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The owners of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain are hardly secretive about their commitment to Christian values — all of their franchises are famously closed on Sundays. But calls erupted to boycott the company and prevent it from opening storefronts in several cities after its president said, “We are very much supportive of … the biblical definition of the family unit,” and the company’s charitable donations to organizations that actively oppose same-sex marriage were publicized. We explore why the controversy has put our politics and our plates on a collision course.
- Martin Austermuhle Editor-in-Chief, DCist.com
- Shreevardhan Lele Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow of Business Administration at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland
- Randall Balmer Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College; and Chair, Department of Religion
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen does a sandwich morph from a piece of fried chicken and some pickles on a bun into a political hot potato? And which rights reign supreme, freedom of speech and religion, the right to marry or the ability to eat lunch without having to think too hard about what those waffle fries mean? These are just a few of the many questions being raised after the president of fast food giant Chick-fil-A spoke out recently in support of the biblical definition of a family unit.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, the company, which has made no secret of its leader's Christian values, is at the center of a wide-ranging controversy that has grown to involve mayors and Muppets and Mike Huckabee, among others. Here with us, as we enter the fray, is Martin Austermuhle. He is the editor-in-chief of DCist. Martin, good to see you again.
MR. MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEGood to see you also. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Shreevardhan Lele. He is the Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow of Business Administration at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He teaches in the MBA and Executive MBA Program. And his current work centers on issues at the intersection of business and society. Lele, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. SHREEVARDHAN LELEDelighted to be here.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850 or by sending email to email@example.com. Have you decided to either eat at or stop eating at Chick-fil-A in the last few months? Tell us why. 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Martin, DCist was out ahead on this controversy. Back in March, you covered the news that a Chick-fil-A food truck was coming to D.C. What was the reaction to that now seemingly innocent post?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, I should add that we weren't ahead of the story. We were behind the story. We were, like, two days late to the story.
NNAMDISlow to the pick, yes.
AUSTERMUHLEBut we were the first ones to say -- and I was the one who wrote the post. And I jokingly said, chicken lovers rejoice because Chick-fil-A, for better, for worse, has a bit of a cult following. So Chick-fil-A announces they're gonna have a food truck. It's gonna come to D.C. I write the post. The next thing I know, I'm inundated with emails and comments of people saying, well, you know, how dare you write something? How dare you rejoice and celebrate the fact that essentially this gay-hating industry, this gay-hating business is coming to D.C. to sell its wares?
AUSTERMUHLEYou know, didn't you know that they gave money to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage? And this was actually all news to me 'cause I don't usually research restaurants when I'm writing stories about food 'cause I don't usually assume that their respected politics are something that's gonna come up, but it did. And there was quite a backlash. It got to the point that I was called an anti-gay bigot by someone, which is a surprise to me because it was a story about chicken, about fried chicken. But now it's gotten bigger. It's gone national.
NNAMDIIn the last few weeks, scrutiny of the company has intensified. And as you said, gone national. What happened?
AUSTERMUHLEHonestly, I don't know what happened in the intervening months because we had the slight controversy here in D.C. Then it kinda faded out and I assumed it wasn't a big deal. And then it became big deal again. And then suddenly you have -- I think what might have kicked it off is that Mayor Tom Menino in Boston chimed in on Chick-fil-A coming to Boston. And said basically, listen, we don't like your politics so we don't want you to set up shop here.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd that just kicked off this kind of widespread debate that you have conservatives like Sarah Palin purposefully going to Chick-fil-A to say, hey, I love Chick-fil-A. I've always loved Chick-fil-A, politics or not. And you have other left-leaning liberal mayors and elected officials saying, listen, you know, those politics don't suit our cities and so the food should not be allowed, they shouldn't come to town.
NNAMDIWell, this wave of controversy may have stemmed from comments made by Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, made on a radio show called "The Ken Coleman Show." Here is what Dan Cathy had to say…
MR. DAN CATHYI think we're inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, you know, 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 would -- the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.
NNAMDIThat's Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy weighing in on the issue of same-sex marriage. Lele, you studied the intersection of business and society. Boycotts and calls for support are nothing new. What stands out to you about this particular story?
