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?
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. “Amazon.com 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?