You’ve probably seen the name “Chick-fil-A” mentioned more times in the last week than in all of the other weeks of your existence combined. Therefore, I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with the story of Dan Cathy’s “guilty as charged” comment regarding anti-gay marriage opinions, and the subsequent social and mainstream media backlash and back-backlash that ensued. (If you’re not, read this GetReligion piece or this post from Denny Burke.)
This kerfuffle has lead all sides to invoke ugly, provocative, and self-righteous language, and groups have scheduled events to eat, preach, kiss, and protest at Chick-fil-A restaurants in order to demonstrate their love or hatred of the restaurant. Fried chicken sandwiches have become ground zero for the culture wars.
I’d like to add my voice to the growing list of Christians (Jonathan Merritt, Eric Metaxes, Sarah Pulliam Bailey) who argue to varying extents that this entire boycott/counter-boycott method of political activism is unhealthy for our public political discourse and a poor use of our political capital. Specifically, I’m going to try to show how a careful look at the details of this issue reveals what a mess our boycott culture has made of things.
I. How exactly is Chick-Fil-A discriminating?
One of the worst parts about this debacle has been the way that all sides have glossed over or willfully misrepresented how Chick-fil-A discriminates against homosexuals. It seems like both sides are more concerned with winning the war than with its legitimacy. Various sources have claimed that this is all about:
- Dan Cathy’s personal views on marriage.
- Dan Cathy’s personal views on homosexuality.
- Chick-fil-A’s company-wide political stance on gay marriage.
- Chick-fil-A’s giving to anti-homosexual organizations.
- All of the above.
The correct answer is… #5. Sort of. Let’s work through these options briefly to sort out what’s really at issue here.
1. Dan Cathy clearly stated in an interview published by the Baptist Press that Chick-fil-A supported “traditional marriage” as the “biblical definition of the family unit.” However, he never explicitly states that Chick-fil-A is actively opposed to same-sex marriage. It is also true that, through its charitable arm, the WinShape Foundation, Chick-fil-A has worked to support families and keep them together. But other than that, it is not clear from the interview what it means for the company to support the “traditional” family.
Some have claimed that Cathy was merely stating his personal preference here, not the company’s political stance. Most notably, Mike Huckabee, the man behind the extremely popular Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, has stated that Boston’s mayor, Thomas Menino, is discriminating against Chick-fil-A because of its CEO’s personal beliefs by not allowing the company to establish a business in his city. (However, a look at Mayor Menino’s letter to Dan Cathy shows that his objection is primarily to the company’s policy.)
2. Confusing matters further, Cathy also gave a radio interview where he claimed that the US was “inviting God’s judgement” by supporting same-sex marriage. However, in this interview, Cathy does not appear to be speaking on behalf of the company. It’s reasonable for customers to express their disapproval of a company’s political stance, but it’s quite another to hold the company accountable for the beliefs of one of their employees, even if he is the CEO.
In that same letter to Cathy, Mayor Menino quotes this radio interview, suggesting that either this interview has been conflated with the one published by the Baptist Press in which Cathy was speaking about the company’s stance, or Menino believes that it is appropriate to judge the company based on Cathy’s values.
3. On the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day Facebook Page, Huckabee calls on Christians to support a company whose “executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values.” But are they really taking a stand?
After Cathy’s interview began to start making waves, the company released this statement on their Facebook Page (emphasis mine):
The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender. We will continue this tradition in the over 1,600 Restaurants run by independent Owner/Operators. Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.
It seems like Chick-fil-A has realized that the best place to take a stand on traditional marriage is not over fried chicken sandwiches. But both sides seem intent on seeing Chick-fil-A as taking a bold stand for traditional marriage.
4. Nearly all the reports which mentioned that Chick-fil-A gives to anti-homosexual organizations cited a recent report from Equality Matters which claimed that “in 2010 alone, Chick-fil-A donated over $1.9 million to anti-gay causes.” But what constitutes an “anti-gay cause”? Here’s how Equality Matters breaks down the numbers:
WinShape [CFA’s charitable arm] Gave Over $1.9 Million To Anti-Gay Groups. In 2010, WinShape donated $1,974,380 to a number of anti-gay groups:
- Marriage & Family Foundation: $1,188,380
- Fellowship Of Christian Athletes: $480,000
- National Christian Foundation: $247,500
- New Mexico Christian Foundation: $54,000
- Exodus International: $1,000
- Family Research Council: $1,000
- Georgia Family Council: $2,500
The majority of the money went to Marriage & Family Foundation, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and National Christian Foundation. According to Equality Matter‘s report, Marriage & Family Foundation is anti-gay primarily because it has ties to anti-gay groups and individuals; Fellowship of Christian Athletes is anti-gay because they believe people have been “freed” from homosexuality and that the gay lifestyle is impure; and National Christian Foundation (a “grant-making foundation”) is anti-gay because some of the charities it supports are anti-gay (of course, many others are related to poverty and personal development, and I don’t think we actually know which of these charities WinShape’s money went to).
