Chick-Fil-A, Jonathan Merritt, and the Conservative Politics of Outing

Brian Ammons has some very serious concerns over the outing of evangelical Jonathan Merritt, and asserts that if boycotts are tricky business, then the outing of another person should be considered even more so. 

First off, is it really news to folk that Chick-Fil-A is supporting a conservative political agenda?  I quit giving them my money years ago (with the exception of an occasional submission to the immense temptation of a drive thru lemonade and order of waffle fries — I confess).  While these latest statements about same-sex marriage are particularly disturbing, LGBTQ activists have been raising questions about the company for more than a decade.  As far as I can tell, the only thing that’s changed is that this time the offense caught the attention of a broader audience. Thus, Chick-Fil-A is the avatar du jour for businesses that support conservative politics.

Photo: AP

Boycotts are a tricky business, and I hear the push back from some of my peers.  There are those who argue that, as a strategy, the boycott’s time has past.  They argue that boycotts are no longer effective, yet it’s not been so long since we’ve seen significant policy changes due to boycotts from companies such as Burger King and Mount Olive Pickles.

Others argue that boycotts are a bad idea because they can have a reverse impact, galvanizing those who support the policies and mobilizing them to, in this case, “eat mor chikin.”  Yet, the other impact of boycotts is to change the cultural conversation by drawing attention to an issue.

Even if Chick-Fil-A gets a temporary boost in sales thanks to friends of Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham, the boycott is working because it is politicizing the act of buying a chicken sandwich.  I for one think that’s a good thing.  I come out of the early 90’s queer campus organizing tradition, where we did things like declare “Blue Jeans Day” in which wearing blue jeans signified support for LGBTQ students.  Of course, since most students wore blue jeans most days, suddenly the entire campus community had to grapple with whether or not they were willing to be identified with us. Not a bad strategy.


All of this is to say that I disagree with young evangelical Jonathan Merritt (and other folks whom I think of as friends) when they push back on the boycott. I appreciate the call for civil dialogue, and I’ve positioned myself publicly to be one of those who will sit down at the table with folks I disagree with.  I take civil liberties seriously, so at the end of the day if the owner of Chick-Fil-A wants to lend financial support to groups that I find deeply offensive, I’ll defend his right to do it.  I’ll also chose not to do business with him.

But what happened to Jonathan (whom I’ve never met) is that his call for dialogue with Chick-Fil-A was responded to by the revelation from gay Christian blogger Azariah Southworth that he and Jonathan had a history. Jonathan responded by acknowledging that they had been in contact with each other, met up once, and engaged in some sort of something “that went beyond the bounds of friendship.” Which led to such sophisticated reporting as reflected in The Advocate’s headline: “Prominent Evangelical Anti-gay Blogger Outed as Gay.”

How did we get from him having one hot night to being gay? If he were a beautiful young woman our culture would consider a same-gender liaison somewhere between an experiment and recreating a scene from Coyote Ugly. Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it; Jonathan Merritt kissed (maybe?) a boy and is a closet case.

Aside from missing the fact that while Merritt is far from championing the cause, he has a long history of pushing back against the more hardline voices in the Christian right around relationship to LGBT issues; how did we get from him having one hot night to being gay? If he were a beautiful young woman our culture would consider a same-gender liaison somewhere between an experiment and recreating a (misogynist) scene from Coyote Ugly. Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it; Jonathan Merritt kissed (maybe?) a boy and is a closet case. Merritt may well come to identify as gay, bi, or otherwise queer, or he may not.  Either way, he simultaneously broke the bro code and pissed off the homos, so right now things must look mighty grim.

Yes, it’s true that after the “outing” Jonathan responded with some rhetoric I find problematic. And while as a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I’ll never buy into the logic that it is the root cause for my attraction to men, I’ll be the first to say that some of the sketchier parts of my sexual history are very much tied to my trying to unlearn the lessons of my youth through recreating them. But the truth is, I’ll never buy into the logic that we need to find a root cause for my attraction to men at all. And while we’re at it, I’ll resist the assumption that gender is the only factor in determining my attraction. What the heck, let’s go all the way—I’ll go ahead and claim full responsibility for making my own choices about whom I invite into my bed, regardless of their genitalia.

