Last week, when I was first tempted to write about Chick-fil-A, it was just another story about a religious-right one-percenter shooting off his mouth. Now, everyone from the Muppets to Sarah Palin is involved, and that waffle fry in your hand has become a weapon in the culture wars. Your gang at the office can’t go out to lunch without first debating politics and religion.
How did we get here?
For decades, Chick-fil-A has been a fast-food chain run by the founding Cathy family, a clan of conservative Christians. The Christian influence was subtle (no hellfire-and-brimstone pamphlets at the door) but real (closed on Sundays, even in food courts).
CfA has long given away a substantial portion of its profits. In recent years, a lot of that money has gone to “pro-family” or “anti-gay” organizations. This wasn’t secret, but it flew under the radar of most Chick-fil-A customers.
Then in June, CfA’s president and son-of-the-founder Dan Cathy went on the Ken Coleman syndicated radio show and said:
I think 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. And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we would have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.
[Cathy's interview runs from 21:30 to 33:30. The religious/political part of the interview starts at 30:00. The quote above is at 31:18.]
The Human Rights Campaign responded with a pledge that went right up to the edge of calling for a boycott:
While I respect Mr. Cathy’s right to his personal opinions, I strongly urge Chick-fil-A to stop using money from customers as part of a larger effort to oppress LGBT Americans. Until then, I will have to reconsider whether I spend my money at Chick-fil-A.
(Other people have since called for a boycott.)
Then the Muppets weighed in:
The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors.
CfA struck back by not waiting for “future endeavors”. It pulled Muppet toys out of its meals, recalled toys already distributed, and implied that Muppet toys are unsafe.
And then … oh, I’ll let Gizmodo describe it:
Instead of owning up to the fact that The Jim Henson Company stopped doing business with them because they’re overrun with bigots, the chicken sandwich company appears to have made fake Facebook accounts to defend its honor on the social network.
(CfA has since denied creating social-network sock-puppets, but it’s clear somebody did.)
Not to be outdone by conservative extremists, Boston Mayor Mike Menino wrote a letter to Cathy:
I urge you to back out of your plans to locate [a Chick-fil-A franchise] in Boston.
And the Boston Herald quoted Menino saying:
If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult — unless they open up their policies.
I wish I could just take the pro-gay side, but nobody is looking particularly good right now. Let me try to sort out what I can and can’t support.
First, I support the freedom of everybody involved:
- Dan Cathy has the right to say any stupid or bigoted thing he wants.
- Radio shows have the right to put Cathy on the air.
- The Cathy family can spend their profits however they please.
- Any individual personally disgusted by Cathy’s opinions or any company that believes associating with CfA is bad for business has the right to stop dealing with CfA.
- Cathy’s critics have the right to state their opinions in public. Calling Cathy a bigot does not in any way infringe on his First Amendment rights. When you start making moral judgments in public, you open yourself up to public moral judgment. That’s a free exchange of opinions, not intolerance.
But politicians should use their power carefully. The American Prospect’s Scott Lemieux has it right:
If Chick-fil-A had a history of denying service to people based on their sexual orientation, or discriminating against LGBT employees or job applicants, [Alderman] Moreno’s actions would be entirely justified. But … Cathy’s comments [by themselves] are not a legitimate reason to deny Chick-fil-A a permit.
I mean, do you really want Chicago aldermen vetting the political opinions of business owners? And if you do, what about aldermen in Salt Lake City or Dallas?
Specific stories of CfA discriminating are hard to find, though there is one lawsuit charging that discrimination against women. (A former manager claims she was fired because her boss thought she should be at home with her kids.)
I also want to point out that Ken Coleman’s defense of Cathy on CNN (that he is a good Christian man who is not hateful) has not been borne out by CfA’s actions. Vindictively lying about the safety of Muppet toys and creating fake Facebook identities to spread those lies is not my idea of good Christian behavior.
But none of that answers the really important question: What should you do? Can you still eat at Chick-fil-A in good conscience?
Well, not on Wednesday. After the Huckabee/Santorum nonsense, anybody at a CfA on Wednesday appears to endorse Cathy’s anti-gay opinions.
Beyond that, part of me resents the whole issue: Does everything have to be political? Can’t I just eat lunch?
But another part of me recognizes that it will be a long time before I can walk into a Chick-fil-A without remembering that its president called me “prideful” and “arrogant” on the radio (even though I’d never done anything to him), or that the company intentionally spread a vile rumor to get revenge on the Muppets. And it will be even longer before I can hand over my money without wondering how much of it will be used to take rights away from people I care about.* I expect that will darken my Chick-fil-A experience for some while, probably enough to keep me from going at all.
If that looks like a boycott, well, it’s not a very militant one.
So in general, I’m against balkanizing the economy into liberal and conservative sectors. If you really like Chick-fil-A’s food, I don’t think you should let anybody guilt you out of it (after Wednesday). But if Cathy has left a taste in your mouth that a super-sized Coke won’t wash away, don’t let anybody guilt you about that either.
You feel what you feel, so follow your heart. And enjoy your lunch, wherever you eat.
* I should probably mention that I have personal friends who benefit from same-sex marriage. Last weekend a lesbian couple was showing my wife and I their wedding pictures, which are as adorable as anybody’s. Paging through that album, the whole idea that their marriage is a threat to our marriage, to public morality, or to “the future of humanity” — it just seemed nutty.