Slave life’s harsh realities are erased in Christmas tours of Southern plantations

Slave life’s harsh realities are erased in Christmas tours of Southern plantations

Christmas tours to mansions often present a ‘magical’ experience to tourists, but they ignore the realities of the lives of slaves who worked there.
Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau/Flickr, CC BY

Robert E. May, Purdue University

This holiday season, many Americans will tour historic mansions in the Southern United States that are beautifully decked out in traditional wreaths, garlands and mistletoe for Christmas.

At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia mansion, tourists are promised candlelit tours and a “festive evening” of refreshments, 18th-century dancing and more. Visitors can even meet a re-enactor playing Martha Washington, America’s First Lady.

At the state-run Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site in Brunswick, Georgia, promoters promise attendees a “magical experience” during the holiday event, learning how “Christmas was celebrated on a Southern rice plantation during the 1850s.”

What these tours teach is how rich white Southerners once celebrated Christmas: singing Christmas carols, dancing, drinking the cider brew wassail and enjoying refreshments or formal meals.

Few make a serious effort to tell what Christmas was like for the enslaved workers at these plantations before the American Civil War.

What’s missing?

When the black historian Brandon Byrd visited Belle Meade, a mansion in Nashville, Tennessee, for its Christmas tour a few years ago, he was shocked that the slave community and their harsh realities were barely mentioned. Instead, he reported, the tour guide mostly related “stories about the white men, women and children who woke up to Christmas in the mansion’s plush bedrooms.”

By the American Civil War, nearly four million slaves in all toiled in the southern states, and about a million lived as servants in mansions and as field hands on large plantations with 50 slaves or more. They did almost all the grueling household and field labor that kept these places going, often sleeping and cooking in primitive cabins and working in unhealthy conditions under the threat of the whip.

In fact, the historic mansions hosting Christmas tourists never would have been built without the profits generated by slave labor. The grand Nottoway Plantation and resort in Louisiana, which traditionally puts on a Christmas event, was constructed just before the Civil War by some 155 slave workers.

Fictional tales and memoirs

In researching my 2019 book “Yuletide in Dixie,” I discovered that many historic plantation and mansion sites are reluctant to talk about slavery at their Christmas events. This is partly because administrators want to avoid topics that might make paying guests angry or uncomfortable.

But the omission of black southerners from these holiday tales also stems from pervasive myths about slave life at southern plantations before the Civil War.

For a long time, many people got their ideas about slavery at these places from memoirs, novels and short stories written by white southerners after the Civil War. These stories, now outrageous for their racial stereotypes, not only justified the institution of slavery, they also made it seem like all enslaved people had fun on a southern plantation at holiday time, dancing, singing, laughing and feasting for the holiday season, just as their masters did.

An illustration that perpetuates the myth that slaves had a wonderful time during Christmas.
Frank Leslie, in 1857

Susan Dabney Smedes, a white girl who grew up on a Mississippi plantation, published a memoir in 1887 called “Memorials of a Southern Planter” that made slave Christmases sound like wonderful times. Smedes wrote about how slaves wore their best clothes for Christmas, played a word game called “Christmas Gif’” with their white enslavers and drank eggnog their master made for them.

In a fictional tale published in the “Century Magazine” in 1911, an enslaved carpenter named Jerry even turns down the freedom that his master offers him on Christmas because he likes his life as a slave so much, and especially the Christmas present his master specially picks out for him each year.

Many of these memoirs and preposterous short stories and novels about happy slave Christmas experiences were so popular that they were republished in new editions over and over again from the late 1800s and early 1900s until, in some cases, the present.

Smedes’s “Memorials of a Southern Planter” was regularly republished for a century after its first appearance.

Many Americans got falsely pleasant images of slavery and especially slave Christmases from reading these works, and these wrongful impressions not only affected how the public thought and still thinks about slavery but, more specifically, how site administrators at southern historic mansions and plantations planned their Christmas programs.

Whipped and sold on Christmas

I read many documents to find out how slaves actually spent their Christmases. The truth is deeply disturbing.