“Gay” is a cultural identity. It’s a political strategy. And despite the insistence otherwise on the part of so many who claim it, it’s disturbingly conservative. “Gay” insists on a narrow range of sexual narratives—it holds “orientation” in such high regard that all sexual acts and desires are evidence of core of one’s identity. Jonathan Merritt is not gay, or at least hasn’t identified as such. As far as I’m concerned he’s the only one who can make that call. Even if one argues that acts committed in private that are out of integrity with public statements are worthy of scrutiny, we’ve got no right to determine for someone else what those acts mean. If boycotts are a tricky business, outing is even more so.

Even if one argues that acts committed in private that are out of integrity with public statements are worthy of scrutiny, we’ve got no right to determine for someone else what those acts mean.

I disagree with Jonathan Merritt on a lot of things, but I hope that wherever his journey takes him he finds a framework for interpreting both his desire and choices that is life affirming and works for him. And you can be sure of this: I will continue to work for a culture that respects his right to identify himself using whatever language he chooses—‘cause God knows I want that same respect.

*Kudos to Tony Jones for crafting a powerful piece on this same topic, and resisting the dominant simplistic analysis.  Check it out here:


Image of locked door courtesy of Shutterstock 


About Brian Ammons

Brian Ammons is an educator, spiritual director, author, and ordained Baptist minister. He lives and works in the intersections of gender, sexuality, spirituality, and justice. He is a former faculty member in Duke University's Program in Education, and currently serves as Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    On boycott vs. buycott. Note esp. the comments.

    Was in one in FL last spring. Pretty crowded, so I can’t say from these reports if business is up or the ordinary demand is always like this. Didn’t have any parking problems, though.

  2. Allen O Jackson says:

    I don’t know if I buy this guy’s argument. Anyone who takes even a moderately hypocritical stance deserves what they get. It’s like Shakespeare said, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

  3. This all reminds me of “WatchDog” news in the movie Best Little Whore House in Texas. Difference is that the watch dog is now the liberal media. Even to the point that politicians are basing their actions on popular opinion! Wow, does anyone else see the similarities?

  4. I’d like to point out that Dan Cathy’s statement was to “Baptist Press” and wasn’t main stream. It was picked up by other news outlets so I guess in some ways it was “public.”

    Curious as to where LGBT was when Herman Cane was CEO of Godfather’s Pizza?
    Homosexuality, Cain is an opponent of the legalization of marriage for same sex couples in the United States.[39] He supports the Defense of Marriage Act.[40] He would seek to reinstate the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.[33]

    I hope Cane isn’t interested in opening any businesses soon …

    Word to wise CEO’s … take cover and keep your mouths shut especially if you’re a conservative.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Brian. How does a person put sexual practice into the public discourse. Is a straight man putting his sexuality out there if he says nothing about it but seems to be married?
    Or do we pick and choose depending on political utility?
    Gerry Studds committed sodomy with an underage male page. Kept getting reelected because, I guess, he dared the voters to dislike sodomy with the underage and he won. A Cong rep. named Crane about the same time had sex with an underage female page. He disappeared, either because of shame or the fact that republicans don’t put up with that stuff. Besides, Studds’ offense was hip, edgy, out there, and he was a democrat.
    So you can see why observers of outing sometimes doubt the assertions of principle.
    As to tolerance. Anybody can tolerate the tolerable. It’s tolerating the intolerable and the intolerant that gets you the points. That can sometimes run you into unforeseen difficulties. See Bruce Bawer.

    • Brian Ammons says:

      It’s interesting here that your examples are all elected officials with legislative power. That’s not the case with Jonathan Merritt. Does the conversation change when we’re talking about leaders with cultural influence rather than politicians?

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        However, “cultural influence” means whether any number of people have heard of them or pay attention.
        Somebody yelling on a street corner or a blog doesn’t count unless he actually is heard by and may influence people.
        The elected reps came to mind because more people here of them, and because they get elected, or not, which says something about a bunch of other people, so it’s a two-fer.

  6. AnonymousDog says:

    Are you looking forward to the day when every town of any size will have a “liberal” chicken stand and a “conservative’ chicken stand, as well as liberal and conservative grocery stores, etc.? Think that’s a good direction for our civic culture? Trade has historically moderated political, religious and cultural differences.

