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Loving Chick-fil-A while feeling bad about giving them money is the most American thing you can do. Happy Birthday Neon Sign
It’s a weeknight, and the Chick-fil-A off Highway 29 near Charlottesville, Virginia, is packed. The drive-thru line snakes the edge of the almost-full parking lot until it becomes the waiting-to-get-into-the-drive-thru line, stretching five cars down the road. Four efficient team members wearing neon safety vests and carrying tablets move in concert from car to car. Above, an oversize American flag billows on a pole. Below it, the big red sign with the white logo—the curlicue “C” that looks like a chicken—casts a glow on the cars, the sidewalk, faces, everything.
In the store, a line of mismatch customers tees out from the counter. “It stay busy when I come here,” says the fortysomething Black man in front of me wearing a crispy baby-blue button-down. I can’t tell if he’s talking to me or his phone, so I respond just in case: “I’m telling you, mane,” shaking my head no in agreement. Just then, 18 giggling, bouncing middle-schoolers wearing cross-country uniforms pour through the side entrance.
Behind the counter, three cashiers stand under the bright white lights. “I can help who’s next,” one says, and gives out what they all give to each of us—to the man in front of me, then to me, then to the white construction worker in a neon vest that is dirty like his boots, then to every one of the eighth-grade runners: She gives a smile.
“Dine in or carry out?” They always say this first. Then, “What can I get for you?”
They ask, “Would you like the meal, or just the sandwich?”
“How many sauces would you like?” Sometimes they go six or seven follow-up questions deep.
I will say it: I eat a lot of Chick-fil-A. The chicken strips are the right size and amount of crispy. The grilled options. The breakfast menu. The people who work there—so friendly, so helpful, so deserving of the chain’s number-one rank in customer satisfaction eight years running. And the sandwich that made it famous: the juicy meat and sweet-breaded crust, two pickles, and a buttered-down bun. Some folks say you don’t even need the sauce, but I like the sauce. And the waffle fries. Everybody likes the waffle fries. At Chick-fil-A, it seems like everybody likes everything. If we didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this article.
The way I justify coming to this place is convenience: I get my food faster and fresher here than at the Bojangles across the road, and everywhere else is somewhere I say I don’t want to drive. The way I rationalize having come is capitalism: What difference will my $9.23 make to a company that cleared $16.7 billion last year? I just need something quick and pretty cheap that I want to eat.
Why the justifications and rationalizations? Because, smiles and juicy white meat aside, I do not believe what the company seems to: that some people should not have legal access to marriage; that being lesbian, gay, trans, or otherwise what they claim the Bible doesn’t condone, means you need to be corrected.
I don’t believe any of that, and even though I also don’t believe (I don’t think) that not spending my less-than-$10 will move the needle, I always leave feeling conflicted.
I know a lot of folks who feel conflicted too—maybe there are more these days, because in the last ten years the company has added more than 1,000 stores. I know one family who, every time they take their kids for a meal? They come home and make a donation to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in the same amount. Or people who won’t spend their money there—but will eat what you bought with yours. Or who eat there but don’t tell anyone.
Danielle Buckingham, a Black queer writer from Mississippi who has written about her journey through, and then away from, the church, told me that when she found out about Chick-fil-A’s political stance, she was the only one in her friend group of “nearly all lesbian and bisexual women” to boycott it. “I eventually gave up and would eat there on occasion if I didn’t have any other convenient options,” she said.
Still, the question that folks have written so much about in the last ten years—“Is it okay to eat at Chick-fil-A?”—has never seemed to be the question at all, to me. At least not the only one. Is it okay to vote for politicians who endorse some policies we like but some we don’t? To buy phones from companies we know have not always paid a living wage to the people who make them? What is the history of the gentrified neighborhood we live in? The carbon footprint of the SUV I parked between two other SUVs outside?
But, then, what is the question? Why do I feel conflicted every single time I go?
The cashier hands me my drink and I thank her, and the last thing she says, the last words she speaks to everyone are: “My pleasure.”
It is the benediction given by every team member at every one of Chick-fil-A’s 2,600 restaurants tonight, to every customer, in the name of S. Truett Cathy, our founder who art in heaven, who giveth us this meal in our time of hunger when we are pressed for time, even in his death.
“‘My Pleasure’ is more than just an operating standard, and more than just a personal request,” Truett Cathy and his first-born son Dan (then the CEO) cowrote in a message to the company in 2003. “‘My Pleasure’ is an expression from the heart where team members, Operators, or staff members literally show that they want to go the extra mile.”