LELEI actually find this a refreshing controversy in a sense. It's at a good intersection of food, of gay politics, of national politics, social issues. In some sense it's good to have people air their opinions and also vote with their feet, whether they like the sandwich or they don't like the Chick-fil-A's product. What does disturb me, though, are remarks by mayors, for example, suggesting that they will not either welcome or they will try to squeeze out Chick-fil-A.
NNAMDIMayor Menino of Boston wrote to Chick-fil-A. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said, though, I can't stop them, but they're not really welcome here.
LELESo in that context I'm not sure if specific local laws are being flouted by the forum. If so they could certainly go after them, but it seems to me that we are sort of going after this after the fact. And it's not entirely clear to me that Chick-fil-A's in violation of any ordinances or laws in any of these cities. So simply having the leader of a firm express a certain view that you disagree with, I don't think that calls for suggesting that, you know, that business be banned from the city.
LELEPersonally, I would say I'm all for people, either, you know, like Sarah Palin, either going to Chick-fil-A and staging demonstrations, eating a sandwich. It would be perfectly fine if the mayor of Boston suggested that he would not eat at Chick-fil-A. And that would be fine, too. But suggesting that Chick-fil-A should not be in business in Boston seems to me to cross the line.
NNAMDIThis is a politically charged town. Do you think people react to stories like this the way they responded to Martin's story, more quickly here than they might in other parts of the country?
LELEA little bit. This town certainly is more sensitive to the possibility of a controversy. But I think that this particular one does have some legs, in the sense that the issue of gay rights and especially gay marriage has exponentially increased in the national consciousness in the last few years. Even as little as two years back, I would have been extremely surprised at the national acceptance of gay marriage.
LELESo in some sense, this is not entirely a manufactured controversy. I think, in the country at large, there is this notion that, well, if you echo the remarks that Chick-fil-A's leader did, that in some sense you're not quite in sync with the majority of the country at least.
NNAMDIWell, Mayor Menino's letter to Chick-fil-A went viral. That tended to drive the controversy. But with all of these politicians entering the fray on the one hand, essentially telling Chick-fil-A to keep out, on the other hand you've got people like Mike Huckabee and the Palins showing support for the company. Martin, what do you make of the positions that politicians are staking out on this?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, it's the sort of thing that, I mean, fundamentally enough, coincidentally enough today is Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. And it's…
NNAMDISo named by the aforementioned Mike Huckabee.
AUSTERMUHLEExactly. So he organized Chick-fil-A Day, if only to celebrate Chick-fil-A's right to express its opinions. Now, honestly, I don't think anybody would have chimed in if this wasn't a convenient way to kind to jump on either side of the culture wars, which is usually what happens. You know, if something comes up about same-sex marriage and suddenly you've got the usual troops lining up on the right. Usual troops are lining up on the left.
AUSTERMUHLEI think that what's interesting is that there are people, you know, left leaning people who are tending toward the middle and saying listen, I don't like Chick-fil-A and I can choose not to eat there. But I also believe that they have the right to set up here provided they're not breaking local laws. And in D.C.'s case, the only way you could stop Chick-fil-A from coming here or you could shut them down is if you prove that they were breaking provisions of the human rights act.
AUSTERMUHLENow, to do that, you'd have to prove that you're discriminating specifically against employees based on gender, race, demographics, things like that, sexual orientation. But that Chick-fil-A's charitable wing is giving money to organizations that are fighting same-sex marriage is not the same thing. And Mayor Gray's administration, his aides were careful in saying, listen, we don't like Chick-fil-A. They even coined a hash tag for it, hate chicken.
AUSTERMUHLEBut we're not gonna stop them and there's not much we could do to stop them from coming to town.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones, where several people obviously would like to offer an opinion on this. We will start with Shane in Annapolis, Md. Shane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHANEHey, Mr. Nnamdi. Thanks for taking my call. I really love your show.
SHANEI just want to say that I really like the waffle fries. And what the CEO of the company says or does really has no effect on whether I'm gonna buy them. And furthermore, I don't think it's right for a mayor to say, hey, you can't come to my city because I don't like your point of view because that's completely un-American, I think.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to Shane's remarks, Lele?