  7. reg schroeder says:

    NWO makes a solid point. however, i believe non of us is tolerantl. we can be non-tolerant on a selective basis. i am not tolerant of sexual abuse of children. we all draw the line at some point of tolerance otherwise people would openly beat their dogs and screw their children.
    so, in your opinion i am moral and not tolerant. i am ok with that.

    • NWOslave says:

      True enough that people are intolerant to an extent; this still doesn’t negate the fact that tolerance by its very nature is immoral. Gay was bad but now it’s good. Trans was bad but now it’s good. These days, the good people are the gays and trans; the bad people are the people who don’t practice tolerance. Incest between consenting adults will be the next thing we’ll need to tolerate. Bestiality will be as well. Tolerance morality means accepting what any person chooses is his or her own personal morality. Look at the State run media. The bad people are those that dare say something is immoral. The good people are those that say personal choice is the only morality.

  8. reg schroeder says:

    resisting what we fear is certainly not limited to Christians. and i do think we should challenge Muslims when it comes to living peacefully side by side. Liberal Christians seem to have a greater sense of humor and acceptance as do Jews and Hindus. i can’t speak for liberal Muslims.
    I applaud Brian for expressing his opinions. I don’t think we should “pigeon hole” people for wandering from their “normal” paths. Nor do I think we should assume all victoms of child abuse are forever wounded. This , I believe, is Brian’s point. because a heterosexual male looks with lust upon another female other than his wife does not make him a cheater. but do you remember when Jimmy Carter told the world he had “lust” in his heart?? he outed himself and i thought it was an amazing piece of truth so many of us fight against.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      reg. Should we challenge a municipality which refuses to allow Chick-Fil-A because of its CEO’s views but which allows a mosque without knowing if, or possibly knowing that, their view is that gays should be executed?
      IOW, as somebody said, is homophobia okay if it’s diverse homophobia?

  9. NWOslave says:

    Morality doesn’t have a faith. Anyone can be moral. Tolerance, which is the official State faith, is immorality. No one can be moral and tolerant at the same time, because tolerance and morality are opposites. Under the rules of tolerance, if someone chooses to act immoral and says it right for them we must accept the morality they’ve embraced. Tolerance literally means accepting there is no morality since morality is dictated by whatever any person wants morality to be. If a person doesn’t accept what any person has dictated is their personal morality that person is shamed as being immoral to the fluidity of tolerant morality.

    Brian Ammons, you are an educator, spiritual director, author, chaplain and minister of the immorality of tolerance. You, sir, cannot be moral, because you preach tolerance, the opposite of morality.

    • Brian Ammons says:

      I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. I advocate for integrity and find generally find tolerance to be patronizing. I am far from a relativist and don’t see anything that points to relativism in this post.

      • NWOslave says:

        How can you say you advocate integrity? the owner of chick-fil-a has integrity and morality. He said unpopular things in the face of certain ridicule. You simply swing with the breeze of popular opinion. Whatever anyone feels is moral for them is tolerated. This is a decidedly non-stance. No one can be sexually immoral when sexual immorality is left up to personal preference.

        As long as any sexual act is consensual, it isn’t immoral. This your stance, isn’t it?

        • Brian Ammons says:

          No, that’s most definitely not my stance at all. Consent is just one of many factors in determining whether or not a sexual engagement is moral, though that’s not really what this post is about at all.

          I agree that Chick-Fil-A is acting with integrity. Their business practices are in line with their stated moral vision. I just disagree with their moral vision, and so I’m not going to shop there.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Reg. I think you may have come close to something conservatives say: Liberals can’t be hypocrites since they have no standards to violate. This isn’t actually true, of course. Liberals do have standards. But, for some reason, violating them is not seen as hypocritical.
    The idea that we resist what we fear is isolated to Christians? I know that annoying Christians is pretty safe. No museum director is going to entertain an exhibit “Piss Mohammed”, but surely on a web site one can be somewhat braver….

    • Richard, you apparently forgot about the Danish cartoonist whose work concerning Muhammed drew viable death threats.

