The controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A is not very delicious. I admit I have never been to a Chick-fil-A. I admit, too, that I had passed signs for their stores for about four years before I realized that their name was a not very clever homonym for chicken fillet. I recall seeing one of their television ads, showing a deep fried piece of unnaturally flat chicken breast, being placed on top of some pickles, lettuce and tomato, all on a hamburger bun, and thinking – “no thank you.” So, I was not disposed to be a patron to begin with.
Consequently, I was not among the throngs of people who lined up to dine at Chick-fil-A yesterday, responding to a call from Mike Huckabee and other leaders of the religious right to show support for the chain. The president of Chick-fil-A, Dan Cathy, has recently been outspoken about both his opposition to same sex marriage and about the fact that his restaurant chain has, since its founding, been employed “biblically-based principles” in managing its stores. So says their website, and they cite the fact that Chick-fil-A closes its stores on Sundays.
I actually think closing a business on Sunday is a very good thing. I understand the difficulty with Blue Laws, that many Americans do not observe the Christian Sabbath, that for Jews, Saturday is the day of rest and for Muslims Friday, and for many millions of Americans, who do not worship any God, let alone the God of Abraham, their freedom to do as they wish on the Christian Sabbath is infringed by Blue Laws. I understand that in my head, but my heart still mourns that, as a society, we have not found some other means of saying to our hyper-commercialized culture: Not today. Anything that sets limits to the reduction of the human person to his economic activity is a good thing and Blue Laws achieved that, saying, in effect, whatever business enterprises one conducts throughout the week, one day at least should be set aside for other humane activities, including that most humane of activities, the worship of God. So, I commend Chick-fil-A for closing on Sundays and wish more businesses would do so, but would be loathe to support a legal regime that coerced them into doing so.
Chick-fil-A’s owner is entitled to his thoughts on the issue of same-sex marriage, same as the rest of us. He is entitled to make those thoughts known as widely or not as he sees fit. I confess that I find it curious when Protestants, who still hold to sola scriptura, cite biblical principles for their stance on marriage. The Bible provides a variety of curious understandings about marriage (how many wives could a King of Israel have? And how many concubines?). It is really only the subsequent development of doctrine that led the Christian Church to the belief that marriage was not only a sacrament, but an indissoluble one, between one man and one woman. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants ripped away the sacramental quality of marriage, and its indissolubility, but kept the one man and one woman part.
Like many people who support traditional marriage, I believe that shedding ideas about women as property, the ability of a man to have many wives, and the rights of men to divorce their wives, and subsequently enshrining marriage as a sacrament, this was a cultural and ecclesial achievement of the highest order. Recognizing the consent of the two parties to marriage as essential to the sacrament was one of the foundation stones upon which the equality of the sexes has been built. But, as I have argued before, traditional marriage in U.S. culture is scarcely threatened by same-sex marriage. Traditional marriage has never recovered from the introduction of liberal divorce laws and the cultural shift that sees fully half of all marriages, Catholic and otherwise, end in divorce. Those who think social institutions cannot disintegrate and disintegrate quickly, with great harm to individuals and society, have only to look around to see the cost of so many broken families. You can’t blame gays and lesbians for the past forty years of marital disintegration.
The tradition of boycotting, or supporting, businesses based on the ethical character of their business practices is not new and it is thoroughly bi-partisan. I remember as a youngster being told why we could no longer have grapes as snacks, because the Farm Workers were oppressed, and that we would have to find different fruits to avoid scurvy. In the 1980s, the Rev. Jerry Falwell led protests outside the corporate headquarters of Southland Corporation in Dallas, to encourage them to remove dirty magazines from their 7-11 stores. A company’s owners have the right to make decisions about how to run their businesses, to be sure, but the rest of us have the right not to reward them with our patronage. This is not news.
What was different this time was the willingness of some mayors to suggest that they would make their cities unwelcome to Chick-fil-A because of its opposition to same sex marriage. If you have ever run a business, especially one in the food industry, you know that you have fairly extensive dealings with local government officials. Bartenders and managers must get licenses and background checks. Food service personnel must pass food safety examinations. Inspectors come with some regularity to make sure that food safety procedures are being followed. Your accounts payable for alcohol purchases must be current at all times, a leftover from the days when bars served as money-laundering centers for organized crime. The idea that a mayor would use his civil authority to restrict a company’s right to conduct business, because that company’s boss expressed political views that were, twenty years ago, as common as a McDonald’s at an airport, well, these mayors crossed the line and they should own up to that fact, apologize, and cross back.
I have a different question for the owners of Chick-fil-A. I could not find anything on their website about how they treat the chickens they sell. Some of the practices of modern “factory farms” are quite cruel to the animals they are harvesting for mass consumption. I am a carnivore, to be sure, but I do not want the animals I eat unnecessarily tortured, and chicken farms are among the most notoriously cruel. But, I suspect not very many of those who lined up outside of Chick-fil-A yesterday to show support for its “biblically-based principles” cared to inquire about how the company treated the poor chickens. Pope Benedict XVI was on to something when he said in his inaugural homily in 2005, “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.” Evangelicals may not be willing to acknowledge the Pope, but surely they are familiar with Isaiah 11:6-9, in which the prophet foretells the Peaceable Kingdom, in which the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the goat, etc. Isaiah does not say anything about mankind snipping the beaks off chickens so that they will not attack each other in the overly crowded coops they are kept in. So, my question to Chick-fil-A is this: Are you really going to operate your business in line with ALL biblical principles, or only those that cohere with your political ideas? You are free to do whatever you want. But, please stop hiding behind the Scripture in justifying your actions until you ensure that you are treating those animals who serve as your principal product in a humane way.
So, this is the state of moral discourse in America today. To eat or not to eat at Chick-fil-A. Me? I’m cooking in.