LELEI would sort of agree, that it's a very different thing for a mayor to stake out a position, as opposed to a customer who may choose to either eat or not. In terms of the caller's remark that he enjoys the sandwich there and he will continue, I'm okay with that. It's also that I'm okay if someone wanted to protest. That clearly, as far as this caller's concerned, this particular issue does not rise to a level of boycott for him. But at the same time, I can see that it does rise to a fairly high level for a lot of people.
LELEAnd they then have a right, which they should joyfully exercise, to not eat at Chick-fil-A.
NNAMDIThen here is Sloan in Reston, Va. Shane, thank you for your call. Sloan, you're now on the air.
SLOANThank you, Kojo. Yeah, I just wanted to mention that I think on the substance of the issue, forget about the politics and all of that. Well, two things. First, I think certainly Chick-fil-A, you know, has the right to its opinion and, you know, it's not the place for a city official to say, you know, you can't set up shop because of your opinion. And, you know, I’m speaking as someone, I mean, I've been married to my husband since last year.
SLOANAnd we've been together 18 years. But I guess the more important issue for me is the substance. And I think the important point is that I think even if folks who think they oppose equal marriage rights, if they looked in a little more detail the really important point is that religious liberty and marriage equality really do go together on this. And I would think if they gave it a little more thought and a little more attention, they'd see when it comes to civil marriage equality, they should actually be on the same side.
SLOANSo that even if Chick-fil-A is religiously opposed to same-sex marriage, they should still be standing up for all Americans' rights to have marriage equality. And that does not threaten their own religious liberty.
NNAMDIWell, on the subject of religious liberty -- and I’m glad you raised that, Sloan -- I'd like to invite Randall Balmer to join the conversation. He is the chair of the Department of Religion and Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College. He's also an Episcopal priest and the author of numerous books including, "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush." Randall Balmer, thank you for joining us.
MR. RANDALL BALMERGood to be with you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe just heard the issue of religion brought up. Could you talk in more specific terms about the Southern Baptist religion? Because it is the Southern Baptist religion that the Cathy family is a member, of the Southern Baptist Church. So help us understand this controversy through the religious lens of that faith. What values are most closely associated with it?
BALMERWell, the Southern Baptist convention, since the conservative takeover in 1979, has been quite conservative theologically and also politically. The Southern Baptists tend to take the Bible literally. They profess to interpret it in its literal sense. And for that reason they've been very much a part of the religious right since the late 1970s.
NNAMDISloan, so you see where the argument of religious liberty fits in here? Sloan?
SLOANAre you talking to me?
SLOANWell, yeah, I just think that it's sort of a false choice. I mean, we can, you know, people can stand up for their own religious liberty interests and say that people with different views also should have the equal right under the law to civil marriage. I mean, just like, you know, when obviously...
NNAMDIWell, I think what we've been hearing Randall Balmer saying is that the religious few espoused by the Cathy Family does not approve of same-sex marriage.
SLONEWell, there are, you know -- people of faith, even conservative Christians have differing views on that. And actually there's a great website that looks in more detail at that. If you go to matthewvines.com he has a great conservative Bible study analysis that actually looks in more detail at that. But the point is that people who may be divided in their views about same-sex marriage but can still come together around the idea that all Americans should have equal rights under civil law. And when you think about it the marriage equality laws, they have big religious exemptions. So, you know, when these laws get passed in the states that they've been passed (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you raised that. Randall Balmer -- I understand the argument that you're making, Sloan, so I'm going to ask Randall Balmer, can people of certain religious views, Randall Balmer, reconcile those religious views with the notion of civil marriage of same-sex couples?