  11. reg schroeder says:

    I would agree with Richard. There is a time for pointing out an inconsistency.
    It seems more appropriate for a liberal to point out an inconsistency with a conservative than vice a versa for some reason. Many of us are guilty of hiding what will make us more of a target by an opponent.
    If you smoke weed and your a cop, I am not going to turn you in as there are more important issues than a cop that is inconsistent.
    Change takes time. I remember when having a black friend made you a “nigger lover.” Weve come a long way baby.
    Sometimes, for the greater good of all, it is the right thing to do to “say one thing and do another.” Sort of like supporting the soldier while opposing the war. Maybe using a rubber mallet is better than a sledge hammer when forging change.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Brian. You may be rigt with regard to sexual encounters. But have you thought of extending the principle to other issues?
    There was a presidential candidate whose name escapes me early in the twentieth century known, colloquially, as “the barefoot boy from Wall Street”. If a politician is claiming to be for cutting tax breaks for the wealthy, is it legitimate to out the fact he owns a farm on which he receives enormous tax subsidies–see ag subs, much goes to the wealthiest–without using the farm to support himself by, you know, growing stuff?
    If a candidate claims we should all “pay our fair share”, is it legitimate to note he docks his megayacht in a state whose yachting taxes are minimal but in which he does not reside?
    If a celebrity or public person is strongly and publicly against gun ownership by ordinary citizens, is it legitimate to note he or she is always accompanied by armed bodyguards?
    If a politician or judge insists that a city build public housing for the poor, is it fair to note that person lives in a lily-white gated community?

  13. reg schroeder says:

    We fight hardest against the things we fear. To me, that explains so much about hatred and bigotry.
    When Christians become focused on marital infidelity its often because they fear their own leanings toward wandering from their partner. Its the same with people “bagging” on gays. Its the fear of “opposing” feelings that causes so much fight to repress them.
    If it don’t fit, don’t force it.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    My father graduated from high school in 1939. He said that everybody knew who were the “homos” or “sweeties” or “fairies” or “choppies” (male Jews) and nobody thought anything of it. The only practical distinction was that the gay men were less likely to participate in combat sports (football) and more likely to be doing pole vaulting or tennis or some such.
    Otherwise, nobody said or thought much about it.
    How come the bad old days were not so bad? Why?
    Tom B. According to the Chicago Way, if you open a mosque and preach anti-gay stuff (death), you should be okay. Just don’t be a Christian doing it.

  15. In so far as Chik-Fil-A ……

    I’ve told countless people that in the event I win it big in the lottery, besides giving a good portion to charity and making sure my kids were financially comfortable, my dream is to open a youth home. I have plans in my head as to what it would look like and amenities which would include everything from horses to a swimming pool. It would be nestled in a rural area with a lot of land to explore. …. Oh wait! I can’t!!! I am one of those people who don’t believe in gay marriage.

    I have rental property, I don’t discriminate in any way shape or form but I don’t support gay marriage. Ruh Roh …… AND my property is in the Chicago area!

  16. BTW, I and other siblings knew my brother was gay and we were comfortable with it. We didn’t sit around dissing gays. We gave my brother many opportunities to open up to us but would never think of forcing the issue. We felt that his coming out had to be on his own terms.

  17. Brian, you didn’t answer Joanna’s question which is one that I would also like to know the answer too. Who does it benefit to out them? As a gay man, I’m sure you understand how closeted gays struggle in life, struggle with “fitting in” and how some even over compensate to fit in. Then there are some closeted gays who for whatever reason struggle in their mind with their being gay in that it may, in their mind, run in the face of what they’ve been taught to believe.

    My brother endured years of suffering after he was “outed.” He simply wasn’t ready. Eventually he attained a comfort level where he was able to live life without fears and was actually “set free” so to speak and lived and enjoyed that freedom. But that was only after years of pain in that he simply wasn’t ready and he didn’t come out on his own terms but instead those who “forced him” into it. I see absolutely no benefit in “outing” anyone.

    There are hypocrites around every corner. Hypocrites who claim and say one thing and then do something to the contrary. Yes, I’d love to point out their hypocrisy but these are people who have lives and my taking someone down is no more then selfishness on my part.

