The continuing controversy over the anti-gay beliefs of the owners of the U.S. fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A has established one thing with stark objectivity: Chick-Fil-A sandwiches are the best in the business. There wouldn’t be much of an issue, after all, if Chick-Fil-A’s chicken had ready, obvious substitutes. The website BoycottChickFilA.com comes right out and asks, “How can something so good be so evil?” One lawyer even has a scheme for offering “chicken offsets” that let gay-friendly chicken-lovers salve their consciences by donating to non-profits that support same-sex marriage.
The Cathy family, owners of the chain, have never made a secret of their Southern Baptist convictions. Chick-Fil-A’s 1,614 restaurants in the United States stay closed on Sundays, and the chain’s centre of gravity is in the American South.
The present fuss began early in July when gay news website Equality Matters reported on donations to conservative Christian organizations by WinShape, a charity started by Chick-Fil-A CEO Truett Cathy in 1984. But the web of alleged anti-gay money is hard to navigate, and Equality Matters does not make a very strong case that WinShape makes same-sex marriage a particular target.
The charity gave US$480,000 to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which makes its volunteer ministers agree to a “sexual purity statement” that describes homosexuality as not “acceptable to God.” There was another quarter-million for the National Christian Foundation, whose “statement of faith” does not mention homosexuality but which does support “marriage defence” lobby groups like Focus on the Family.
Perhaps the most consternating item in the Equality Matters indictment is a $1,000 donation to Exodus International, formerly controversial for advocating therapeutic “cures” for homosexuality. But the current leadership is actually trying to distance Exodus from its past, and has given up on “conversion therapy.”
Whether or not Doodles the Chick-Fil-A chicken is a disguised octopus wielding financial power to smash marriage equality, there cannot be much doubt where the Cathy family stands: they certainly prefer an America almost totally free, as it still is, of lawful gay marriage. (Just six states perform gay marriages, and 30 have prohibited it constitutionally.) The Equality Matters dog-whistle drew new attention to comments made in June by Chick-Fil-A chief operating officer Dan Cathy, son of Truett. In a radio interview Cathy had said, “I think we are 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.’ ”
This statement was jarring to Americans, who are no longer used to hearing public figures advert to the possible wrath of God. (The kerfuffle is a bizarre mirror image of the problems that beset President Obama when his pastor’s equally scourging language about God and American race relations came to light.) Cathy’s traditional rhetoric may have obscured the fact that he was making a theological statement, and not outlining company policy.
But while same-sex marriage is a very new extension of American principles, commercial freedom and the First Amendment have been in the national DNA all along. This made the reaction to Cathy’s remarks from several liberal mayors arguably more shocking than the remarks themselves. San Francisco’s Edwin Lee tweeted that the closest Chick-Fil-A to his town is 40 miles away “and I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.” Boston’s Thomas Menino told Cathy in a personal letter: “I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston.”
As the crisis deepened, Chick-Fil-A offered a formal reminder on July 31 that “the tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honour, dignity and respect—regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.” The company added that “our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government.”
When gay activists organized a same-sex “kiss-in” at Chick-Fil-A outlets a few days later, a vice-president knocked together a press release short enough to reprint in its entirety: “At Chick-Fil-A, we appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-Fil-A.”
It’s arguable—given that the reaction to the “kiss-in” was basically, “Knock yourselves out, fellas”—whether gay rights organizations achieved their objectives, though they did force the company to clarify its position, and release a more tolerant message. In any case, their demonstration was dwarfed by the earlier “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” proposed by Mike Huckabee; at a mere word from the former Arkansas governor, 600,000 people signed up on Facebook, and when the randomly appointed day arrived (Aug. 1), broadcasts carried scenes of hour-long queues across the South. One outlet in Augusta, Ga., ran completely out of chicken and had to close.
This is more than just an ordinary setback for same-sex marriage in the U.S., though it has had plenty of those. The overreaction from the mayors has obfuscated the issue, rallying people who don’t really care whether their neighbour marries a Shih-Tzu to the banner of religious freedom. But perhaps the controversy is a sort of fire drill for American liberals. There is value, after all, in finding out that you are not as organized or capable as you thought.
The 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which protected corporate and union spending on political advertising, made America—or turned America back into—a place where corporate money can be transformed into political persuasion without limit. As much as some may despise that fact, it is a natural consequence of the First Amendment. But no less so is the use of consumers’ buying power to influence the political participation of successful companies. It is healthy for Americans to be aware of—and to argue about—what they’re buying when they buy a chicken sandwich.