BALMEROh, I think so, absolutely. I -- and I certainly agree with the caller. And I think that the Bible itself is such a remarkable collection of writings simply because it can admit of so many different interpretations. And I have to say that I found a little jolt when I heard the head of Chick-fil-A, Mr. Cathy effectively say that God had told him that it was supposed to be this way and not the other way. I guess I don't read the Bible quite that way. I don't see that level of certainty that he apparently can discern in reading the Bible.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation. If you've called and the lines are busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. We're talking about the controversy over Chick-fil-A and same-sex marriage and those who want to either boycott or give additional support to Chick-fil-A. 800-433-8850 is the number. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the controversy involving the chain Chick-fil-A and the issue of same-sex marriage with Randall Balmer. He is chair of the Department of Religion and Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College. He's also an Episcopal priest, author of numerous books including "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush." Shreevardhan Lele is the Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow of Business Administration at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. And Martin Austermuhle is the Editor-in-Chief of DCist.
NNAMDIA lot of you are on the line so if you'd like to join the conversation, go to our website kojoshow.org. Martin, ten years ago Cathy's comments may not even have registered nationally. What role do social media play in all of this, in your view?
AUSTERMUHLESocial -- well, I mean, I think just the ability of things to go viral that much more quickly. I think had his comments been made ten years ago it could've been heard by a relatively small, you know, segment of the population who listens to that sort of radio and it wouldn't have gone far beyond that. Now obviously the stuff gets out there in a heartbeat. It could've gone over Twitter and suddenly everybody's reading what he said over Twitter or is linking back to what he said, you know, that was reported on any number of news sites.
AUSTERMUHLESo I think stuff spreads like wildfire. And when it comes to Chick-fil-A you can organize social media campaigns, you can -- you know, you can get news out a lot more quickly and you can get a much larger audience involved much more quickly.
LELELele, do you think this is going to hurt the brand and its expansion plans in the long run?
LELEPossibly. There is a real danger here of fragmenting the U.S. economy, at least as far as consumer products are concerned into sort of right and left camps. And I think that is a concern that has been voiced by a few editorials, most recently in The Post. Alexandra Petri alluded to, well, you all judge the sandwich on the basis of just a sandwich.
LELEThis is at odds with the history of boycotts. And boycotts have a distinguished history in opposing injustice or perceived injustice. And Miss Petri's suggestion, well, just, you know, leave it at the sandwich is sensible on one level, that well, you know, issues of consumers and businesses and economics. And we should not sort of elevate them or necessarily raise the temperature and bring in social issues. On the other hand I do see that -- you know, I don't see how it's sustainable in the long run though.
LELEAnd, yes, there is a real danger that you might have some forms moving out on the right, some forms moving out on the left. We recently had the CEO of Amazon remark that he is going to be -- he has contributed a great deal to -- I think in the State of Washington to support gay rights.
NNAMDI…$2.5 million to a pro same-sex marriage organization.
AUSTERMUHLE...which is more -- if I'm not wrong, that's more than Chick-fil-A gave these organizations last year. I think they gave them about 1.9 million.
NNAMDIWhen you say these organizations, David in Leesburg, Va. has a question about that. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDWell, thank you very much, Kojo. I enjoy your show. I think the main difference here is opinion versus action. A person can have an opinion, any opinion that he wants in America. Where controversy comes in is when you put that opinion to action. When you start supporting organizations that infringe on the rights or the ability of other citizens to carry out their normal day or impact their lives.
DAVIDAnd when that happens, when an opinion becomes an action and it does infringe on people's rights and people's...
NNAMDIWhat specific organizations has Chick-fil-A been identified as giving money to, Martin, that are not only in opposition to gay rights but, as David is suggesting, are actually suggesting restricting the rights of same-sex people?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, the biggest one that I know of and that I can remember off the top of my head was Focus on the Family, which is a Colorado-based organization that has -- you know, it's a wide spread advocacy organization that has opposed same-sex marriage at the same time. And I think this is the thing that gets lost in a lot of the noise is that it's not like all this money is specifically bullet pointed for opposing same-sex marriage. It goes to a lot of other causes.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd I think Chick-fil-A has said that they support the conception of the traditional family. And they say that, you know, we want a mother and a father or we want two parents to take care of their kids 'cause we believe that that's good for America. So -- and a lot of organizations do that and they also help with -- you know, help people with housing and things like that. So there are other elements of it. I think that all gets overshadowed by the fact that they are opposing same-sex marriage, which is a very sensitive and a very delicate issue for a lot of people, and I understand why.
