Let's get this part out of the way first: Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy has every right to express his opinions on marriage, and people who don't like his opinions have every right to gripe about them, including boycotting Chick-fil-A fast food restaurants. This is America, after all, where you have the right to do all kinds of stupid things you'll probably regret later. The biggest problem last week, as the "controversy" unfolded, was that both Cathy and his left-wing critics said some dumb things.
Chick-fil-A isn't very well known outside the South, and I'm guessing that's why Cathy's brand of religious conservatism took so many people by surprise. I heard long ago that the company was run by Baptists from Georgia, and that's why the restaurants closed on Sundays. OK, thought I, that's almost charming in a quaint, archaic kind of way; plus, it's their company, and if that's what they believe, well, that's their business. It's not like they're out there leading the parade and beating the drum for the religious right. Or so I thought. Similarly, I assumed that the Christian conservative owners were probably against same-sex marriage, but barring evidence of discrimination against gays, I wasn't about to give up my favorite chicken sandwich just because the owners are conservative.
But Cathy's recent remarks in a Baptist publication took me aback and brought an end to my Chick-fil-A-buying days. He and his company, Cathy said, oppose same-sex marriage and support "the biblical definition of the family unit." Turns out that he and his company are beating a drum and leading a parade full of right-wing backlash against expansion of LGBT rights, particularly same-sex marriage. The drum-beating consists of contributing millions of dollars from Chick-fil-A's profits to support groups that flog a relentlessly anti-gay message. It's that overt campaigning against gay rights that convinced me to give up a favorite Saturday lunch choice. Note, though, that this was my personal choice, and not a response to an organized boycott.
Leaving aside the fact that the Bible's "definition" of marriage is all over the map — giving the OK at various times to multiple wives, concubines, forced marriages, etc. — Cathy's upping of his company's anti-gay profile is a pretty dumb business move. No matter how many anti-gay people showed up last week at Chick-fil-A to support Cathy, it's never a good business plan to alienate huge swaths of the population, particularly in such volatile times.
On the other hand, some gay-rights supporters' responses to Chick-fil-A actions were way over the top. A New York councilwoman and a Chicago alderman wanted to kick Chick-fil-A out of their cities, moves that were rightly denounced by a strong majority of liberal pundits as an illegal abridgement of Cathy's freedom of speech. Some pro-LGBT groups called for a nationwide boycott of Chick-fil-A. Again, they have every right to do so, but what's the point? National boycotts rarely make companies change their policies, and frankly, they're often a display a real naiveté by the protesters.
Face it: In America, if you stay away from businesses because of upper-management conservatism, you're gonna face some major lifestyle changes. (Ever drive a Ford? Ever read Henry Ford's views on Jews? Now multiply that by the number of companies from which you buy nearly everything, and you'll see the problem.)
Forbes magazine's Laurie Bennett did a great job last week, reporting on the political leanings of a wide variety of fast-food companies. Here is a partial list of companies Bennett says support conservative causes or candidates: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Arby's, Chili's, Domino's Pizza, Church's Chicken, Cracker Barrel (a rare example of a past successful boycott by pro-LGBT-rights groups, although the company still gives oodles to the GOP), McDonald's, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouses, Wendy's and White Castle.
On the other side of the counter, here are the "liberal" companies on Bennett's list: Dairy Queen and Panera Bread. That's it.
Here are companies that either straddle the political fence or don't make public donations to political groups: Subway, Applebee's, IHOP, Jack in the Box, Starbucks, Little Caesars, Papa John's, Ruby Tuesday and Sonic.
More than anything, last week's blizzard of vitriol from both sides over Chick-fil-A demonstrated what an overly busy and over-caffeinated, ragged mess the blogosphere and the 24-hour news cycle have made of what used to be called "news gathering." Our country has problems that are far worse than anything Chick-fil-A can come up with. But as a radical friend from long ago once quipped, "You can't boycott capitalism. You gotta work the system."