The company calls this “Second Mile Service,” one of its “strategic pillars,” which include: make eye contact, speak with enthusiasm, make personal connections, serve dine-in meals to guests at their tables restaurant-style, follow up consistently to see if the guest has any additional needs, carry large take-out orders to the car, and “share a smile.”
Like many things at Chick-fil-A, the philosophy behind the Second-Mile Service model starts with a Bible scripture—in this case Matthew 5:41: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” The line refers to an early law that gave traveling Roman soldiers the authority to require Jewish civilians to carry their armory for an entire mile. As the story goes, one Jewish preacher compelled his followers to do more than the law required—instead of suffering the physical toll and subservience for one mile, suffer it for two. By being a generous servant, the civilian creates a divine possibility. If people feel good about how you treat them, maybe they will get curious about the reason you treat them that way, “thus giving the follower of Christ an opportunity to share why he would see and serve the soldier as one of God’s creations.”
That last quotation is from Covert Cows and Chick-fil-A: How Faith, Cows, and Chicken Built an Iconic Brand, a 2019 book by the company’s long-time chief marketing officer, Steve Robinson. In this book and elsewhere, the company talks a lot about its story—nuggets from its history adorn the Charlottesville restaurant like fine art. The largest sign reads “Our Story” and, beneath that, a jigsaw of photos and captions collectively tell it. “The Beginning” is 1946, when Truett and his brother opened the Dwarf Grill diner in Hapeville, Georgia. By 1976, there were six Chick-fil-A locations in Atlanta, by 1980 there more than 100 across the South, and in 1986 Truett opened the company’s first free-standing restaurant.
Christianity is still at the heart of Chick-fil-A’s mission, and none of its restaurants are open on Sundays, an edict from Truett Cathy. “There’s that Bible verse—and I don’t think they said this verse specifically in the training, but to paraphrase it: ‘Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” says Kendarius McGruder, 26, who worked at a Chick-fil-A for two years in high school and calls the experience “pretty great.” “…In the training they definitely did say that Chick-fil-A closes on Sunday because Truett Cathy wanted to offer his employees the opportunity to worship but also to, basically, be able to abide by that Bible verse. There was no requirement that me or my peers had to be religious or that we had to practice Christianity or anything of that nature.”
Another former employee, Christopher Shannon, also 26, worked for six years at two Chick-fil-A locations starting when he was 14. “Employees were happy to share their views religiously with you, and—surprise, surprise—most were Christians. But it wasn’t a requirement,” Shannon says. “I was there during the whole gay marriage uproar, get-married-in-front-of-Chick-fil-A-to-show-defiance timeframe. That was back when I could tell people that work there and they started telling me their beliefs, and I tell them I’m there for a paycheck, and the conversation was done. I don’t know how they would react now.”
It was at the start of 2012 that the story became the story you’re reading.
That year, Chick-fil-A reported $4 billion in sales, and president and COO Dan Cathy announced growth plans: renovations at 300 locations, ninety-two openings, and new menu items. That summer, Cathy sat down for an interview with K. Allan Blume, editor of Biblical Reporter, a small magazine based in North Carolina. Toward the end of the thirty-five-minute interview, Blume asked Cathy, “What are your convictions about traditional family values?” It wasn’t a question from nowhere. Cathy and the company had been criticized in February of the previous year after a Chick-fil-A hosted a marriage seminar given by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, an organization with a mission to “strengthen families” by advocating against same-sex marriage legislation. The event prompted gay-rights advocacy organizations to accuse Chick-fil-A of being anti-LBGT.
“We are very much supportive of the family,” Cathy answered. “The Biblical definition of the family unit.” Cathy continued: “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on Biblical principles.”
Not long after the interview, outlets including the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post shared similar comments Cathy had made: “As it relates to society in general, 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,’” Cathy had said during an appearance on the Ken Coleman radio show. “I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.”
Cathy’s comments incited an almost immediate explosion of criticism. Within a week, celebrities, politicians, LGBTQ advocacy organizations, and social-media users lambasted Cathy; some called for a national boycott. The Jim Henson Company removed Muppets toys from Chick-fil-A kids meals and announced that it would donate any payments it received from Chick-fil-A to GLAAD.