NNAMDIBack to you, David.
DAVIDWell, I would say that if there is that tie, that it does -- in some way their activities infringe on a segment of a particular community, then any leader -- any politician who represents a whole of the community that includes that segment, I would expect them to speak out and to...
NNAMDIAll right. So you're making that link that if in fact they contribute to organizations like Focus on the Family that in fact they're contributing to infringing on the rights of people who are gay and would like to be married.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We move on to Peggy in Silver Spring, Md. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEGGYHi, Kojo. I just wanted to say that I ate at Chick-fil-A my lunch today in downtown Silver Spring and the line was out the door and snaking down the block. And I don't think any of the people in line are opposed to civil marriage -- or civil unions and all the rights, but just not to redefine marriage between same sexes and to destroy the family. If you want to really understand...
NNAMDIWell, I'm about to ask 'cause we do have an expert on religion also joining us. Is your opposition based on your religious beliefs?
PEGGYWell, there is. There is. And (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDII'm asking is your -- I'm asking if your opposition to same-sex marriage is based on your religious beliefs? Peggy.
NNAMDIIs your opposition based on your religious beliefs?
PEGGYOh yes, it is. And it's based on the Bible. And read Antonio Gramsci, if you want to know what's happening. That'll open your eyes.
NNAMDII'm not sure I know who that is, but who we have with us is Randall Balmer. Randall Balmer, what is the role of religion or ethics in the marketplace? And when Peggy says it's in the Bible, exactly what is she referring to?
BALMERWell, I expect she's probably referring to a couple references in the Epistle Paul to the Romans and also some of the Levitical proscriptions in the Hebrew Bible. And, you know, I don't pretend to be a theologian but I do know enough about this question to be able to say that the references in Romans certainly are controverted. The context is debated among theologians.
BALMERAnd if you talk about the Levitical tables and if you claim to be a Biblical literalist, as most of these folks do, including apparently the head of Chick-fil-A, then you also have to, it seems to me, pay attention to what sorts of clothes you wear in the morning, whether you have different fabrics and combination, maybe wool and silk or silk and linen or something like that. That would be proscribed as well by these Levitical texts.
BALMEROr you have to be careful about things like the interbreeding of cattle. And it seems to me that to pick out one of these proscriptions and then ignore the others probably -- well, certainly is not consistently literalistic in your approach to the Bible. The other thing I'd point out too is that there's no record that Jesus himself said anything specifically about homosexuality or same-sex relationships. He did however say something about divorce. And what he said about divorce was not terribly pretty.
NNAMDIAgain, the role of religion or ethics in the marketplace, Randall?
BALMERI think we have to understand this whole kerfuffle in the context of economics in America, the free marketplace, capitalism and so forth. I think for these people on either side of the issue they see their economic behavior as a form of empowerment. We live in a day of corporations. And one of our candidates for president says that corporations are people for that matter. And this is a way for individuals to say, listen, I can't change the course of a corporation. I can't change the course of history. But I am going to pay attention to where my money goes.
BALMERAnd if I know something about a particular corporation, or in this case a restaurant that I don't like, or I do like for that matter, than I'm going to direct my money or not direct my money in that way. Now, in terms of the larger question of capitalism, what I find so striking about my sense of American religious history and American history more generally is that in the 19th century, particularly before the Civil War, evangelicals such as essentially the same people we're talking about, the Southern Baptists and the Religious Right and so forth, evangelicals in the antebellum period were very much opposed and certainly suspicious of capitalism.
BALMERSo the rhetoric we're hearing these days equating capitalism with God's way of doing things simply doesn't hold.
NNAMDIBefore I get back to the phones -- and thank you for your call, Peggy -- Lele, I imagine anyone running a business with a social or religious values as part of the mission has to think long and hard about questions like whose values and who might we be alienating. What kind of risk benefit analysis do you think goes into those decisions?
