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.
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.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith and The End of our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. He is the lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy. You can follow him on Twitter.