2 Aug 2012

Chick Fil-A tonight? Dinner comes with politics on the side.

It’s an American fried chicken chain with roots in evangelical politics. But now Chick Fil-A is at the centre of a national political storm over its CEO’s comments against gay marriage.

chick fil a protest in LA (getty)

Feel like chicken tonight? Beware: buying a sandwich has suddenly become a political statement – with liberals calling for a boycott and even an outright ban, while conservatives have been bulk-buying takeout dinners in response.

Step forward, Chick Fil-A: a fast food chain with more than 1,600 branches across America, and roots firmly in the evangelical conservative camp. Stores don’t open on Sundays, and the firm has a history of supporting anti-gay efforts, according to the lobby group Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). They claim the company has backed groups that say being gay should be recriminalised, and others that support ‘ex-gay’ therapy.

But it was an interview by CEO Dan Cathy, in the Baptist Press, that has turned Chick Fil-A into a conservative cause celebre: especially the bit where he publicly affirmed his traditional views on marriage. Chick Fil-A, he said, was “very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit”.

Liberals demanded a boycott, backed by celebrities including Mia Farrow and Roseanne Barr, while some city mayors even tried to ban the chain from their district. Washington DC mayor Vincent Gray denounced what he called “hate chicken”, while Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel declared the chain’s values “are not Chicago values”.

Take a hike, and take your intolerance with you. Philadelphia councillor James Kenney

New York City council speaker Christine Quinn went further still – suggesting it should be kicked out of the city altogether. Philadelphia councilman James Kenney told Mr Cathy: “take a hike, and take your intolerance with you.”

Equal values

Like, well, chickens to the slaughter, other fast food chains rushed to the barricades. An employee at Wendy’s aparently put up a sign declaring “We Stand with Chick Fil-A”, which was swiftly taken down. The company then put out a statement declaring it was “proud to serve customers of varied races, backgrounds, cultures and sexual orientation, with different beliefs and values.”

And naturally, when there’s a conservative cause to bang a drum for, Sarah Palin was next on the scene, posting a photograph of herself and Todd on her Facebook page, clutching a bag of fried chicken.

While brand approval for Chick Fil-A was dropping through the floor, Palin told Fox News that the backlash was having “a chilling effect on our First Amendment rights [to free speech]”.

The chicken chain isn’t the first to plunge headlong into poltical controversy, although experts have warned it’s rarely good for business.

Retail giant Target became a target itself back in 2010, when organisations including MoveOn.org launched pickets and protests over the firm’s decision to donate $150,000 to a Republican candidate in Minnesota who had a history of opposing gay rights.

Weeks of public pressure soon got shareholders worried; democracy, said activists, was not for sale.

Then there was the great arugula boycott of 2009, after the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, penned an op-ed in the Wall Stree Journal criticising Obama’s plans for health care reform. The company was eventually forced to apologise to customers, insising Mr Mackey’s “intent was to express his personal opinions, not those of Whole Food Market”.

Drumsticks at dawn

But Chick Fil-A hardly caters to a similar market: and this week, the erstwhile Republican presidential contender and talk show host Mike Huckabee rallied his supporters to the cause, declaring August the first to be ‘Chick Fil-A Appreciation Day’.

More than six hundred and fifty thousand people responded to his invitation on Facebook, which declared support for “a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse”. And, he went on, “If Christians affirm traditional values, we’re considered homophobic, fundamentalists, hate-mongers and intolerant”.

Drumsticks at dawn

As huge queues snaked around the block outside branches of Chick Fil-A, police were even called in to keep order in Madison, Alabama. Another former Presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, picked up lunch: “OK leftists go crazy”, he posted on Twitter.

As Talking Points Memo reports, it all sparked something of a media frenzy, as cable news networks sent news choppers into the sky to report the drama as it happened. Yes folks, it’s August: something of a slow news month.

Yet the fact remains that a fast food chain managed to draw the kind of crowds that most politicians can only dream of.

Gay rights groups are fighting back – calling on same-sex couples to photograph themselves kissing in a Chick Fil-A branch, in protest.

In this game of chicken, who will give in first? : thousands of people may have expressed their support for Dan Cathy’s firm this week, but experience shows when corporations get involved in political controversy, it rarely ends well.

Fried food, with a super-sized side of politics: it’s enough to give you indigestion.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News