How culture and politics collided over a Chick-fil-A sandwich

Two days after thousands lined up at Chick-fil-A restaurants to stand in solidarity with its CEO, Dan Cathy, gay activists plan 'kiss-ins' outside its outlets to confront what they see as antigay bigotry. Today, brand solidarity crosses from economics into culture, even politics.

David Tulis/AP
Gay rights groups and others hold a 'kiss-in' outside the Decatur, Ga., Chick-fil-A restaurant on Friday, as a public protest to Chick-fil-A executive Dan Cathy, who was quoted as supporting the traditional family unit. About two dozen protesters gathered to voice their views.

After Chick-fil-A had a “record-setting” day on Wednesday, as thousands lined up to buy chicken sandwiches to show solidarity with the sandwich shop, gay rights groups planned their own protest on Friday: a same-sex “kiss-in” to draw attention to what they say is the company’s bigoted stance toward gays.

The peculiar uproar over Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has been fueled by politicians, both conservative and liberal. Liberal mayors have denounced the company’s CEO, Dan Cathy, for expressing "antigay” views, while conservative politicians urged Americans to stand up for religious freedom and free speech by patronizing the business. That culminated in "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on Wednesday, when some of the company’s 1,600 restaurants ran out of chicken after seeing as much as a 200 percent increase in their daily business.

More broadly, how a slab of Southern-style chicken on a fluffy bun became a cultural rallying point is a story that some political scientists say represents a new evolution in the confluence of business, culture, and politics. That story may also, they suggest, shed light on the simmering dynamics around the fight for the US presidency.

“This is an event that won’t soon be forgotten on both sides, and it’s kind of a wake-up call for what’s at stake in the November elections for very different groups in the country,” says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. “For one thing, probably everybody who showed up in support for Chick-fil-A will be voting in the fall, and I doubt they’ll be voting for Obama.”

For the thousands who lined up Wednesday, their motivations ranged widely beyond simple hunger. Some sided ideologically with Mr. Cathy, who told a Baptist newspaper in July that he is “guilty as charged” for supporting traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

But what began as grass-roots anger on the left about Cathy’s views expanded beyond the gay rights issue when Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (D) stepped into the fray, suggesting he would work to keep the company from opening franchises in Boston. (Mr. Menino later walked his statement back.) Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, said Chick-fil-A does not represent “Chicago values” and stood behind an effort by Alderman Joe Moreno to keep Chick-fil-A from expanding in the Windy City.

Those stances came under fire as unconstitutional on their merits, given that there’s no evidence Chick-fil-A discriminates against anyone). They also drew the ire of many conservatives, who perceive in Democrats in power a patten of engaging in what Mr. Black calls “old-fashioned bullying” of religion and free enterprise.

“On Wednesday, standing in a queue for fast food was no longer just standing in a queue for fast food – it was standing for values and, ultimately, to support a collective vision for the direction and fate of a nation,” writes columnist Colin Horgan, in the British newspaper the Guardian.

Brand identity has been creeping into politics for awhile, as companies such as Starbucks (gun rights) and Target (public breastfeeding) can attest. Way before that, civil rights-era lunch-counter sit-ins established businesses as political battlegrounds. But to a new degree, the Chick-fil-A protests became for some conservatives a proxy for critiques of the White House’s statements on capitalism, including Mr. Obama’s recent “you didn’t build that” suggestion to small businesses.

Acknowledging that the White House has not weighed in on the Chick-fil-A controversy, Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says “the flap about ‘you didn’t build that’ … contains this un-American assumption where you somehow start with the collective and congratulate the collective and then maybe carve out some space for the individual and what the individual accomplishes. In that way, the Chick-fil-A [backlash] is of a piece with the kind of thing we’ve gotten used to in the last four years – this intrusion of people with political power into people’s right to provide a good or service.”

For liberals, the support for Chick-fil-A and its CEO, who has contributed $5 million to several organizations considered by some to be “antigay,” hints at a simmering intolerance, and even hatred, that remain unaddressed and could be unleashed if Obama loses the presidency.

"I have never felt so alien in my own country as I did today while covering the restaurant's supporters,” a Florida newspaper reporter wrote on his Facebook page after filing a story.

The kiss-in Friday is intended to confront Cathy’s religious views by highlighting the growing cultural acceptance of gay couples. Perhaps sensing a sensitive political moment, protest sponsors suggested that protesters be respectful and not “lewd” in their actions.

For its part, Chick-fil-A has refrained from making any more political statements about the controversy swirling around its red-and-white sign. “We understand from news reports that Friday may present yet another opportunity for us to serve with genuine hospitality, superior service and great food,” the company said in a statement about the kiss-in protests.

For some on the sidelines, however, the messages swirling around Chick-fil-A’s by-all-accounts-delicious sandwich were too muddled to mean much.

“Through all the din of the controversy, the message being conveyed is no more coherent than a conversation through the microphone on the drive-through line,” former US Rep. Philip English (R) of Pennsylvania told Politico.

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