Can Corporations Be Christian?

Corporate policy, personal beliefs and the rapidly disappearing line between them.

You know things have gotten pretty bad in American discourse when the most sane bit of commentary on the Chick-Fil-A maelstrom comes from Antoine Dodson. Dodson, if the name doesn’t ring a bell, was the fellow who became the Youtube sensation after the Gregory Brothers turned an interview into the infectious “Bed Intruder Song.”

He’s also gay, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying himself some Chick-Fil-A. In a set of videos he posted last week, Dodson defended eating at the restaurant for rather sensible reasons: they make a halfway decent chicken sandwich and those fries, even if they’re not always hot, “those waffle fries is bangin’.”

It’s all a bit funny, of course, and funny is precisely what the world sometimes needs when people of otherwise good sense seem to have gotten a bit off. And if you doubt that’s happened, well, elected officials in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco all put up the “Not Welcome” sign to the restaurant chain last week. Which, whatever else you make of the debate, was clearly a bit much.

Their main product might be chicken, but the company isn’t exactly neutral in terms of what sort of society it wants to exist in.



There’s no need for a full recap of the history of the sordid affair, so let’s just say it followed the standard pattern: the President of Chick-Fil-A affirmed that yes, he is in favor of traditional marriage. The offense followed quickly, and then the counteroffensive was launched. The only thing this whole thing is missing are the appropriate Twitter hashtags, a la Conan and Leno’s fight over the Late Show at NBC (though #teamchicken doesn’t quite have the ring, does it?).

But while the reaction to Dan Cathy’s remarks were doubtlessly an overreaction, the protesters have something of a point. They see Chick-Fil-A as an entity has more on their minds than simply the providing good chicken sandwiches to the world. And the fact is, they’re right. Chick-Fil-A famously baked in God to their corporate purpose, part of which reads, “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” They have been closing on Sunday since their founding because, as their own website puts it, “that there must be something special about the way Chick-Fil-A people view their spiritual life.” And yes, they’ve given money to organizations that they think reflect those values. Their main product might be chicken, but the company isn’t exactly neutral in terms of what sort of society it wants to exist in.

Chick-Fil-A isn’t the only company, of course, that presents itself as overtly Christian. In-N-Out, which has a similarly cultlike following, places Bible verses on their cups. Like Chick-Fil-A, their approach runs deeper than that, though. They pay their workers well above industry standards, and the family that owns it has given millions to help abused and disadvantaged children (the original owners and both their sons are now deceased). And like Chick-Fil-A now, they’ve had their own controversial moments in the past. In 1993, they bought a radio advertisement in LA that said, "If you want a new life, then why not ask for God's gift this Christmas?...In-N-Out Burger wishes you a full and abundant life forever."

While that sort of blatant religiosity for a business might make some of us cringe, its commonplace these days for companies to take stances on issues that have little to do with their products. Google recently established a project to bring gay rights to the world—an effort that has nothing to do with organizing the world’s information. General Mills has spoken publicly against the proposed Minnesota state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Such efforts are susceptible to cynical readings that the are simply after the money of a generally wealthy, influential community. But companies also conceive of themselves these days as having “cultures” that express “values,” which are often aimed at the well-being of employees but also are expressive of the company’s brand.

Businesses, in other words, now more than ever have their own vision of social flourishing that goes well beyond the raw dollars and cents of their market and bottom line. And the trajectory seems, if anything, toward merging that vision with their profits, rather than keeping them distinct. TOMS Shoes, most famously, has a business model that is built on the principle that when I buy shoes I’m also giving to the poor. Social enterprise has become a new avenue to pursue social justice

For Christians, attempting this sort of integration is understandable even if it proves to be impossibly tricky. That notorious divide between the “sacred” and the “secular,” between our worship on Sundays and our jobs on Monday morning, is one that Christians are working furiously to close. People might disagree with how Chick-Fil-A has gone about things, but Christian business owners face extremely difficult questions about what they should and should not do as a business in light of their Christian commitments.

For consumers, the expansion of values through businesses can make for difficult purchasing decisions. A chicken sandwich no longer becomes just a chicken sandwich, and a car no longer is simply a car. It’s an identity marker, a way of affiliating ourselves with the values of the company we are buying from. If those values don’t line up, well, then we are in the unsavory position of going against our consciences and purchasing anyways or looking around for somewhere else.

As for Antoine Dodson’s humor and his logic’s intuitive appeal, as much as we might want to accept it at face value the cultural pressure is increasingly moving away from him. It’s difficult for people to treat a chicken sandwich as just a chicken sandwich or to enjoy those waffle fries because they “is bangin’.” Companies—of any sort—go well beyond the products they make and we as consumers are complicit.

12 Comments

Matthew Lee Anderson

7

Matthew Lee Anderson commented…

Always happy to help out!

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Jackie L. commented…

Chick-Fil-A never tried to stop anyone from being gay. If they said gay people couldn't eat at their restaraunt I could understand your sentiments, but this is a free country, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and they simply expressed their own.

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Ben Simpson commented…

Thank you, Matt, for this excellent contribution to the public discussion of business, politics, and religious conviction. Lucid, irenic, and intellectually challenging.

One point of interest that you introduced, but did not chase, is the delineation that is easily made between religious and secular arguments and the way they are advanced in public debate. In a political philosophy seminar I took part in a few years ago, we discussed at length John Rawls's Theory of Justice, and his advocacy for a civil public square that accepts, but marginalizes arguments for the public good that are based on religious conviction. He does not dismiss religiously based arguments outright, but argues that they should be allowed only if they coalesce with secular logic. This is done in an effort to prevent someone from claiming divine mandate on public policy, which is understandable in a pluralistic society that doesn't endorse a particular religious view.

But, it is fascinating to witness Oreo or Google or other largecorporateentities advocate certain causes, and, it appears to me at least, that the general public accepts these campaigns as though they are derived from nowhere, apart from an assumed moral framework that possesses its own exclusivities and assumptions about what is ultimate. Yes, they may not act in the name of "God", but they do act from ultimate values. It is dogma of another sort.

Thanks again for this excellent post.

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Anonymous commented…

When will the debate that fuels every issue gasolined by social media be viewed for what it really is, a squabble between the minority.

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John Small Berries commented…

"But a business owner might have a similar objection, for similar reasons, despite the non-religious nature of their business. Should they go through with paying for abortificients because the government mandates it?"

Why stop there? Should employees of a Jehovah's Witness be denied coverage for any procedure which requires a transfusion of blood? Should a Christian Scientist owner of a non-religious business be absolved of all responsibility to provide a health insurance plan for his employees?

Because once you start exempting employers from their responsibilities under the law just because they have religious objections, you can't start privileging some religions but not others.

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