Growing up in the South and having lived here my entire adult life, I have heard people who call themselves Christian say some of the most horrible things about their fellow man. White southern Christians I have known have referred to African Americans as “the blacks,” or if of an older generation, “the coloreds,” followed by some horrific generalization. Today, we might hear those same Christians say “the gays.” As in, “the gays are trying to redefine marriage.” Or worse. What I believe this reveals is that some Christians, including Chick fil A CEO Dan Cathy, see gays (like blacks before them) not as contributing members of their community, but as interlopers who are horning in on their sacred space and who they fundamentally do not respect.
My history with Chick fil A is a long one. I admit to having enjoyed their chicken sandwiches since high school when my friends and I would go shopping at the Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro, NC, when malls were the only place where you could get a Chick fil A sandwich. ( I prefer not to think about the fried roach that came with my fries that one time.)
Later in life, when I lived in Washington, DC, and worked for a heritage marketing firm, I had the opportunity to see the inner workings of the company up close. I was sent on a research mission to Chick fil A headquarters in Atlanta to learn more about its history since the company I worked for developed corporate museums and exhibits. I went there to review Chick fil A’s exhibit and consider ideas for updating the corporate narrative.
The company sent a car and driver to my hotel to take me to its headquarters. The car, like everything else Chick fil A, was branded with cows. (Imagine me sitting in the back seat, only instead of my head you see a Chick fil A cow head, appliqued over the window). After I arrived, I went through the exhibit, ate lunch in the company cafeteria (yes, they serve from their menu), and then toured the test kitchen. I eventually met Truett Cathy, the company’s founder, who I found to be a perfectly nice man. I even scored a cool, cow beanie baby–a groovy, hippie cow that carried with it the message “Peece, Luv, Chikin,” as only cows can spell these things.
I also learned about Chick fil A’s college scholarship program for employees, and that its WinShape Foundation supported several foster homes in Georgia whose purpose was not to separate siblings. Mr. Cathy’s foundation paid for their education, their clothing, and even paid salaries to couples who served as full-time parents in the home. You know, doing good works that was consistent with the company’s Christian beliefs.
Still, I had this gnawing feeling about the company’s philosophy–tied to the fact that stores are closed on Sundays. This, in and of itself, is nothing to criticize. Yet in the materials I was given to read, the company wanted to convey that this was a day for employees to “worship as they saw fit.” In other words, this was not necessarily about the company’s Christian values. At least in theory. But deep down, I knew that this was, indeed, part of a much more conservative philosophy tied to the founder’s evangelical Christian belief system.
Those beliefs, especially as expressed by company CEO Dan Cathy (Truett’s son), have been on full display this past week. Cathy’s comments and his company’s support of the “biblical definition of marriage,” have resulted in a firestorm of negative media, backlash from cities outside of the South where the company has attempted to set up shop, and a soiled relationship with The Jim Henson Company. Yes, he even ticked off the Muppets.
While Cathy’s comments on gay marriage have upset people, it is the company’s financial contributions to conservative, so-called “pro-family” organizations who actively lobby against gay rights, via the WinShape foundation, that many are questioning. Last year, when that point was made by LGBT organizations, Cathy responded that Chick fil A was not “anti-anybody.” His more recent comments suggest otherwise.
Companies and CEOs can believe what they want, but they operate in the marketplace where those beliefs are held up to public scrutiny. Chick fil A has alienated many customers with its stance, and not just gay ones. And why would any company, particularly in this economy, want to alienate customers?
As a southerner, a longtime Chick fil A customer myself, and one of “the gays,” it looks like I’m going to have to step away from the chicken sandwich and the waffle fries in hopes that the company might reconsider its stance. And while, for personal reasons, I’m no fan of the institution of marriage, I’m also not interested in supporting enterprises that seek to ban two loving people from legally formalizing their union. Peace, Love, and Chicken, y’all.