I spent the summer of 2007 slinging waffle fries and wiping down tables at the Chick-fil-A on Main Street in Summerville. It was a decent job, and the people were friendly. And while the sound system in the front of house played nothing but that summer’s top 10 Christian-radio hits, it was not a particularly religious workplace. There were no confessions of faith on the job application or group prayers in the mornings, and the only indoctrination I received was to respond with “My pleasure” every time someone said “Thank you” (even today, I sometimes catch myself saying it reflexively).
Nor was it a politically charged environment. In fact, the only political conversation I remember having was about raising the minimum wage. And yet, at the corporate level, the purveyors of the Original Chicken Sandwich have put some money behind a controversial cause, and that fact has led some people to call for a boycott of the restaurant.
I support marriage equality. But I’m not going to stop eating at Chick-fil-A.
In 2010, as reported by the LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters, Chick-fil-A’s nonprofit charity arm WinShape donated nearly $2 million to organizations that oppose marriage equality and promote practices like ex-gay therapy. What most news reports have glossed over is the fact that some of the organizations listed in the Equality Matters report as “anti-gay groups” don’t exist purely to lobby against pro-gay-marriage legislation or to “pray the gay away.” The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which got $480,000, acts more as a student social club than as a platform for browbeating, and it has no lobbying wing. At my public high school, it was primarily known as the group that handed out Bojangles’ Bo-Berry biscuits at the meetings. I attended plenty of their functions, and homosexuality never even came up. The two groups that seem to be the most overt in their advocacy are Exodus International and the Family Research Council, organizations that received $1,000 apiece from WinShape in 2010.
The Equality Matters report was quoted and linked extensively after July 16, when the Christian conservative Baptist Press published a meme-bait interview with Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy, son of founder S. Truett Cathy. In it, Dan Cathy said the company was “guilty as charged” of what the article referred to as “support of the traditional family.”
“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit,” Cathy said. “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”
As with many of the organizations backed by WinShape, it was hard to tell if Cathy was more concerned about gay marriage or straight divorce. Regardless, his comment set off a minor media feeding frenzy. Ed Helms, the actor who plays Andy Bernard on The Office, announced that he would be boycotting Chick-fil-A. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino vowed to block the company from opening a new franchise in his city. The Jim Henson Co., which had designed kids’ meal toys for Chick-fil-A, cut its ties with the company.
But to me, the reasons for boycotting one of the few fast-food places where I ever spend money were not as clear-cut as the reasons for boycotting, say, Maurice’s BBQ, where the owner is fond of flying the Confederate flag and talkin’ nullification. And even still, while I’m happy with my decision to steer clear of the Columbia eatery ever since reading a pamphlet in the lobby advocating the re-institution of slavery, I highly doubt that it’s any skin off of Maurice Bessinger’s back. Because for every hand-wringing liberal who abstains from a pulled pork sandwich, I guarantee there’s a redneck out there eating two to make up for him.
That’s the problem with politically motivated boycotts. It’s the reason why, through the years, Target Corporation has been alternately boycotted by the Christian right, the gay-rights community, and the Christian right yet again. In the case of Chick-fil-A, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has already set aside Aug. 1 as Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, calling on (so far) about 100 thousand boycott busters to proudly eat at the restaurant in an effort to combat “vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left.”
Last week, as my liberal friends lobbed rhetorical grenades at Chick-fil-A and my conservative friends gave the company mad props on Facebook, I called my old boss, Summerville franchise operator Chris Walker. I asked him how things were going at the old workplace — after all, the Summerville Chick-fil-A is usually packed around lunchtime and had one of the top-performing drive-thrus in the country when I worked there. He told me he hadn’t noticed a change. “In this area, I don’t think we’re in great danger,” he said, adding that Cathy’s stance could actually win the company some fans in the South. But he could also see how, in more liberal communities, the company might have a target on its back.
“You probably, as an employee, didn’t have experiences where Christianity was pushed on you,” he told me. He was right; I hadn’t. “We’re closed on Sundays, and that’s just different. If those values differ from your values, I think it’s logical that people would take shots at us.”
He also sent me an official statement in an e-mail, one that he assured me he had not written lightly:
“In my personal and business life, I have friends, employees, and customers who I have known to have a different sexual orientation. It has not affected our relationship positively or negatively. I would be saddened if someone felt like they were not welcome in my home or business based upon their beliefs, race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
This latest boycott “movement” is about as yawn-inducing as the hullaballoo over the gay-pride rainbow Oreo. It is most assuredly not the modern-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chick-fil-A is not much of an oppressor, and as Malcolm Gladwell will tell you, the weak ties of social media (the site of much of the anti-sandwich organizing) are no substitute for the moral courage of reformers from the Civil Rights era. Want to take your business away from a restaurant chain that serves LGBT people with a smile and hires them in its stores? Want to punish a company that pulls in $4 billion a year and gives 0.05 percent of it away to organizations that, in turn, spend some fraction of their money on anti-gay lobbying? Go ahead. I’ll keep my waffle fries and save my outrage for the real bad guys.
Paul Bowers is the City Paper staff writer, and he wants to clear up a nasty rumor: Chick-fil-A does not, in fact, marinate its chicken in pickle juice. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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