangelicalism.

They don’t agree on much, but both sides seem to ignore New York’s real role as an international headquarters of conservative evangelical religion. Why?