Conservatives’ Favorite Chicken Wants Out of the Culture Wars

But is it too late?

National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
March 19, 2014, 8:01 a.m.

Own a ma­jor busi­ness? You may want to think twice about com­ment­ing on con­ten­tious so­cial is­sues, be­cause your product could be­come an em­blem in the cul­ture wars. And that isn’t al­ways a good thing.

So thinks Chick-fil-A CEO and Pres­id­ent Dan Cathy, who now says he re­grets his 2012 com­ments about gay mar­riage, even though he hasn’t changed his per­son­al opin­ion about the mat­ter.

“Every lead­er goes through dif­fer­ent phases of ma­tur­ity, growth, and de­vel­op­ment, and it helps by [re­cog­niz­ing] the mis­takes that you make,” Cathy told The At­lanta Journ­al-Con­sti­tu­tion. “And you learn from those mis­takes. If not, you’re just a fool. I’m thank­ful that I lived through it and I learned a lot from it.”

Last sum­mer Cathy tweeted — and quickly de­leted — that he was dis­ap­poin­ted with a Su­preme Court rul­ing to strike down the De­fense of Mar­riage Act. But now he says, “Con­sumers want to do busi­ness with brands that they can in­ter­face with, that they can re­late with,” he con­tin­ued. “And it’s prob­ably very wise from our stand­point to make sure that we present our brand in a com­pel­ling way that the con­sumer can re­late to.”

Re­call how Chick-fil-A ended up on the front­lines of the cul­ture wars: Cathy told Baptist Press in 2012 that when it came to op­pos­ing gay mar­riage on re­li­gious grounds, he was “guilty as charged.” Nu­mer­ous groups called for boy­cotts. That in­spired a con­tra, pro-chick­en con­tin­gent, in­clud­ing former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee de­clar­ing a “Chick-fil-A Ap­pre­ci­ation Day.” Chick-fil-A did enough busi­ness that day to set a com­pany re­cord.

It’s no secret that Chick-fil-A is owned by de­vout Chris­ti­ans; its com­pany policy is to close on Sundays, which it says “is unique to the res­taur­ant busi­ness and a test­a­ment to [the founder’s] faith in God.” But the com­pany has tried to dis­tance it­self from Cathy’s gay-mar­riage com­ments. And in 2012, its char­it­able found­a­tion stopped donat­ing to groups deemed by sup­port­ers of same-sex mar­riage as an­ti­gay. 

But it didn’t mat­ter. Some cit­ies, such as Bo­ston, moved to ban the chain any­way. A num­ber of col­leges have blocked or sus­pen­ded ties with Chick-fil-A, cit­ing Cathy’s com­ments and also past dona­tions to such an­ti­gay-mar­riage groups. The com­pany had be­come branded with an an­ti­gay im­age.

In­deed, the brand has be­come syn­onym­ous with something much more than cross-cut waffle fries. And folks on either side of the gay-mar­riage de­bate can’t con­trol it; it’s be­come a polit­ic­al tool to be wiel­ded by any­one who wants to, even in the most sin­is­ter of ways. The man who pleaded guilty to open­ing fir­ing at and shoot­ing a se­cur­ity guard at the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil in 2012 over the group’s stance on gay mar­riage had brought along 15 Chick-fil-A sand­wiches, with plans to “kill as many people as I could … then smear a Chick­en-fil-A [sic] sand­wich on their face,” ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. That’s not the kind of press a com­pany, or so­cial move­ment, wants. Ever.

Des­pite ef­forts by the com­pany to ex­tract it­self from the gay-mar­riage de­bate, its sig­na­ture chick­en is still em­braced on the right to prove so­cial-con­ser­vat­ive chops. On most Tues­days on Cap­it­ol Hill, you can treat your­self to the free Chick-fil-A offered at the “Con­ver­sa­tions with Con­ser­vat­ives” pan­el, which fea­tures mem­bers of Con­gress.

No mat­ter for Cathy, who is at­tempt­ing to stay the course. He was asked by AJC to com­ment on pro­posed le­gis­la­tion in sev­er­al states, akin to the now-ve­toed Ari­zona bill that would have let busi­nesses deny ser­vice to gay and les­bi­an cus­tom­ers due to those busi­ness own­ers’ re­li­gious be­liefs.

Cathy didn’t bite. “I think that’s a polit­ic­al de­bate that’s go­ing to rage on,” he said. “And the wiser thing for us to do is to stay fo­cused on cus­tom­er ser­vice.” 

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