Religion in Restaurants: Is God a Good Thing?

In this installment of Tabletop Wrestling, Jay Friedman spars with himself about the issue of religion in restaurants.

Religion in Restaurants? I Stay Away.

When I used to fly on Alaska Airlines, I’d always ask for the oppression-free meal. Most flight attendants would nod knowingly, offering empathy, some later telling me in the galley how much they disagreed with the practice of putting prayer cards on the meal trays. This practice ended just last year when, according to an Alaska Airlines spokesperson, enough people complained. (Or was it simply due to the end of in-flight meals?)

For years, the corporate office responded to my complaints by saying “Many people like the prayer cards.” But like doesn’t make right, and it shouldn’t be majority rules when it comes to religion. As I listened to the captain say “We know you have a choice of airlines” as I flew to, say, Juneau, I felt captive on the plane and subject to religious oppression–or at least evangelism.

On the ground, I have the ability to vote with my feet and free myself from the shackles of religiously affiliated restaurants, especially those which use their beliefs to bully customers or employees. No Chik-fil-A using Christianity as an excuse to recycle Cracker Barrel’s hatred toward homosexuality for me, thanks. No Domino’s pizza, either, as I don’t want to contribute to Tom Monaghan’s vision of a birth control-free world as he works toward building a Catholic town and a Catholic country.

Religion aside, those restaurants are easy to avoid because of the poor quality of the food.

Then there’s In-N-Out. I liked In-N-Out’s burgers…until I saw the(ir) light. The evangelism is subtle here, but felt sabotaged to discover Biblical citations on the paper products. I have to live with God on my paper money and coins (again, little choice), but I can choose to live without God when satisfying my burger cravings.

My beef is not just with Christianity. Even the spiritual stroking of the Loving Hut (with Supreme Master Ching Hai) and the local Silence-Heart-Nest (with Indian Spiritual Master Sri Chinmoy) freak me out, though some might argue that my discomfort with these restaurants lies with their vegan and vegetarian food.

Some restaurants wear religion on their sleeves–and chests. Heaven Sent Fried Chicken’s religious connection is not only in its name, but on the storefront (and webfront), where owner/operator Ezell Stephens is pictured in a “God is good all the time” t-shirt. Meanwhile, Toshio’s Teriyaki (pictured, top of the article) on Rainier in Beacon Hill has its walls filled with religious messages, as owners Yoko and James Wang are evangelical Christians. A corner of the dining room is devoted to prayer, and multilingual signs exhort faith in God and Jesus. Most amusing, or perhaps disturbing, is a sign for side orders that show charges for teriyaki sauce, hot sauce, and salad dressing, but “holy sauce” offered for free. The family claims to not be “into your faces” with religion, but they’re proud to be a ministry, and the scene made me flee.

I didn’t expect religion at a place like Izumi, in Kirkland. Japanese people have long and successfully shunned attempts at conversion by organized religion. Shinto-Buddhism is a bit of a joy, as believers stop off at the temple or shrine when the spirit compels. So I was surprised to go out for sushi and see brochures as the only item on a table at the entry, where I’d otherwise expect menus. The owners are Makuya, which is some sort of a Japanese-for-Jews-for-Jesus type of thing. I spoke with one of the workers about this, and she lit up in explanation and encouragement that I attend a meeting.

“We love Israel,” she told me, explaining that some Japanese people make an annual pilgrimage there to pray for the country. “So you support Judaism?” I asked, to which she replied, “No, but Christ was born there, so we support Israel.” Thank “god” the sushi was just so-so, so that I’m not compelled to go back, and won’t worry about them serving me a spiritu-roll.

Religion in Restaurants? Maybe It’s OK.

I can always play dumb, like if I just really want a Double-Double at In-N-Out, perhaps Animal Style from the not-so secret menu. There’s always hope that they’ve dropped their policy of printing the Biblical citations on the paper products. Even if they haven’t, I can pretend they did, not looking on the lip at the bottom of the soda or milkshake cup, and ignoring the sandwich wrapper after diving in. Or I can justify my visit as a friend says he does: By donating an amount equal to his purchase to the ACLU to help them fight for religious freedom.

I could be contributing to a religious group without even knowing it, so why fight it? When H Mart opens this fall in downtown Seattle, I’m sure there will be an evangelical Mrs. Park who decides to park outside the doors, handing out religious literature. I don’t know if she does this with the store’s blessing. Maybe I should research if H Mart donates to the church (a la the Koreans who own Forever 21 and put the John 3:16 verse on their shopping bags)–or maybe I just don’t want to know, and plead that ignorance is bliss. (I once stumbled upon a list of contributors to George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and after finding owners of a couple of my favorite restaurants, I wished I hadn’t seen the list.)

There’s also the question of where to draw the line on religious expression. I see altars in so many Asian restaurants, but a shrine to one’s ancestors or a business Buddha doesn’t seem to bother me. I see this as cultural expression rather than religious evangelicalism.

And then there are times where it’s just hard to avoid religion, like in the South. Back in the days of phone books, in some towns I’d see a Jesus Fish in almost every restaurant display ad, making me wonder if I’d picked up a Christian Yellow Pages.

Who says religion has to be bad? I recently visited a barbecue joint in eastern Tennessee, and after placing my order, walked to my table and saw prayer cards on the table. (Somehow I hadn’t noticed the Christian rock coming through the speakers.) By then I’d paid cash and was pretty committed to my food. I didn’t want to like it, but it was delicious–and so delicious that I returned the next day. How’s that for situational ethics? The workers took note of me and were over-the-top sweet, offering me samples of basically everything they were barbecuing. You can say that, in a way, they converted me–at least to the idea of being open-minded and breaking bread together.

First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on March 20, 2013. [I should clarify that I’m not trying to remove religion from places of business, though I do not believe we should allow religious images in publicly funded places, like city halls, etc.]