Discover more from John Thornton Jr.'s Newsletter
I recently got a number of new subscribers to my newsletter. Welcome! My name is John Thornton Jr. I’m a pastor at a church in Chapel Hill and also a writer whose work has appeared at Vox, Sojourners (new piece went up this week!), Commonweal, and Plough (new book review going up this week!). My two most read newsletters are this one about why our church pays off each other’s debts together and this one on burnout.
For those of you that are new here, I usually try to write out a particular thought I’ve had for the week, to stretch it and see where it goes and then let it go. It’s for stuff that’s not quite a full pitch and edited piece but could be. It’s also a nice exercise in not thinking too too much when I write. Thanks for subscribing.
When I tell people I grew up in Texas, many of them comment that I don’t have a noticeable accent. I usually joke that it’s because I grew up in the suburbs in the 1990’s. I use the word “y’all” which is about my only holdover from my upbringing and even then I use that more out of convenience than anything. To illustrate the placeless-ness of suburban Dallas/Ft. Worth I often joke, “I was actually raised inside of a Chick-Fil-A.” This seems to get the point across.
Chick-Fil-A’s had a prominent spot in the news lately. Over the last few years as conservative Christians have lost the public culture war over matters of same sex marriage and abortion, Chick-Fil-A seemed like the last battleground they held. Its founder, Truett Cathy, was a Christian and his sons, Dan and Bubba, that now own the company are as well. They famously close on Sundays. Over the years the company has continued to grow but also faced pressure for their owners personal stances on LGBTQ+ rights and donations made by the Chick-Fil-A Foundation to organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ+ persons. Their resilience and success in the face of calls for boycotts from liberal progressives showed that Christians could still run a business and operate it according to Christian values. This last week, they announced they’d no longer be giving to the Salvation Army and Young Life, two organizations with strong stances opposing same sex marriage.
For many conservative Christians, this showed that the secularists won and that they’ll stop at nothing until they’ve achieved total victory. What’s alarming for many on the conservative side of things is that liberals didn’t even need an effective boycott. Chick-Fil-A’s an $11 billion company that continues to grow. The company caved to cultural pressure and in doing so betrayed their Christian values and the Christians that so loyalty supported them. It was another sign of the end of things.
In a piece at Vox this week, Ezra Klein spelled out the “apocalyptic psychology [of conservative evangelicals] that motivates the strained defenses of even Trump’s worst behavior.” He goes on to try to describe this psychological disposition in which Christians recognize the end is here, that they’re losing an all out war against everything they hold dear. I think the whole Chick-Fil-A thing figures into that mindset. It’s another sign that all is lost.
I’ve heard a lot about how because evangelicals believe in the End Times or the Apocalypse they’re more prone to nihilistic stances on climate change or just improving things in this life. There’s certainly something to this. I grew up reading the Left Behind books and hearing about how a rapture would take all Christians up to Heaven in one swoop leaving unbelievers behind. When you’re an insecure kid, it definitely helps to throw some insecurity about the state of your soul in the mix and then a theology that says that everyone you love might disappear leaving you behind.
What’s interesting to me is that Left Behind and the end times theology seems to have fallen out of favor a bit with evangelicals. I’m no longer in that world, but I try to keep an eye on it and have friends that are. The apocalypse (at least not the one I grew up with) doesn’t seem nearly as prominent in their thinking these days. While I don’t think evangelicals filter all their political leanings through the end of the world, they do seem to see an end to their world (though I’ll confess that a fine line runs between them at least in terms of our perception). What they see is the end of a way of life and they need someone to blame so it must be the secularists, the atheists.
The whole thing basically centers on what Chick-Fil-A does with their profits. Conservatives and liberals have a real sense of urgency around the question of whether or not the company gives to particular non-profits. That they changed that reveals the total victory of the atheist left. For them this was a betrayal of Christian values. But what the hell are Christian values in 2019 and why does giving to one non-profit over another matter so much? I think there’s something missing here. If you’re a long time reader of this newsletter you’re thinking to yourself, “I bet it’s capitalism” and, yep, it’s capitalism.
In response to the whole thing, I tweeted out a joke: “Sad to see Chick-Fil-A, a company that pays employees $8/hour while their CEO Dan Cathy is worth $5 billion, betray their Christian values.” People quickly pointed out at that Chick-Fil-A usually pays more, has good benefits, and gives its high school workers college scholarships. Fine. My point is not that it’s a bad place to work. It’s that Dan and Bubba Cathey, the two owners have $5 billion of wealth. Here’s my question: have these guys done $5 billion worth of work? Could any human actually do that? What does it mean to have “Christian values” as a company in 2019? This incident shows that the battle lines, at least culturally, center around what charities and causes a company does or does not support with their profits.
Wealth, the kind these guys have, isn’t just $5 billion sitting in a bank that they spend off. It’s their investments in Chick-Fil-A, investments they inherited from their dad. And let’s say that each year their wealth gets them a return of 1%. That means that each year they make $50,000,000 per year in income just because they own Chick-Fil-A. Not because they started it. They didn’t. Not because they work for the company. They get a salary for that. They just get a return on their investment. That money just comes to them as the reward for their ownership in the company.
(Disclaimer: I’m not entirely sure how much of their wealth is from ownership in Chick-Fil-A. Those are rough estimates that I found here. Let’s just pretend they’re accurate.)