The image shows the scars from whipping inflicted on the back of a slave.

On the one hand, the majority of enslaved people did get some them time off from work during Christmas, as well as feasts and presents. Some got to travel or to get married, privileges that they didn’t get at other times of the year. But these privileges could be withdrawn for any reason at all and many slaves never got them at all.

Slavery was a brutal system of forced labor to enrich those same owners. Even over the holiday, masters kept the power to punish slaves. A photo taken during the Civil War shows a man who was whipped at Christmas. His back was covered with scars, showing that when masters punished the people they held in bondage, they often did so brutally.

There were other cruel forms of punishment. On one South Carolina plantation, a master angry at an enslaved woman he suspected of miscarrying her pregnancy on purpose locked her up for the Christmas holiday.

Masters sometimes forced enslaved workers to get drunk even if they did not want to drink, or wrestle with each other on Christmas simply for the amusement of the master’s family.

An African man being inspected for sale into slavery while a white man talks with African slave traders.
Library of Congress

Likewise, I learned in my research, slaveholders bought and sold plenty of people over the holiday, keeping slave traders busy during Christmas week.

Escapes and panics over slave rebellions

It is revealing that many enslaved black southerners also chose Christmas as the time to try to escape to freedom, despite the difficulties of traveling in cold weather with few supplies.

The famous black liberator Harriet Tubman, for example, helped her three brothers enslaved in Maryland to escape bondage over Christmas in 1854. Obviously, slaves like the Tubman brothers greatly resented their enslavement, or they would not have agreed to leave.

Evidence shows that many slaveholders knew their slaves hated their condition. Although the U.S. never had a major Christmas slave rebellion, southern whites frequently panicked over frequent rumors that their slaves planned to revolt over the holiday. They armed themselves, conducted extra patrols, banned black people from the streets of cities and executed or whipped slaves whose behavior they thought was suspicious.

Panics over Christmas rebellions took place frequently. They were, at times, confined to a state as in Charleston, South Carolina – then a British colony – in 1765. Or, they could spread in the entire American South, as one did in 1856. As I found in my research, Christmas revolt panics continued all the way through the Civil War.

These panics made Christmas a bad time for many slaves, who passed their Christmases in great fear that they would be rounded up and killed.

What’s changing

Some southern historic plantations and mansions are beginning to include a more accurate history of slavery in their presentations of the past.

Montpelier, the Virginia plantation of U.S. president James Madison and Monticello, the famed mansion and plantation of Thomas Jefferson, for example, have been making efforts for several years now to work more accurate presentations.

Yet another onetime slave-owning president’s preserved site, James Monroe’s Highland, likewise is striving to provide a far more comprehensive look at the enslaved people who once lived there and the conditions they experienced.

There are signs that such changes are taking place elsewhere too. In 2013, for example, the Ben Lomond plantation in Virginia featured in its holiday programming the tale of how enslaved people murdered the place’s owner over Christmas. That same year, Montpelier, once home to President James Madison, asked its interpretors at Christmas to explain to visitors that whites living nearby were afraid of violence by Madison’s slaves.

Christmas programming, however, is changing more slowly than programming at other times of the year. That is because many would like the holiday event to be a fun one.

But a public acknowledgment that slavery was immoral, horrific and resisted by its victims in the form of more sensitive and informative Christmas events at historic mansions and plantations might just be a step toward racial reconciliation in the U.S.

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Robert E. May, Professor Emeritus of History, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Black Christian Women Now: The Strong Black Woman Complex

Black Christian Women Now: The Strong Black Woman Complex

Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and dysfunction. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the ubiquitous identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her new book, Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

Dr. Walker-Barnes’ work is a welcome addition to a growing group of contemporary books that tackle identity issues of black women, for example: “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America“, by Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf“, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America“, by Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sophia Nelson’s “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “Too Heavy a Yoke” is more in the tradition of Harris-Perry’s treatment of the subject: academic in tone and heavily intellectualized. It is not targeted to the mass market women’s audience, but rather is intended “primarily for pastoral theologians, pastoral caregivers (including pastors, pastoral counselors, and women’s ministry leaders), and Christian mental health professionals whose ministry and services encompass Black women.”[i] Readers outside those categories should be prepared to push through the didactic approach but will be aided in their understanding by the author’s personal transparency and patient delivery.

The book’s readability is also helped along by a logical structure and flow that makes it easy to follow the author’s discourse and to connect the dots from one thesis to the next. Her topical subjects go from a detailed and illuminating profile of the Strong Black Woman (Chapter 1), to naming and critiquing the historical and contemporary cultural forces that shaped and necessitated the identity (Chapter 3), to honing in on the unique role the black church has played in reinforcing the Strong Black Woman identity (Chapter 5), and finally to laying out her model of healing and recovery. Also, the “Purpose and Organization of this Book” section in the Introduction is particularly helpful because she gives insight into why she chose womanist ideology as her framework. Explaining her approach is smart because many black readers in her intended audience, particularly black pastors, are not necessarily well-versed in womanism, and if they are familiar with it, are likely to disagree with its tenets and philosophical slant, particularly those not of the Millennial age group. Case in point: her quotation of Alice Walker’s definition of a womanist: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…and women’s strength…”[ii]

The author’s profile of the Strong Black Woman is clear and compelling. She draws upon the already-established Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes parsed by Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen, and the Sisterella personality crafted by Jones and Shorter-Gooden in Shifting, as well as other scholars’ descriptors, for her three-part characterization of the Strong Black Woman identity: 1) excessive caregiving; 2)independence; and 3) emotional strength/regulation.[iii] Using examples of women she’s worked with in her professional practice, she highlights the common behaviors and attitudes that accompany each aspect of the SBW identity. In caregiving roles, these Strong Black Woman:

…took care of ailing family members and…generally were the first called whenever someone had a problem. At work and at church, they could be counted upon to take up the slack when someone else failed to live up to their responsibilities. Often, in fact, they foresaw the probability that the other person would fall short and they stepped up to the plate long before they were asked. …They rarely said no to anyone. …Whenever they felt the weight of responsibility bearing upon them, they ignored it, believing sincerely that God would continue to empower them to serve.[iv]

Walker-Barnes uses analysis of three hip-hop and R&B songs as the backdrop for her discussion of independence, which, she asserts, is basically about self-reliance. Looking to herself for financial provision, the SBW doesn’t need—in fact often eschews—the help of anyone, particularly men. Her comportment labels her as someone with an “internal sense of power and authority.” with a ‘boss’ mindset and who apparently carries this off with mystique-like ease.[v] The author perhaps sees the emotional strength aspect of the identity most destructive. Strong Black Women reflexively repress emotions, sometimes even the ‘positive’ ones. Fear of affirming others’ perceptions of angry black women, she strives for emotional equilibrium, or more precisely, the appearance of it. The author convincingly demonstrates the links of this false emotional strength to ongoing declines in the physical and mental health of today’s black women, urging attention from both the social science and ecclesiastical community and black women themselves.

A hallmark of the true value of “Too Heavy a Yoke” is the final chapter in which the author lays out her model of recovery and healing for the Strong Black Woman. She utilizes a twelve-step framework similar to addiction recovery programs, which makes sense given that she views adherence to the SBW personality as an addiction, a “force of habit ingrained in many African-American women from childhood.”[vi] Any woman who reads this book and can see herself in the attributes of the Strong Black Woman will not be untouched by reading the twelve steps for recovery. A woman who sees herself in the pages of this book will be forced to confront her profound need for Jesus’ intervention in her life, and her utter dependence on that intervention to abandon the strictures of this artificial identity. We all need to lay this burden down, and “Too Heavy a Yoke” can be a powerful catalyst to move us in that direction.

