Last week, I walked by an Atlanta Chick-fil-A crowded with customers. While some may have been regulars, others were likely there to show support for the socially conservative views of the restaurant chain’s founder. Good for them!
Though I vigorously disagree with Truett Cathy and his son Dan, who have contributed heavily to anti-gay causes, they have every right to their beliefs and to back them with their money. If they want to entangle their privately held company in controversy, they go forth in a great American tradition of free speech and free association.
For my part, I hold with the other side — those social progressives who have chosen not to do business with Chick-fil-A. The boycott, too, has a long and honorable place in the American civic tradition.
The Chick-fil-A showdown was sparked earlier this summer when Dan, the company’s president and chief operating officer, was interviewed on a conservative radio talk show. His comments, though inflammatory, were not unusual among ultra-conservative Christians, who confuse homophobia with piety.
“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.’ 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,” he said.
The Cathys have long contributed to organizations that oppose full equality for gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage, and this isn’t the first time their activism has brought sharp criticism. Liberal college students have been fighting campus Chick-fil-A locations for the past year.
But this time, the reproach from gay-rights supporters caught the attention of former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a conservative Christian himself. Now a radio talk show host, he declared last Wednesday “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.” The battle was joined.
Having long ago considered the politics of Chick-fil-A’s founding family — their religious views are well-known in metro Atlanta, where the company is headquartered — I don’t partake of their chicken sandwiches or waffle fries. Thereby, I honor both my waistline and my convictions. I grew up in the segregated South, and I learned at my parents’ knee not to give my money to businesses whose owners so offend my beliefs.
The non-violent boycott was one of the staples of civil rights strategy, a way of forcing merchants to consider just how strongly they endorsed Jim Crow. Some merchants were happy to lose patrons as long as they could hold onto their bigotry. But many preferred to hold onto their profits.
The well-planned and disciplined boycott is also a perfect method for drawing attention to injustice, as civil rights advocates from Martin Luther King Jr. to Cesar Chavez understood. The Montgomery bus boycott, which was famously kicked off by Rosa Parks’ arrest, is a textbook case (quite literally), one of the most successful such tactics in modern history.
As the Chick-fil-A controversy has raged on, some conservatives have complained that equal-rights advocates are trying to strip the Cathys of their free speech rights. That’s just nonsense. The First Amendment gives them every right to their bigotry.
But it also gives their opponents every right to call on fast-food diners to eat more beef. There is no constitutional right to offend people without consequences.
I would point out, however, that local leaders such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have gone too far in suggesting they would try to exclude new Chick-fil-A outposts from their cities. As long as the stores meet local zoning requirements, they have every legal right to open where they see fit. If Emanuel doesn’t like the company’s politics, he can boycott, as I do.
He won’t be missing much but several hundred calories of Southern-fried fat, with a heaping dollop of homophobia.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)