The only groups here that are primarily and explicitly focused on anti-homosexual or anti-gay marriage agendas are the last three, which received a total of $4,500 in donations. Most of the company’s donations do not necessarily go towards promoting an anti-gay agenda, at least not according to the evidence provided by Equality Matters. That said, it is true that Chick-fil-A has supported anti-gay marriage organizations to some extent, and so it is reasonable for those in favor of gay rights to want to boycott them as a result.
So, to recap, Cathy clearly stated that Chick-fil-A supports a biblical definition of marriage and this statement is backed up by their giving. However, many people are wrongly angry at Chick-fil-A over Cathy’s personal views and the $2 million figure given by Equality Matters is probably greatly exaggerated or at least a very rough estimate.
II. Boycott Chick-fil-A for Supporting Boycotts
One of the quirks of boycotts is that whenever a company is the subject of a boycott, they or their supporters recognize fairly quickly how unjust it is. When you are on the receiving end of a boycott, it is always coercive, fascist, and bullying. When you are the boycotter, however, it’s an exercise of free speech and the free market. Inevitably, once an issue inspires boycotts, hypocrisy springs up on all sides, as I showed with the Komen/Planned Parenthood fiasco (See “Two Can Play at That: What Komen Can Teach Us about Boycotts”).
So, it shouldn’t surprise us too terribly much that Chick-fil-A has supported a group that boycotted a company for its stance on gay marriage. Seriously.
In 2010, WinShape donated $1,000 to the Family Research Council (whose VP is a particularly shady character). Earlier this year, the president of FRC implied that a boycott would ensue if Starbucks did not stop supporting same-sex unions in Washington state. In 2008 the FRC used a boycott to force McDonalds to stop supporting the “homosexual agenda.” FRC is now urging Christians to join Huckabee’s counter-boycott, presumably so that Chick-fil-A will continue to support FRCs boycotts.
There is a culture war and this is what it looks like: Kafkaesque, economic coercion to support further economic coercion. And in the end, the side with the most power — not the side with the just cause — will win. Today that might be Chick-fil-A and their Christian fans. But tomorrow?
III. Imaginary, Marginal, Voting with your Dollars
When you consider how much time, energy, and money has been spent on this proxy culture war, you would expect that Chick-fil-A’s impact on the same-sex marriage debate would be significant. But if you look at how much money they are actually spending that could potentially go to support gay marriage opponents, boycotts seem rather petty.
Whatever your intended goal is, a boycott like the one against Chick-fil-A produces marginal results. If you ate there once a week for a year and spent $5 per meal, you will have spent $260 by the year’s end. Chick-fil-A’s anual revenue is around $4 billion, and in 2010 it donated approximately $2 million to groups considered to be anti-homosexual. That means they gave 0.05% of their revenue to these “offensive” groups. Which means that your year-long patronage generated $0.13 for anti-homosexual groups.
If you decide to support Chick-fil-A in order to help the traditional marriage cause, you’d have twice the impact by just donating 26¢ a year directly to some anti-same-sex marriage group. In other words, boycotting or supporting a business in order to further a political agenda is a very inefficient method of activism. I’m not arguing that there is never a place for boycotts, but I do think we ought to use them very sparingly and with a great deal of prior deliberation.
Making Chick-fil-A the symbolic battleground for the definition of “marriage” is a poor use of our resources. Are we making a public statement by supporting or boycotting Chick-fil-A? Sure, but only in a coercive and circuitous way. Rather than deal with the issue directly, we’re devoting resources to coerce a company to adopt our values. This method of political activism leaves almost no space for public discussion about the issue, since our “activism” is comprised of buying or not buying a chicken sandwich. The purchase doesn’t convince anyone of the rightness of our cause, just the extent of our power. If we want healthy public political discourse, we need to be encouraging charitable dialogue, rather than economic arm wrestling.
In addition, these kinds of public statements get drastically diluted by regular commerce. Will the boycott of Chick-fil-A communicate to Cathy or the world that same-sex marriage is a right? Maybe, but probably not. That’s the problem with proxy cultural battles: political statements lose their force by being mixed in with non-political messages like, “I just want a chicken sandwich” or (in my case) “I think Chick-fil-A is kinda meh.” On the other hand, actual voting, or writing letters to editors, or talking to your neighbors about same-sex marriage directly addresses the subject.
So please, wherever you stand on same-sex marriage, don’t boycott or support Chick-fil-A for their marginal political stance. Give a few quarters directly to a charity. Talk with your neighbors about the issue and why you believe the way you do. If you spend a fraction of the time and money you would have spent boycotting, you will accomplish a lot more and help cultivate a healthier public square.