Writer’s note: The themes and ideas put forth in this book will be explored in more detail in subsequent articles in this series

[i] Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 8

[ii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 9 (quoting Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens)

[iii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 10

[iv] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 16-17

[v] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 29-31

[vi] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 186

Leading Well: What We Don’t See

Leading Well: What We Don’t See

Takes initiative. Confidence. Competence. Visionary. These are all characteristics that come to mind when we think of strong leadership—particularly male leadership. Unfortunately, even today, some of those same characteristics are viewed as negative traits when applied to women. Instead of being a go-getter, thinker, strategic planner, or capable team member, she is viewed as bossy, strong-willed, or rigid.

Without a doubt women are leading in more ways than ever before. And yet from Sheryl Sandberg’s national best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, it appears that many women are still leading blindly. Sandberg encourages more women to sit at the table, jump in, grab opportunities, and keep their hands up. After all, “it is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” As leaders, women must get comfortable taking the initiative.

In addition to taking the initiative, women need to become avid learners. Padmasree Warrior, Cisco’s chief technology officer, reports, “The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” For competent leaders, it is fairly easy to learn the business of our companies and organizations and our job descriptions. Women rarely fail because of what is written on paper. Women often fall behind professionally because of unmet expectations and unspoken rules and that is where many of us need more education.

A few months ago I read a book titled, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, by Carol Kinsey Goman. While I do not agree with some of the scientific information shared in the book, I was blown away when I read the chapter, He Leads, She Leads. I would guess that most of us don’t intentionally think about our body language. When we discuss “body” in connection with “professional women,” the conversation quickly turns to determine whether or not we are dressing modestly enough for the workplace. We don’t want to show too much cleavage, we don’t want our skirts too short, or our pants too tight. We don’t want our colors to be too flashy (after all, we do want to be taken seriously and not to look like a party girl). Never be too sexual or suggestive (that’s not the way that a competent leader wants to climb the ladder). We don’t want to dress too old, but want to appear young (but not too young) and fresh. We don’t want to look out of shape or lazy because we want others to know that we can get the job done. But as women leaders, do we really think about our body language?

We need to learn our own body language, its signals, and discern the body language of others if we want to lead effectively. Goman shares that research “offers insight into why corporations have relatively few females in senior leadership positions. It has everything to do with body language—but not in the way you might anticipate.” Goman shares thirteen gender-based differences in nonverbal communication. Perhaps the most important difference is that women are better at reading body language and should therefore use this skill to our advantage. Be attentive to the nonverbal messages in the room.

Both men and women also have strengths and weakness concerning their methods of communication. In addition to reading body language, women are generally better listeners and are more compassionate towards others. Since men are generally “overly blunt and direct, insensitive to emotional reactions, and too confident in [their] own opinions,” women who understand their communication strengths actually have the power to shape conversations.

Be careful because, “communication strengths turn into weaknesses when overdone.” Women leaders do not want to become “overly emotional, indecisive, or lacking in authoritative body language signals.” However, they should be mindful that followers are looking for warmth and authority in their leaders. If you are a woman who is educated, professional, have a title, or work experience, you already have authority. Own it! At the same time, be you. People want leaders who have personalities. When people are drawn by your presence and your professionalism, you win as a leader.

Here is Goman’s advice to women seeking leadership credibility. Lean In by:

Keeping your voice down.
Claiming your space. (Compensate for men’s larger and taller statue by standing straight, broadening, [your] stance, etc. [The goal is to] take up more physical space.)
Smiling selectively.
Watching your hands. (As a woman particularly, you will be viewed as much less powerful if you self-pacify with girlish behaviors)
Curbing your enthusiasm.
Speaking Up.
Straightening your head. ([Literally.] Head tilting is also a universal sign of acquiescence and submission. When you want to project authority and confidence, you should hold your head in an erect, more neutral position.)
Employing a firm handshake.
Keeping your eyes in the business zone. [Focus on the other person’s eyes.]

Dressing like a leader.Trying a little tenderness. (Showing emotion is not only a good thing: it is a powerful leadership strategy.)Looking at people when they speak.Stop solving problems. (Try being a sounding board rather than a problem solver.)Lightening up. [Don’t take yourself too seriously.] 