    • Brian Ammons says:

      Joanna’s question is a valid one. As Peter suggested, once a public figure puts their own sexual practice into the public discourse, it’s reasonable to hold them accountable and expect that they speak with integrity. The second factor to me is about the sphere of influence and severity of antiqueer rhetoric. It may be appropriate to challenge a politically/culturally powerful figure spewing hate but engaging in behaviors he or she is public condemning. My concern is with the assumption that the only reason men ever have sexual experiences with other men is that they are gay. If that were true we’d suddenly be a majority.

      If I had a former lover who was preaching hate, I’d contact him and ask him to stop and encourage him to get some support for dealing with the tnsions vetween his speech and behavior. Should he continue, I’d give him the option of speaking publicly of our affair or my going public with it. There are ethical measures that can be taken in that process.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Brian. This gives you a good deal of latitude. In the current usage, “hate” is anything found to be inconvenient or personally displeasing but not susceptible to argument by fact.
        Of course, the folks who use “hate” like that depend on the good faith of others not to use the same tactic against them. I think that asymmetry is breaking down.

  18. Outing is just reporting. If he were having sex with women no one would care about people reporting on that. You just think that homosexuality is a dirty secret that no one should talk about openly. When did anyone bitch about guys like Bill Clinton and Arnold Scwarzenegger being “outed” as straight adulterers? You are the “conservative” one and so are the other people who think homosexuality should be a dirty secret.

    Straight men don’t “experiment” the way straight women do. Straight chicks make out with each other because society says it’s hot and that it turns men on. Straight guys don’t make out with other men – especially ones from homophobic evangelical backgrounds. If he made out with a guy, he’s gay or bi.

    And sex isn’t a “choice” – you don’t choose what makes your dick hard.

    • Brian Ammons says:

      Dirty little secret? Hardly. I celebrate my sexuality and have spent my life committed to open conversation. I love being a same gender loving man. I also celebrate the choices I make to partner with other men. I claim agency in my behavior, even if not my desire.

    • reg schroeder says:

      i think bill clinton paid a price for his heterosexual outing. yes it would have been more stormy had it been homosexual, but with time passed it becomes forgotten the same way. i suppose i feel the same way about outing as i do the paparazzi. it is only reporting but it is the lowest form.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      It’s only a dirty little secret because he is very openly anti-gay, but as it happens I agree about Bill Clinton: His marital affairs should never have been the subject of public inquiry. Or as my granny put it “He shouldn’t have lied, but they shouldn’t have asked.”

      • Brian Ammons says:

        This is where I disagree with you, Peter. While Merritt’s not where I wish he were in support of LGBT community, he has been a voice open to conversation and calling for civility within one of the most hostile climates for LGBTQ folks in our culture.

      • Except that there was evidence that he was sexually harassing women, and the consensual relationship was with a subordinate.

  19. reg schroeder says:

    I agree with you Brian. Outing is wrong. And to generalize about the reason for any orientation is wrong also. Sometimes there is no pathology related to sexual abuse.
    And an emotional affair between same sex couples without sex is platonic?? So much is undefined and should remain so. When you say your gay your probably gay. Until then your just you.

    • Just to be clear, I think an ethical case can be made for outing in some contexts. The problem for me is the idea that we can determine someone’s “orientation” from a snapshot of their behavior. It’s just faulty logic and binary thinking.

      • Joanna Schroeder says:

        I’m curious when outing someone is okay, in your opinion. I don’t mean this with hostility, I’m genuinely curious.

        • Peter Houlihan says:

          If a political figure uses an aspect of their private life as a prop for their campaign then it becomes reasonable for the press to investigate. For instance: When Sarah Palin based her campaign around her motherhood, her actual relationship with her family became relevant jounalism.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    As to “boycott”, see the “buycott” at Starbucks as a result of the boycott due to their refusal to refuse those legally carrying firearms. I prefer Folger’s, and I dislike retail markup, but I did get some coffee at Starbucks that day.
    The personal issues are one thing.
    What is interesting is that if you have the same view Obama had until about three months ago, municipal governments will crush your business.
    If, on the other hand, you think gays should be thrown off the observation deck of the John Hancock Tower, the city will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
    Both civil libertarians and gays should be concerned.


  1. […] more about the outing of Jonathan Merritt in a moving piece by Brian Ammons called Chick-fil-A, Jonathan Merritt, and the Conservative Politics of Outing /* Filed Under: Good Feed Blog Tagged With: Azariah Southworth, Brian Ammons, is […]

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