LELEToday, I don't know if there is a whole lot of risk analysis that precedes any decision to sort of launch into -- either launch a business or specifically launch a business -- having launched a business to get into some of these social issues. I think most entrepreneurs might be a little too optimistic that well, I could have my opinions, I could voice my opinions. But then those are my personal opinions and I don't see how this can come back and hurt me in my business. But it might possible help me, I think is sort of the wishful thinking.
LELEThere is a risk and I think as other writers have recently pointed out, we could be bifurcating into sort of two distinct not just political camps, but two distinct economic camps. So there is indeed that real danger. But in some sense, this is good. You know, I find this good that we now have sort of, you know -- maybe we have sort of -- we have this intersection of economics, ethics, as well as law. And people are actually grappling, well what do I think? You know, how do I feel about this particular issue and therefore what should I do?
LELESo it -- in some sense it is putting customers -- not necessarily Sarah Palin or the CEO of Chick-fil-A and so on -- but the average customer, the caller who called from Silver Spring. The fact that she has to now sort of grapple with, well what do I think of gay marriage? Do I want to -- do I think about it strongly enough this way or the other and actually sort of have these exchanges with others.
LELEI think many who are doing it for religious beliefs may find that while a religious belief may be very sincerely and very strongly held, the fact that a religious belief essentially narrows the range of people you can convince because they have to necessarily accept your faith. Now, this is a matter of faith, not of reason. So within ethics, at least in modern ethics today, we do try to stay away from religion. And part of it is that we want to be able to convince a much wider variety of people across the world, regardless of what their faith might be.
LELEAnd so in this particular issue my sense is that just as opposition to gay marriage is very sincerely and religiously held, I hesitate to sort of use religion as an argument against it because in some sense diligent in my eyes becomes a suspect too if it can only be -- if it can only convince those who already have bought into your religion.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of our earlier caller who had lunch at Chick-fil-A in Silver Spring, let's ask Seth in Arlington, Va. what his plans are. Seth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SETHThank you, Kojo. I'm part of a group on Facebook that's organizing people around the country to picket their local Chick-fil-As today at 6:00 pm. And for those...
NNAMDISo you will be at Chick-fil-As at 6:00 pm today, but you won't be eating.
SETHAbsolutely not. I will be outside picketing and I'll be at the one on Crystal Drive in Crystal City.
SETHAnd if I could add one point that I don't think has come up as to why I'm going to be out there, which is that the aggressiveness of people like the founder of Chick-fil-A that leads to four times as many gay teens committing suicide as straight teens. And that all the violence we've seen, the people who are attacked, I think we have to look at it, you know, on the human side of what these venal attacks do to people like me.
NNAMDIOkay. And, you know, it's interesting because the comment that he made, talk about the fact that we have grown so prideful and arrogant in our attitudes, you are now accusing him of the same thing.
SETHAbsolutely. You know, I repressed my sexuality for way too long because I was so afraid to tell anybody. And, I mean, luckily I never committed suicide, but so many people have. So I'm not asking him to give us any special benefits or to treat us any better. I'm saying don't demonize these young teenagers who can't change the fact that they're gay or lesbian or trans. You know, give them a chance to have a life.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Jesse also in Arlington, Va. Jesse, your turn.
JESSEThank you. You know, I totally support gay rights and I support gay marriage. I've got many relatives who are gay, but the issue for me is this. As I understand it, this CEO isn't saying that his company is adopting a policy that's anti-gay, or that his company is going to, you know, bar or obstruct gays from entering Chick-fil-A stores, and I know there are many minorities -- I'm Mexican-American by the way -- are owners of franchises, and certainly Chick-fil-A is a major employer of low-income people.
JESSEYou know, if we go around -- keep on going around like dividing our personal economies with things we don't agree with, for example, my wife won't shop at Wal-Mart because it's not unionized, and people won't go to Dominos because the owner of Dominos apparently is anti-abortion, it just gets so crazy. I remember years ago when it was the anti-lettuce movement for the farm workers, and I'm Mexican-American, so I ate lettuce anyway because, you know, people needs jobs. If we keep creating these issues like this, you know, people got to work for Chick-fil-A.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Lele, you wanted to address this?