Women and men need each other, even in professional working relationships. Women can become more effective leaders by understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and paying attention to those of their male counterparts. Presentation is critical when considering expectations and unspoken rules. Women need to learn the power of their nonverbal communication, while understanding that both professionalism and personality are important for leadership growth, development, and advancement.

Sisters and Citizens, Part 2: Open Letter to Black Christian Women

Sisters and Citizens, Part 2: Open Letter to Black Christian Women

My Dearest Sisters,

How many of you remember the song Trade Winds? Some of us might hear Randy Crawford in our heads as we look at the words; some of you younger ladies might hear The Winans.

Here I stand looking, looking around me

While all around me, what do I see?

Unhappy faces behind a painted smile

Heartache and loneliness dressed up in modern style

Unhappy people livin’ in sin and shame

Reflections of myself, life is no easy game

We’re caught in the trade winds, the trade winds of our time.

Randy Crawford (pictured above) released her version of Trade Winds in 1981. The song was also covered by Roberta Flack and Lou Rawls. (Photo courtesy of

There’s no indication that this song was intended to be a “Christian” song, but I hear the call of God in it as surely as I hear His call to Moses at the burning bush, or His call for justice and unity through Dr. King’s Dream. As each of these men were, we are now today living in a time that is ripe for action because it is rife with opposition to the word and will of God.

When I look all around me, I, too see so many things. When I look out my back door, I see young men sending up smoky tendrils of hopelessness as they puff their lives away with cigarettes, both legal and illegal. When I look out my front door, I see women and families going through the mundane routines of life, and when we say “hello” I see the fixed glaze of people who have resigned themselves to a certain existence. When I look across the pews in my church, I see people who raise their hands in worship but who sometimes seem uncomfortable extending their hand in fellowship. I also see those who are fervently seeking God for how to make a difference in the world around them. I hope to see more of those people.

When I look at Christian websites and media, I see us catering to the temporal, fleshly part of ourselves by showcasing the talented, the beautiful, and the up-and-coming, rather than the needy, the lonely, and the down-and-out. Do we have anything to say to those who need a friend, to those whose marriages are sinking fast, whose children are God knows where doing God knows what with God knows whom? Is there a Word stored in our hearts that can penetrate the weary and sin-sick soul of that mother of three in prison for the second time? Or can we only repeat what we read in the pages of our Essence magazine, recite lines we heard in the latest Tyler Perry flick, quote language from Michelle Obama’s last public appearance, or maybe cite one of those “sayings” we heard our stylist borrow from her mother during our last visit to the salon? Sisters, we need to give more because our times demand more. Nothing short of the gospel will bring a change.

When we look around the media and read other women’s explanations for why we are still sleeping with our boyfriends – or girlfriends for that matter – do we not hear God’s call to to act? Does His Spirit, whom the Bible tells us knows the mind of God, not remind us that He is holy yet forgiving? A Washington, DC minister, in response to the issue of many Christian singles being sexually active, is described in Essence magazine as encouraging black Christian women to “embrace both sides of their nature [sexual and sanctified] by recognizing all people are sexual and many church practices are from a different time.” Do we have a response to that? Can we tell anyone that God designed sex to be experienced between a husband and wife and that if we are experiencing it some other way, our experience is contrary to what He wants for us? Does anyone have the courage to further explain that if a woman is not now living up to that standard, God forgives and can empower her to live according to His will going forward? And when we are chided for being out of touch can we brave enough to echo 1 Thessalonians 4:8 – “anyone who refuses to live by these rules [regarding sexual sin] is not disobeying human teaching but is rejecting God”? Or are we joining the chorus of other voices excusing sexual misconduct based on arguments citing the “complexity” of our lives?

