The Chick-fil-A controversy is more than a battle over chicken sandwiches, as some have flippantly suggested. The fast-food chain has become an international symbol of anti-gay intolerance since its CEO, Dan Cathy, expressed his views on marriage equality on The Ken Coleman Show in July:
I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage," and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.
In an age when Ellen is a spokesperson for CoverGirl and companies from Amtrak to JCPenny are courting LGBT consumers, the chicken joint became a symbol of defiance for the religious right. This only intensified after the Baptist Press asked Cathy about his comments on marriage equality, and he replied, "Well, guilty as charged." For the religious right, his company at once transformed into a sort of Alamo where they could take their last stand in corporate America.
But this controversy was about more than Cathy's comments; it was about the fact that between Chick-fil-A had donated more than $5 million to anti-gay organizations, such as the Family Research Council, through the Winshape Foundation, Chick-fil-A's charitable arm. Chick-fil-A has also contributed money to Exodus International, which has worked in the past to help people "pray away the gay."
We all know what followed. Some big-city, Yankee mayors said they didn't want the franchise in their metropolises. This raised the ire of talk-show host and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, as well as former Alaska governor (and reality TV star) Sarah Palin. Huckabee called for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, where fun calories and fundamentalist Christianity converged in an orgy of high-fructose homophobia.
In this fight, the LGBT community took a beating from the often-friendly media, who were agitated because they thought the mayors overreached into unconstitutional territory. But Chick-fil-A also suffered from the fracas, with its BrandIndex score falling 40 percent nationally in the days following Cathy's controversial statements.
The big question was what would happen after the last pickup truck and General Lee pulled out of the drive-thru on Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Would the company seek to dig in or dig out of the hole? The company appeared to take steps in a positive direction last week, when Dan Cathy "welcomed campus leaders to a private luncheon in Atlanta to discuss diversity, hospitality and the opportunity to find common ground." The secret meeting included the LGBT student advocacy group Campus Pride. This certainly can't be a good sign for the Huckabee crowd, considering that they despise "diversity" as a pro-gay code word. They also sneer at those who seek "common ground" as losers who are weak and uncommitted to their fanatical cause.
If Chick-fil-A truly desires rejoining mainstream America, it will have to come to terms with the fact that it will let down its most ardent defenders. Even a whiff of "capitulation" will infuriate anti-gay activists, who view the company as a beacon of hope in a secular world. Some anti-gay activists, such as holocaust revisionist Scott Lively, are even crediting Chick-fil-A with taking a prophetic first step in rolling back the LGBT movement. "I think the 'gay' worm may finally be starting to turn," wrote Lively in a World Net Daily op-ed. "It began to turn on the day Chick-fil-A Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy refused, in the face of a firestorm of criticism, to back down." And this week, the Montana Family Foundation declared that it would show its support for "traditional family values" by opening a Chick-fil-A drive-thru in Billings for one day in September. "Since Chick-fil-A doesn't yet have locations in our state most Montanan's were unable to participate in the national event in August. So we created Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day 2.0," Jeff Laszloffy, President and CEO of the Montana Family Foundation, told KPAX-TV.
If Cathy budges even an inch, extremist groups are going to squawk louder than a chicken in a slaughter barn, so Chick-fil-A might as well go all the way and renounce donations to homophobic hate groups and rejoin civilization. The alternative is an ongoing struggle to maintain brand integrity while increasingly extreme elements embrace the company's logo and carry out anti-gay activities in their name. (For instance, at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, a fraternity tabling next to an on-campus Chick-fil-A chanted, "We love Chick-fil-A!" and then screamed "faggot!" when LGBT students passed by.)
This company is simply not going to be able to control its image as long as it remains a rallying cry of hate groups and homophobes. I suppose that Chick-fil-A could defiantly stand firm and remain the right's anti-gay Alamo, but I'm sure they are well aware of that fort's fate.