How do they make that money? Where does it come from? The answer is pretty simple. Their company buys chicken, potatoes, fryers, tables and chairs and property. They also hire a bunch of people to prepare the food, serve it to customers, clean the floors and toilets, and occasionally wear a cow costume. They go so far as to pay them to tell customers that it’s their pleasure to refill their Dr. Pepper or give them an extra Chick-Fil-A sauce.
The Cathys do all of this and at the end of the day, they have more money come back than went out. Of course they give some of that to workers and some of it goes to maintaining their company and all that, but they get to keep a significant part of it for themselves. That’s really weird, right? The two of them do work for the company so you could argue that their work increases the value of the company, but they’d make that money from the investment even if they didn’t work for the company. Through their charitable foundation they give some of that money to charitable organizations of their choosing.
Now, maybe you’re like my friends or people on twitter that basically say, “Hey, that’s just how things work. Owners and investors make money and workers need jobs so they get paid a wage. Chick-Fil-A does a much better job of this than other fast food places or even worse jobs. The Cathys seem like good people.” Fine, I’ll grant you that. And that’s the problem. The problem is the system, the process, the way of relating to each other that we call capitalism.
Workers have no choice but to sell their time working to owners and investors. If you don’t get a job (or even if you do sometimes) you’ll end up homeless and hungry. You have to sell your time working. Because of that imbalance, owners and investors can drive down wages and when they drive down wages, they make more money. This is just the basic dynamic of capitalism. The name for it is “class struggle.” It’s how we all relate to one another and while it gets complex it has two sides: owners and workers.
The term for using someone’s dire situation to work for you for whatever you can and will pay them while you take whatever they make is “exploitation.” Exploitation isn’t a Christian value. It’s wrong. It’s not how we should live with one another. And capitalism can’t function without that exploitation. Dan and Bubba Cathy make their money because they pay employees for their time working in which they produce more value than what they’re paid for their time. It might pay a good wage, but that $50,000,000 comes from somewhere. And the only reason the Cathys (or any investor or capitalist) can make a profit is because they get to keep the extra value created by people working for a wage.
I find the whole “my pleasure” thing creepy. The company forces employees to feign pleasure in serving me my chicken strips and sauce. What I find creepy about it is that I don’t want some stranger to feign pleasure or desire. Maybe they do love serving me food or refilling my drink. Maybe not. I want them to tell me that and to actually enjoy it because they do not because they’re getting paid to say it. I know the company pays them to say it. They obviously know the company pays them to say it. It’d be better to be with one another in ways in which our pleasure isn’t exploited, in which we actually get to keep the rewards of both income and desire that we produce and enjoy.
Most working people I know are a long way off from living a pleasurable life. It does feel like we’re constantly under siege, right? Everyone seems nervous that our institutions might either collapse or crush us, and it’s unclear which would be worse. I could run through the list. Debt, stagnant wages, healthcare costs, precarious work, poverty. Everyone lives with a general sense of powerlessness at the exact same time that we’ve been fed messages that through hard work and individual effort we can make something of ourselves.
In his piece, Klein notes the work of Ryan Burge (a must follow if you like really nice, insightful graphic displays of trends in religious life in America). Burge found that in 2018 the “no religion” group basically matched with the “evangelicals.” Evangelicalism is on the way out. Klein also mentions that young people are leaving the church and have a good deal of distaste for Christianity. A 2016 Barna study “asked 16- to 29-year-olds for their top three associations with present-day Christianity. Being ‘antigay’ was first, with 91 percent, followed by ‘judgmental,’ with 87 percent, and ‘hypocritical,’ with 85 percent.” In a piece that came out this week, Burge writes that the gap in church attendance between rich and poor has grown significantly in the last 4 decades.
What if all this is related? What if it all matters just not in the ways we normally think about things?
Putting it all together I want to say this.
The reason young and poor people are leaving the church, the reason conservative Christians feel under attack by liberals and liberals feel like they have to attack conservative Christians, the reason “my pleasure” feels so hollow inside and outside Chick-Fil-A is because we’re in the midst of a class struggle and capitalists are winning. If you’re upset about what happens with the profits, about which non-profit it does or doesn’t go to, you’re missing the heart of the matter which is that the profits belong to the people that work not the people that own.
What do churches have to say about this? What church is out there that’s actually speaking to this situation as it exists in the moment? Obviously I know one. But if you sit there and wonder why young people and poor people leave the church maybe it’s because churches and Christians don’t address such a fundamental relationship to capitalism and how it structures our lives.
I love this quote from a pastor in early 20th century in Chicago: “The reason why workingmen are not found in larger numbers in the church is not due to the coldness of the church, nor to the dress parade, but primarily to the fact that the church has more often been on the side of capital than upon the side of labor.”
That sounds about right to me. We don’t have a choice. The class struggle is real and it’s here. Pick a side and start fighting. Maybe it won’t lead church growth but what’re the other options? Take the side of the guys that own Chick-Fil-A and whatever non-profit they want to give to?
In the end transforming this system is possible. Because I believe in the love of God, I believe that we don’t have to live in exploitative relationships with each other. I don’t believe in human perfectibility like William Barr says liberals do. I just just believe that an economy in which people own the means of production and the stuff they produce would be one that’d be a good bit better than the one we have now. What if that $5 billion worth of worth just went back to the workers at Chick-Fil-A because they own the company? Why don’t they deserve instead of some guys whose dad started the company?
I think it’s all possible though highly unlikely. It’d be a world in which we can all approach each other as loving equals as we will one day. It’d be a world in which we’d serve one another, cook for one another, enjoy one another’s presence in a way that my pleasure, our pleasure wouldn’t rest on exploitation, but love.