Decoding Rick Warren’s Appreciation for Chick-fil-A

When I was growing up, my mother hated the word “hate,” which she believed should be reserved for the only most genuinely heinous of people, things, or situations.

So, I might hate Hitler, or poverty, or napalm—things which rarely found their way into my childhood discourse—but I could not hate, for example, the bizarre pairing of SpaghettiOs and creamed corn that my older sister routinely requested as her special birthday meal. I could find them “distasteful,” or “unappetizing,” or any of a number of options my mother would suggest. My brother could “disagree” with Nixon’s policies, but he could not profess hate for the man. “You don’t know him personally. You cannot possibly ‘hate’ him,” she would insist. “Hate” was a big-ticket word not to be squandered on annoying siblings or corrupt politicians.

My mother’s semantic ethics on this point have stayed with me throughout my life, so I’ve never been one to throw around words like “hate,” “hater,” or “hate speech” casually. Words are of course powerful things, filled with the potential for hurt and shame that can linger for years, poisoning souls and relationships in ways that can be nigh on impossible to repair. But a quote from conservative pastor Rick Warren that has been popping up all over my Facebook page the last couple days—in the stinging aftermath of the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” spectacle engineered by Mike Huckabee—got me thinking that sometimes, despite and maybe because of its impact on relationships, “hate” is exactly the right word. 

Now, to be fair, Warren’s quote is taken well out of context by Chick-fil-A Christians from an interview on Christian-Muslim relations earlier this year. Still, they are deploying the quote in support of their words and actions last week, which, if the Hatfield-McCoy Facebook behaviors of some of my own friends and family members can be taken as somewhat representative, did no small amount of damage to relationships.

I’d almost feel badly for Warren, given the way that Chick-fil-A Christians are misusing a quote from a much longer, much more thoughtful conversation, but he’s done little to distance himself from the controversy or to encourage the respectful speech and behavior which the quote suggests. 

To wit [the tweet below appears to have been deleted a day later, as noted by Leah McElrath in HuffPo. —Eds.]: 

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In any case, Warren’s statement seems to nod in the direction of a more thoughtful use of hard words, chiding angry LGBTQ people and their advocates, and lauding the compassion and conviction-driven speech and actions of Chick-fil-A Christians:

Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.

I say the Warren quote “seems to nod” because there’s much more going on in the quote as it’s deployed than an appeal for civility, tolerance, and thoughtful speech. Rather, the quote manipulates the sentiments with which my mother would have agreed in the service of a huge lie of which she certainly wouldn’t have approved: That the people who lined up in droves at Chick-fil-A restaurants last Wednesday and then crowed about their support for “family values,” “biblical convictions,” and the poor, beleaguered Cathys all over Facebook and Twitter, do not, in fact, hate LGBTQ people or fear the ways in which they see the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ people changing an American culture that bends less and less to their prooftexting, biblically illiterate, historically and politically ignorant wills. Because they do hate. They do fear. You don’t have to go much further than Twitter to put your finger on the pulse of that:

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Now, there are people who say that these sorts of haters are on the conservative lunatic fringe, that they’re not the same as the majority of conservative Christians who marched themselves and their impressionable children into Chick-fil-As all over the country.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, these wingnuts are more vocal and use more incendiary language than perhaps do many of the people who chowed down on fried processed chicken patties and waffle fries last week—at least in public. But, no, that doesn’t mean the rest of the lot, who incline more toward the specious “free speech” and “biblical marriage” arguments of which we’ve all grown tired, are not also haters. That would be nonsense. Seeing them otherwise relies on another huge lie that the Warren quote proffers.

That lie is this: When people say that certain kinds of speech are “hateful,” and that the people who say such things are “haters,” they’re actually saying that a specific person is saying the equivalent of “I hate you personally, gay man or lesbian. You, over there…”  When they say someone is “phobic,” they’re saying that person is literally afraid that the subject of their words will directly, personally harm the speaker.

Again, this is nonsense.

Rather, when people say certain kinds of speech are “hateful,” or that some sort of fear or “phobia” is evidenced by the hate speech, they’re pointing to the participation of that language in a rhetorical system that the people to whom the language is directed experience as having the emotional and often material effect of being hated. If you say hateful things to or about me, I’m going to experience you as a hater, whether or not you’ve ever personally said anything even vaguely unkind to me directly.

Likewise, when they (and I’ll just claim myself as one of them, so, actually, “we”), when we say that certain conservative stock words and phrases are “homophobic,” we’re not suggesting that an individual person has an irrational fear of another individual person who is homosexual (though we do know that this does happen, too). Instead, we’re talking about the way in which the person’s language participates in a rhetorical system that demeans and demonizes lesbians and gays to the extent that it creates a general fear among some self-identified heterosexuals that a nefarious “gay agenda” is afoot that will somehow undermine heterosexual relationships, families, and society in general.

So, of course it is not the case that you have to agree with everything an individual person does or says in order to genuinely love her or him as an individual person in the context of a specific interpersonal relationship. However, when you use conservative coded language like “lifestyle” to describe the lives of a particular category or class of people, you are engaging in hate speech, you are perpetuating a rhetoric of fear, even when you surround such rhetoric with words like “love” and “compassion.” 

You can think you “love” me personally all you want, and you may enjoy my winning personality endlessly. We can disagree all day long about whether taxing the wealthy is the best way to heal the economy or which direction the toilet paper roll should go and still be the best of friends. But when you speak and act in ways that seek to limit the civil liberties, increase the risk of discrimination and violence, and damage the psychological and spiritual well-being of me and people like me as a group, you are not being loving. You are not being compassionate. And, for what it’s worth, you don’t come off as particularly Christian, either—at least not the kind of Christian that anyone would recognize through a cursory scan of Jesus’ teachings.

Furthermore, when you call me “unbiblical,” “unnatural,” and say I’m bent on destroying society with my “sinful lifestyle” and then complain that you’re being judged unfairly because I call that “hate” and I call that “phobic”; when you want to lean on the First Amendment for your own opinions then try to call up Miss Manners when I object—well, that’s just nonsense, too. 

In the face of that kind of nonsense, I feel pretty confident that my late mother would smile down from whatever sweet by-and-by in which she is now gently correcting other angels’ grammar and usage when I say, I hate haters and their hateful phobic hate speech.

But surely my hate isn’t the final word. Nope, for that I turn to the prophet Amos, to whom the Lord spoke with words on which Chick-fil-A Christian haters might like to reflect before their next hater-phobic-festival:

The Lord says, “I hate, I despise your festivals; I cannot stand them! When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry.” (5:21-24)

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com