The company soon posted a statement to its Facebook page saying it would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena,” but that didn’t do much to calm the storm. As many shared at the time, the issue was not just what Cathy had said. According to Equality Matters, a short-lived media organization supporting LGBTQ rights, in 2010 the WinShape Foundation, the Cathy family’s charity, had donated $1.9 million to organizations actively working to prevent the acceptance of gay and trans people, and to subvert legislation supporting same-sex marriage.
LGBTQ activist Carly McGehee created a Facebook page urging a National Same-Sex Kiss Day at Chick-fil-A. “I was aware of their religious affiliation, but since it did not directly affect me at the time, I had no problem with them,” she said in an interview with GLAAD. “Once I found out where my money was going to, and how it was directly affecting me and my loved ones, I immediately stopped supporting the chain and encouraged my friends and family to do the same.” The instructions for the “kiss-ins,” as the demonstrations came to be called, were simple: Same-sex couples were to visit a restaurant, “have a quick smooch or hug or show of affection,” and post a photo or video online.
Mike Huckabee, the conservative former Arkansas governor, called for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, writing, “Let’s affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the Godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick fil-A….” Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and more than 600,000 Facebook users said they would participate.
By the end of 2012, Chick-fil-A had become something bigger than itself, new terrain in America’s culture wars, with two sides brightly divided and each believing the stakes could not be higher. As the commentary continued, so did Chick-fil-A’s growth. By New Year’s Eve 2012, as Truett Cathy was honored at midfield of the Georgia Superdome during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl college football playoff game, the company had increased its sales by 12% (to $4.6 billion) from the previous year, and expanded to almost 1,700 locations in 39 states and Washington, D.C.
Around that time, I preached my first sermon. It was a trial sermon in Mississippi, where I had learned to church like a lot of boys: three days a week and beside my grandmother. Where me and her felt the deacons pray and heard the church mothers moan, and Muh would sing “Fire Next Time,” and none of us would sing the song with the part that goes “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Pastor said it had too many words—said all it needed was “God said it” and “that settles it”—and I believed him to my bones.
“They talk good,” is how I put it to Grandma, years before I was to try preaching myself, when I considered divinity school. It wasn’t just the talking or the believing that made me want to be like them, though. It was how they talked about what they believed: like they knew it.
Psychologists call this “moral” conviction—or, attitudes assumed to be objective and universal even in the absence of tangible evidence or in the face of counter-proof. Others call it hubris or privilege. Where I grew up, we just called it Believing, with a capital B.
When it was time, I wore a green shirt and a black suit, with black suspenders and a black tie, and I told the Black congregation the story of Job, the Old Testament man who had great wealth, a big family, and a Proverbs 22:1 reputation. According to the Good Book, he was “the greatest of all the men of the east.” One day Satan appeared in Heaven before God and claimed that Job’s reputation was contingent. Job was good only because his life was good. Take away the latter, Satan said, and Job will “curse Thee to Thy face.”
God devised a plan to see about that.
“Job lost his house, lost his stuff, lost his family,” I said in that rat-a-tat-tat way that preachers where I’m from do, descending from the pulpit, talking loud and with my hands, looking out over the two-hundred-something people who had come to hear me talk good.
I reminded them that the Devil got it wrong. The more Job lost, the harder he knew he was in God’s favor—“though he slay me,” I read Job’s words from the Bible app on my phone to an eruption of “Amen” and agreeing laughter and “That’s right.”
“The struggle is right,” I said, interpreting the moral. “As long as”—I stopped to breathe and let the quiet fall and the music creep up towards the yellowing light—“we fight.” It was a message that tapped into one of the essential tenets of Christian living: We were not just to expect persecution for our convictions, we were to welcome it—and be willing to Believe harder in its face.
It’s a message that reflects an essential component of modern capitalism. See, you never end Job’s story with what he had in the beginning, or what he was made to endure in the middle. You go until you get to what he gained in the end, as a result of the persecution: more. As a reward for holding to his Beliefs, the Lord blessed Job with a reward for his steadfastness: twice the wealth he had lost, a bigger family, and a long and prosperous life.
It is the kind of story that makes Believers shout and dance, Believers like Chick-fil-A chairman Dan Cathy; executive vice president, chairman of STC Brands, and Chick-fil-A ambassador Bubba Cathy; and company ambassador Trudy Cathy White, whose family business made $16.7 billion last year and who are members of the twenty-first wealthiest family in the United States, all while staying closed on Sunday.
