Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thoughts on the Ongoing Chick-Fil-A Controversy

In the interest of full disclosure: I like Chick-Fil-A. I like their food, and I have fond memories of taking our kids there to play in their playspaces when they were younger. The place was generally cleaner and better-run than many fast-food restaurants. Anyone who's been in to one knows that they are clear about the "not open on Sundays" thing, but I have never otherwise felt evangelized or preached to for walking in the door and eating their food.

That having been said, I have felt for some time that the "controversy" surrounding Chick-Fil-A and the issue of gay marriage has been a bit overblown (hat tip to my wife, who arrived at this conclusion before I did). The CEO of the company, whose views were probably predictable ahead of time, gave an interview to a religious media outlet that shares those views. That he would say what he said is hardly surprising, given both the person and the context.

Some have called Mr. Cathy out for speaking on behalf of his company - which is true (grammatically speaking), and which the company at large has backed away from. There isn't any evidence that I've seen that Chick-Fil-A as an employer goes out of its way to discriminate against gays either as employees or as customers. Otherwise, as a company its opinion on gay marriage is largely irrelevant - sort of like asking Ford its opinion on dating rules for teenagers.

Others have argued that the point is more egregious because Cathy is using Chick-Fil-A money to sponsor political groups that are working against gay marriage. Since the company is private and family-owned, it's a little hard to tell what's his money and what is the company's - but without having examined the books I'll grant the point. What then? Companies whose executives have particular views routinely do this sort of thing.

The only argument I can see that this is wrong is that having that much money gives Mr. Cathy a much bigger megaphone. But that isn't particular to this issue or this company. Moreover, given the broader social trends the size of the megaphone probably doesn't matter. 40 years from now people will wonder what the fuss was all about - much as interracial marriage went from being outlawed to being "controversial" to being mainstream.

A given company taking a stand on an unrelated social issue doesn't convince anybody one way or another - it just drags the company into an existing fight. As such, it's bad business. It was pointed out recently that Coors' success in going national came about in part because the founding/owning family learned to separate their politics (which are quite conservative) from their company. If Chick-Fil-A wants to become a national chain, they will have to do the same. If they are content to remain largely regional, and to serve a largely conservative audience, they're welcome to do so.

What strikes me as really silly is the extent to which people have taken Mr. Cathy's few largely unremarkable comments and made eating at Chick-Fil-A into a political statement. Some people, strongly in favor of gay marriage, have called for a boycott, and there's no doubt that the chain has lost some customers - although given their geographical spread (mostly in the South), probably not a lot. Others have made it a point to patronize them - I saw a FB announcement for a "Buycott" that urged "all good Christians" to make a statement by going and eating there on a particular day. And Chick-Fil-A catering has apparently become the "in" thing for Tea Party candidates, at least in Texas.

This is the part of the story that strikes me as the most tragic. If you're in favor of gay marriage, you're going to win the fight eventually - that train is already moving, and although the counterforces are loud and shrill they are powerless to stop it. Attempting to punish a fast food chain over an unremarkable and entirely predictable comment just looks churlish.

If you're opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds (are there others?), obviously you're welcome to spend your money where you choose. But this too is childish. Every day we spend money with companies that do things, espouse things, or support things we don't agree with. If you're determined to align your spending with your theology, good luck with that. Is watching a Muppets movie now on the Vatican's list of venial sins? Should I confess that I ate at McDonalds instead of Chick-Fil-A? What car would Jesus drive?

Finally, the element in all of this that makes me most uneasy is the zealotry on both ends of the spectrum. We live in a free and pluralistic society in which we know there are plenty of people who disagree with us on any given issue. We don't (or shouldn't) take their disagreement as an existential or theological threat. To those Christians who are convinced that God is on Chick-Fil-A's side - remember that there are other, equally faithful Christians who see things differently. What happened to "judge not, lest ye be judged?" Are we so eager to pluck out the weeds that we forget the command to do otherwise?

So to all sides - eat where you want, say what you like, and think what you want to think. Understand that others can and will do and say differently. Understand also that your ability to change others' minds by eating a particular food, or shouting into a particular microphone, is limited. In the end, perhaps we just need to find more productive things to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment