Last Thursday I noted the passing of the controversial Irish Presbyterian minister, Rev. Ian Paisley. In the same Sunday newspaper (September 14) there was also mention of the passing, at the age of 93, of S. Truett Cathy. Cathy, as many will know by the mention of his name, is the founder and billionaire who built the famous restaurant chain, Chick-fil-A. The chain is known for many reasons, one of which is that it is closed on Sunday. The other, at least in the images and thoughts of millions who view the popular culture, is the amazingly funny commercials that are aired on television with cows telling us why we should “Eat More Chikin.”
Cathy opened his first restaurant in an Atlanta suburb in 1946. His boneless chicken sandwich would propel the franchise to more than 1,800 outlets in 39 states. By 2013 the company said that its annual sales topped $5 billion. The company is family-owned thus it is the Cathy family who seem poised to continue to hold to the core values that their father promoted. Cathy’s personal fortune is said to have been in excess of $6 billion, putting him annually on the Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans. The company listed him as chairman emeritus on its website since he had left day-to-day operations to the younger leaders in the family some years ago.
Unlike Ian Paisley, who I wrote about yesterday, S. Truett Cathy never publicly altered his stance on several “hot-button” issues. This was especially true with regard to the same-sex marriage debate which he actively spoke about. But what the press often failed to notice was how much the company had changed its tone and direction under the influence of his sons.
Dan Cathy, the chief operating officer of the company, got involved in a much-ballyhooed controversy about same-sex marriage in 2012. This controversy, which spilled over into political contexts such as the Chicago City Council. Some members of the council sought to stop the chain from opening a restaurant in the city. Related stories about the company were still making news even last week in California.
The larger controversy about Chick-fil-A, and same-sex marriage debate in particular, has slowly died down. But the virtually uncovered story over the last few years was sadly missed by most outlets when a leading LGBT spokesman was invited to spend personal time with Dan Cathy in 2013. Thankfully, this story was reported by the Huffington Post. The video is well worth seeing.
I get the sense that the younger Cathy leaders are committed to approaching this controversial issue with a different approach even if their views (morally and politically) remain the same as those of their father. To some extent this shift is similar to the wide-scale generational movement that we are seeing among many Christians who are growing weary of this being “the” political hot-button issue that creates the biggest hill to die on in the culture.
As I look at this hugely contentious issue among Christians I am reminded that for us, and for our churches, this issue really has three major components: (1) Political, (2) Pastoral, and (3) Missional.
I do believe there is a political side to this issue. This issue is not unimportant. But I am profoundly convinced that the Christian Right has lost this battle politically. What concerns me is whether or not conservative Christians can move on to the two much more important issue, namely the pastoral and missional. Can we learn how to love and care for people of same-sex orientation and practice? And, even more importantly, can we learn how to live in a radically changing culture as God’s people who love the world and also live in it missionally? The global figure who most represents the way forward for the church is none other than Pope Francis. He is calling us to the second and third response in a powerful and pastoral way. I wonder who is listening. The Catholic Church will not embrace marriage between same-sex partners as sacrament for very compelling and deeply Christian reasons. But the pope is seeking to show us a far better way to engage with a world that starves to hear good news, not ecclesial judgment.