In Defense of Eating at Chick-fil-A

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Do we really want a country where people won't do commerce with those who have beliefs different than their own?

[optional image description]When former Republican candidate for president Newt Gingrich visited a Chick-fil-A in Anderson, S.C. this January, supporters gathered outside to catch a glimpse. (Reuters)

Dan Cathy, president of one of America's largest express fast food chains, has been frying more than chicken filets this week. The Chick-fil-A executive infuriated gay and lesbian groups when he again defended his company's anti-gay marriage position in an interview this week with a Christian news outlet.

"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit," he 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."

Not surprisingly, his comments were met with fury by those who support same-sex marriage. The company was labeled a "hate group" by many on Twitter and in the blogosphere, and drew promises of boycotts from notables including The Office star Ed Helms. Meanwhile, Americans who patronize the chain's 1,600 locations were left wondering what to do.

Should they swear off the legendary chicken sandwiches to support gay rights? Or could they eat one of the filets anyway, knowing their dollars would be but a drop in the bucket for a chain that has more than $4 billion in annual sales and donated a pittance to groups they may disagree with?

I'd argue the latter -- and this has nothing to do with my views on gay marriage. It's because Chick-fil-A is a laudable organization on balance, and because I refuse to contribute to the ineffective boycott culture that's springing up across America.

First of all, Chick-fil-A is not a hate group. In a statement released yesterday, company leaders made their commitment to equal service clear, "The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect -- regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender."

As a native Atlantan, I've dined at the chicken chain more than I'd like to admit over more than two decades and even interacted with its leadership team. I've never witnessed any customer refused service or even treated differently. On the contrary, Chick-fil-A is known for offering world-class customer service to each person that walks through one of the restaurant's doors.

Additionally, the organization gives millions of dollars each year to charitable causes -- and not just to "pro-family" groups. It funds a large foster care program, several schools of a higher learning, and a children's camp. It has provided thousands of scholarships for Chick-fil-A employees to attend college and grow past the service sector where they got their workplace start. (On Friday, the company provided free meals for Aurora, Colo., policemen.)

And the company's leaders claim to do all of this out of convictions rooted in the Christian faith. Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the company should know that it does not hide its commitment to biblical values. Its corporate statement of purpose since 1982 has begun, "To glorify God..."

Given this, that anyone was surprised by Cathy's statements is, well, surprising. Like many conservative Christians, he does not support gay marriage.

I'm flummoxed that so many consumers are so quick these days to call for boycotts of any company that deviates from their personal or political views. For one thing, boycotts rarely cause actual pocketbook - rather than PR -- damage. Most consumers don't care enough to drive an extra mile to get the same product from someone else. And that's especially the case for companies as large as Chick-fil-A, which has prime locations on many college campuses where there is little head-to-head competition.

But my bigger question is this: In a nation that's as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed? And is this really the kind of culture we want to create? Culture war boycotts cut both ways and are much more likely to meet with success when prosecuted by large groups of people, such as Christian activists, who are more numerous than gays and lesbians and their more activist supporters.

Gay and lesbian groups were famously rankled when pro-family activists reacted against Kraft for posting a photo of an Oreo cookie with rainbow-hued filling last month in honor of Gay Pride Month, and also when similar groups protested JCPenney for announcing lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres would be its next spokesperson.

So should the 45 percent of Americans who oppose gay marriage opt for Chips Ahoy! instead of Oreos? Should they begin shopping at Belk instead of JC Penny? If they did, it wouldn't make any more sense than the endless failed calls for liberal consumers to boycott Urban Outfitters, because its owner is a conservative and Rick Santorum donor, or to not order from Domino's Pizza, because it was founded by a Catholic conservative who helped fund anti-abortion causes.

On both sides of our latest culture war divide, we must learn to have level-headed disagreements without resorting to accusations of hate speech and boycotts. As Josh Ozersky argued on TIME Thursday, "businesses should be judged by their products and their practices, not by their politics."

I agree: I don't care how my dry cleaner votes. I just want to know if he/she can press my Oxfords without burning my sleeves. I find no compelling reason to treat sandwiches differently than shirts.

From a business standpoint, some might say Cathy's comments were imprudent if not downright dumb. But in a society that desperately needs healthy public dialogue, we must resist creating a culture where consumers sort through all their purchases (fast food and otherwise) for an underlying politics not even expressed in the nature of the product itself.

If white meat's not your thing, try the Golden Arches. But if you want a perfectly fried chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A, will be happy to serve you -- gay or straight. In this case, those who boycott are the ones missing out.

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