(Chick-fil-A declined requests for interviews with Chick-fil-A executives, including members of the Cathy family.)
It is the allest of all-American stories, I thought, after emptying what was left of my tray in the trash, dropping my unused Chick-fil-A sauce packet in the “Extra Sauce” basket. Chick-fil-A operates within the system of American capitalism, seasoned with the Christian belief that you have to be true to your convictions, even in the face of persecution (or, as the case may be, Kiss-Ins).
In 2019, as the business press touted Chick-fil-A’s improbable rise to the number-three fast-casual restaurant in the country, reports emerged that the WinShape Foundation may have still been giving to two organizations that opposed marriage equality, the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—and there was a Daily Beast report questioning Dan Cathy’s donation to the National Christian Charitable Foundation. The outcry, again, was swift, and in response, the foundation announced a new charitable giving plan. It would no longer donate to organizations with anti-LGBTQ agendas, instead taking a “more focused approach,” giving to organizations working to improve youth education, fight homelessness, and provide food to those in need.
Of course, that change stirred a shift in the views of those who had once supported the company. Huckabee accused Chick-fil-A of “surrendering to anti-Christian hate groups,” and the president of the pro-traditional-marriage Family Research Council warned, “It’s time for Christians to find a fast-food alternative.” LGTBQ advocacy organizations remained critical of the company. A no-win.
“I am bisexual. However, holy cow!” one customer told me. “If any open-minded and left-wing fast-food company could make a chicken sandwich that damn delicious, serve it that damn fast, with the politeness of that staff, I would be delighted to give them my business. But for now...”
Number one in customer satisfaction, eight years running.
Another said, “There was span of about six months in 2019 when I boycotted it because more information came out about the homophobia that persists within the company. My dad did the same, and I think he may still not eat it. I began eating it again because my mom said more came out about how they’re better. And my gay uncle in Georgia loves it, so I didn't feel as bad.”
“I think that as a corporation they are no worse than any other corporation,” one man said.
So where does that leave us?
Conflicted, or convicted, about making the right consumer choices in a place where all those choices are trick mirrors. Do we eat the “morally problematic” but “delicious” chicken sandwich, as comedian Michael Schur asks? If so we are complicit, and if not, as today’s whataboutism requires, how do we answer for our likely support of any one of 243 other companies cited in 2019 by Think Progress for subpar policies and practices related to gay rights, including H&M, Outback Steakhouse, and Taco Bell? At least Chick-fil-A has been upfront about its views—which, incidentally, are shared by millions of Americans.
“Do you eat there or not?” I ask Lexi Smith, a postdoc who studies gender and sexuality at the University of Virginia, where I also teach. “My ten dollars won’t make a difference. Hell, all of our ten dollarses won’t.”
She tells me there is another question, which there should always be within a capitalist system: “We have to ask ourselves: Why not? Why won’t it make a difference?” Smith tells me that capitalism is all-consuming, comprised of a million decisions that happen inside of it—way beyond “dine-in or carry out.” I take that to mean that unless we step back and think about that bigger structure—capitalism, maker of inequality, guilty-feeling decisions, and quick-service chicken that I eat more often than I should—our individual decisions, while they matter, may not matter as much as we think.
But I could be getting that wrong.
What I am less unsure about is this: Capitalism is conflict. Sure, that’s 200-plus years of sociology and economics in three words, but if you’re someone who sees Chick-fil-A as hateful but likes their food, it’s as satisfying an answer as there is. Capitalism is conflict between individuals and groups over wealth, influence, and resources. The more we learn about the flawed people and companies whose hands shape every facet of American life, the more conflicted our consumer decisions become.
I will not tell you what to Believe or where to buy your chicken sandwiches. I will tell you that in a place and time where information (and misinformation) is as accessible as it has ever been, not knowing is not an excuse—and not caring is not responsible. Even if that answer leaves you feeling…unsatisfied.
Photography by Lucy Schaeffer | Food Styling by Erika Joyce | Assistant: Aaron Meftah
Lead images: Alamy (4). AP Images (2). Getty Images (5). Houston Chronicle/AP Images (2). Reuters/Alamy (3). UPI/Alamy (1). Zuma Press/Alamy (4).
Timeline: Alamy (2). AP Images (2). Courtesy Chick-fil-A (1). Getty Images (3). Super Stock (1). via WinShape Foundation (1).
Dr. B. Brian Foster is a writer and sociologist from Mississippi.
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