Sisters, when we look around at the women in our families, the women with whom we work and play, and we see slumped shoulders too accustomed to carrying the weight of their worlds, do we know how to tell them of God’s sufficiency for their struggle, and that they can rest in His strength? Or do we simply become the company that misery loves by telling them to “be strong and keep it moving”? Where is the demonstration of the remedy we carry within us? What has happened to the power of the gospel we say we believe? Could it be that we are speaking one of those “other gospels” that has the power to manipulate but is powerless to change us? Our brothers, sisters, children, bosses, preachers, doctors, celebrities, and politicians need to know Jesus. They need His strength, wisdom, compassion, and grace. We are in a unique position to lead them to Him. We have been at the bottom of this country’s social, economic, political, and ecclesiastical structures forever. We know the sting of gender and the stigma of color, but our weaknesses qualify us to be vessels through which His power can flow. It’s time for us to live boldly in that power so that people can see the difference it makes in their lives to know and trust God.

“She must be loosed from her bands and set to work” – Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (Photo courtesy of

If we need inspiration, we can look back a couple hundred years or a couple thousand years. Anna Julia Cooper of the post-reconstruction era black clubwomen’s movement put in perspective our need to rise:

Now the fundamental agency under God in the regeneration, the re-training of the race,…must be the black woman. With all the wrongs and neglects of her past, with all the weakness, the debasement, the moral thralldom of her present, the black woman of today stands mute and wondering at the Herculean task devolving around her. But the cycles wait for her. No other hand can move the lever. She must be loosed from  her bands and set to work.


What are these bands that bind us? Consider the strongest one. Our color, rather than being a prism reflecting the beauty, power, and tenderness of Jesus, has become a cord that ties us to people and ideologies which oppose Jesus and His teaching. Christ has become subject to color. Thus have we forfeited the very source of our true power. When faced with opposing positions we almost always choose the one with color at its foundation. Consider poverty. Policies targeting poverty are almost universally based on ties to color. We’ve heard the reasoning that blacks are in poverty primarily because they are black. Yes, color-based discrimination is a factor, but the Bible also speaks of several other reasons people end up in poverty, not the least of which is their relationship to, or rebellion against, God. We rarely acknowledge any of the biblical reasons; yet we without fail heartily embrace the solutions which put race at the heart of a problem. Similarly, if a person whom we hold in high regard ascribes to ideas directly opposed to the word of God, we often vocally support him/her, justifying ourselves by pointing out the need for blacks to advance in society. In these ways and many others, color is our governing allegiance, relegating the supremacy of Christ to the back of the bus.

Our color alone can’t save anyone, relieve anyone’s suffering, or  provide a solution to their generational bondage. But our color nailed to His cross and taken up as our cross allows us to enter into the fellowship of His suffering through the shame and rejection that comes because of our color. And if we are partakers with Him in suffering, we are also beneficiaries of His resurrection power. It’s time we brought this power to bear on the entrenched problems of our communities and our world. Sisters, let us be loosed from this band and set to work. Let us no longer stand mute wondering at the task before us. The voices of the white and black feminists, the white female conservatives, and the new black atheists are being heard. Now it’s our turn. Let the voice of the black Christian woman rise as we contend for the faith that has been given to us once for all time.

When Chick-fil-A Is More Than a Meal

When Chick-fil-A Is More Than a Meal

I thought we might do it. I thought UrbanFaith could avoid reporting on the latest media-fueled outrage storm. But then the public relations director of Chick-fil-A died of a heart attack amidst the frenzy, the Muppets were pulled from a deal with the company, and mayors in major cities began saying they would deny building permits over Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy’s outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage.

In case you haven’t heard, Cathy, a Southern Baptist, was quoted in a Baptist Press article as saying the family-owned restaurant chain supports traditional marriage. Here’s the quote that sparked the firestorm:

“Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. ‘Well, guilty as charged,’ said Cathy when asked about the company’s position. ‘We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. … We are very much committed to that,’ Cathy emphasized. ‘We intend to stay the course,’ he said. ‘We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.’”

As the media criticism site Get Religion noted, Cathy’s views are old news, but the “offending” quote said nothing directly about same-sex marriage. However, as is often the case, there is a history behind the reaction to it. Cathy previously told a radio audience that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,” according to The Washington Post. Those are fighting words in a nation as divided as ours is over same-sex marriage. But are they words a corporate executive should have uttered in public?

