Nothing says more about today’s supercharged, highly polarized political and social media atmosphere than the current flap over Chick-fil-A, a company which has never hidden its conservative Christian worldview in the closet. Indeed, five years ago, journalist Emily Schmall wrote an excellent story for Forbes, “The Cult of Chick-fil-A’’, detailing how the company, founded by now 91-year-old Forbes 400 list member S. Truett Cathy (pictured at right), promoted his values. As she put it:
Chick-fil-A’s corporate mission, as stated on a plaque at company headquarters (and by Cathy), is to “glorify God.” It is the only national fast-food chain that closes on Sunday so operators can go to church and spend time with their families; franchisees who don’t go along with the rule risk having their contracts terminated. Company meetings and retreats include prayers, and the company encourages franchisees to market their restaurants through church groups….”You don’t have to be a Christian to work at Chick-fil-A, but we ask you to base your business on biblical principles because they work,” says Cathy.
Chick-fil-A is run by Cathy and his sons Dan T., chief operating officer, and Donald (a.k.a. Bubba), a senior vice president. They screen prospective operators for their loyalty, wholesome values and willingness to buy into Chick-fil-A’s in-your-face Christian credo, espoused often by Cathy, an evangelical Southern Baptist who says “the Lord has never spoken to me, but I feel Chick-fil-A has been His gift.”
Schmall also reported that the firm had been sued in federal court for employment discrimination a dozen times since 1988. Not an outlandish number of suits over two decades, perhaps. Still, among those who had sued (and settled on undisclosed terms), was a Muslim who claimed he was fired in 2000 from his restaurant manger job a day after he declined to take part in a group prayer to Jesus Christ at a company training program.
Back in 2007, a letter to the editor of Forbes described the story as “insulting and biased” against Christians, but otherwise, despite the magazine’s circulation of 900,000, there was little reaction. Neither right nor left seized on it to promote their agendas. And there’s no reason they should have. Chick-fil-A is what it is— a successful company whose founder’s personal views define its corporate culture. It’s a Ben and Jerry’s for the right, with an equally high calorie count. (The ice cream company has been owned by Dutch giant Unilever since 2000, but you won’t find that on your next pint of Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream; the founders’ politics continue to be part of the brand’s marketing.)
In contrast, consider what happened after Dan T. Cathy, now Chick-fil-A CEO, reaffirmed in mid-July, in an interview with the Biblical Recorder, his long held opposition to same-sex marriage. In June, he had made even stronger remarks on Ken Coleman’s radio show. In that radio interview he said: “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say `we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.” Again, Cathay’s comments weren’t news, although they certainly were tinged with more fire and brimstone than what his dad told Forbes five years before.
But the truth is that gay rights advocates have been calling for a boycott of Chick-fil-A since since early 2011, because of the donations the Cathays’ tax exempt WinShape Foundation makes to anti-gay organizations, and the mainstream media had paid relatively little attention to the issue. Moreover, the company itself seemed eager to move beyond Dan Cathay’s June and July remarks, affirming in a statement that its culture is to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender” and that “going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
So what turned this into an all culture war now, including today’s Chick-fil-A “kiss-in” by gay activists? Social media is, obviously, a huge part of the answer. Back in 2007, when the Forbes story first ran, Twitter was averaging about 400,000 tweets per quarter. In just the past seven days there have been 498,000 tweets mentioning Chick-fil-A alone, according to a Topsy search. Facebook reaction was so extreme, that as Kashmir Hill reports, Chick-fil-A Completely Lost Control Of Its Facebook Page. Chick-fil-A didn’t even have a Facebook page until August 7th, 2008.
It wasn’t just social media, however, but the politicians’ (and politicians-turned-media–stars’) willingness to lead the social media mobs, that took the controversy viral. Twitter and Facebook, combined with political opportunism, brought the old Chick-fil-A broth to a boil.
On July 19th, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, in an interview with the Boston Herald, vowed to block a Chick-fil-A restaurant in his city.
On July 22nd, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential candidate who now hosts a Fox News TV show and a radio program, used a Facebook post to rally the faithful against “vicious hate speech and intolerant bigotry from the left,’’ by declaring August 1 as Chick-fil-A-Appreciation day .
Politicians from both left and the right piled on. On July 25th, Rick Santorum used his Twitter feed to announce his support for Huckabee’s stunt, as well as to announce he was dining with his kids at Chick-fil-A. Not to be outdone, on July 27th, Sarah Palin posted a photo on Facebook of herself and hubby Todd clutching their bags of Chick-fil-A “to support a great business.” (Other Fox News commentators, who haven’t been in public office, got behind the effort too.)