CHICKEN FIGHT: Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s embattled COO. (Photo: Stanley Leary/Newscom)

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Diane Brady compared Cathy’s judgment with that of Bill Marriott, who is chairman of the Marriott hotel chain and a Mormon. Marriott personally opposes same-sex marriage, but “has long been reluctant to impose that view on the company his father founded.” So, although his church was involved in the fight against same-sex marriage in California, neither he nor the Marriott corporation donated money to the cause. “Instead, he stepped into the drama by publicly reinforcing his company’s commitment to gay rights through domestic partners benefits and services aimed at gay couples,” Brady reported.

Conversely, she said Cathy “crossed the line in letting his faith become less about inspiration than alienation” by openly condemning the beliefs held by a lot of potential customers. “Hearing polarizing rhetoric from the pulpit is one thing. Hearing it from a man whose business rings up $4 billion in sales each year is another,” said Brady. “As an individual, Cathy has every right to express his point of view. As president, he has a responsibility to talk about how those views affect the policies of Chick-fil-A. …The controversy at Chick-fil-A is less about the beliefs in its C-suite than the judgment therein.”

Perhaps this explains why some franchise owners are now “distancing themselves” from Cathy’s statements, according to The Los Angeles Times. But, politicians-turned-pundits Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are publicly supporting Cathy by calling for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Wednesday, August 1, and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin also spoke up in support of Cathy, a fact that CNN reported to a musical backdrop of Pink’s “Stupid Girls” song. And round and round it goes.

But Chick-fil-A has garnered support from some surprising sources, like a gay internet celebriity, a James Beard award winning food writer, and the American Civil Liberties Union. “The government can regulate discrimination in employment or against customers, but what the government cannot do is to punish someone for their words,” Adam Schwartz, senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, reportedly told Fox News.

Of course, there have also been passionate pleas for restraint. At Christianity Today, Caryn Rivadeneira got fired up after someone used the occasion to out Christian author Jonathan Merritt as gay. So she bought herself a chicken sandwich and admonished readers to: “Remember the Chick-fil-A when we’re ready to jump on bandwagon-y boycotts or seek to silence or shut down those who offend us or whose beliefs run counter to ours. Remember the Chick-fil-A before refusing to shop stores that say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ Remember the Chick-fil-A before asking the Gay Pride Parade to reroute so it doesn’t disrupt church services. Remember the Chick-fil-A before you demand books be removed from high school syllabi. Remember the Chick-fil-A before ‘outing’ another person for whatever through gossip or rumor or prayer request. Remember Chick-fil-A whether or not you agree with Dan Cathy.”

Likewise, author Rachel Held Evans, who supports same-sex marriage, urged Chick-fil-A boycotters to “remember that not all Christians who speak out against gay marriage are bigots or homophobes, and calling them those names is as unjust as it is unkind.”

Somehow amidst all the fury, the internet barely noticed that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie announced that they are donating $2.5 million in support of Washington’s same-sex marriage law, which won’t go into effect unless it survives a referendum vote in November. “ Inc. publicly supported the law earlier this year, along with other prominent Pacific Northwest businesses, including Microsoft Corp., Starbucks Corp. and Nike Inc.,” the Associated Press reported. Will Chick-fil-A supporters boycott these corporations in retaliation?

Before they do, perhaps they should remember the Disney boycotts from yesteryear. In 2005, after eight years of eschewing all things Mickey, the Southern Baptist Convention officially voted to end that endeavor. What were they protesting? US News reported that the boycotts were sparked by Disney’s involvement with the 1994 movie Priest, which was about a clergyman’s struggle over his closeted homosexuality.

“Activists for gay and lesbian causes welcomed the vote as a possible opening to what they hope will be a new dialogue with the SBC and other Christian-based opponents of gay and lesbian rights,” the article said. That was seven years ago.

What do you think?

Should Christian business leaders speak out on divisive political issues or stick to their corporate missions?