LELEYeah. In terms of as to what would happen if this were to sort of, you know, reach its logical conclusion, this separation, it's not clear to me that it would necessarily be a really, really terrible thing. As the caller said, well, what about the jobs? Well, if you don't like Chick-fil-A, I see now there's a -- I see an opportunity here for someone to come up with a chicken sandwich, which is frankly not that difficult, but a chicken sandwich without, you know, with Mr. Cathy's values, a chicken sandwich that supports gay rights. I see this actually as a business opportunity rather than necessarily squelching...
NNAMDIAnd by creating jobs for somebody else.
LELEAnd so -- and that is the wonder of the marketplace is that at least in economics, we like to index our products, our commodities down to the last detail, so that a chicken sandwich is not just a chicken sandwich. It's a chicken sandwich with a side of values. Well, if you don't like, someone else can create sandwich with a different set of values.
NNAMDIExcept for this, Martin Austermuhle, conventional wisdom holds that you are what you eat. Do people have a more visceral reaction to controversies surrounding food than they do about well, other products?
AUSTERMUHLEOh, absolutely, and that's what fueling this market for organic foods. People look at it and they say it's not just lettuce, it's lettuce that's grown in a certain way, by certain people under certain conditions, and I want nothing to do with that. And not only is it personal on the food level, this -- again, like one of our callers just said from Arlington, this is -- this comes down to the most personal identification issues for certain people who are gay, and they say, you can't deny me my most basic sense of identity, and that's what you're doing now.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd so Chick-fil-A couldn't have stumbled into a more controversial issue if they tried. And I think one of the most interesting elements on this debate is that this is -- I did a little research before I came on this show, tried to find other companies where similar stances had been taken, and I couldn't find one good example where a corporation like the actual corporation or an element of it had taken that sort of stance. I mean, in the case of Amazon.com's founder who just gave 2.5 million to support marriage equality in the state of Washington, he did it in his capacity as an individual.
AUSTERMUHLESo did people who work for Microsoft. So did people who work for Starbucks. I mean they're all CEOs and they make a lot of money, but they were giving it in their capacity as individuals. The CEO of Dominos, when he was giving money to anti-abortion groups, he was doing it in his capacity as an individual. Sure, he's the CEO of Dominos, and that that irritated a lot of people, but it wasn't that Dominos as an institution was giving sort of money. So Chick-fil-A, I think is -- I could be wrong, but I think one of the few places that is doing this, and this is part of their institutional identity, which is why people are like, I'm absolutely not going to eat there.
AUSTERMUHLEThen again, I think what's interesting is on Friday there is going to be a protest against Chick-fil-A, but what people -- what groups are encouraging folks to do is, instead of boycotting, well, I mean, yeah, boycott Chick-fil-A, but if you're going to eat there, give the same amount that you spend at Chick-fil-A to a gay rights organization. So if you're going to spend 6.50 to eat at Chick-fil-A, give 6.50 or more to a gay rights organization, balance things out.
NNAMDIYou mentioned the difference between the individuals giving and the corporation. In the same interview that he had he with Ken Coleman, Dan Cathy added, but as an organization we can operate on Biblical principles, so that is we can claim to be. We are based on Biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have, and He has blessed us.
NNAMDIRandall, I'm going to ask you to address that when we come back, but first we've got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line, we'll try to get to your call, but you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to the controversy over the Chick-fil-A chain and the issue of same sex marriage as a result of comments made by the president of the chain. We're talking with Martin Austermuhle, editor-in-chief of DCist. Shreevardhan Lele is Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow of Business Administration at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He teaches in the MBA and executive MBA program, and his current work centers on issues at the intersection of business and society, and Randall Balmer is the chair of the Department of Religion and Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College. He's also an Episcopal priest.
NNAMDIRandall Balmer, you just heard me read the remarks made by Dan Cathy saying we'd like to think ourselves as a Biblical corporation, and we think God rewards us for that. This is a country that's committed to allowing religious freedom and freedom of speech, both of which Dan Cathy just expressed. But based on this controversy, do you think we're becoming a less tolerant nation, Randall Balmer?
BALMERI don't think so. I think the great thing about religion in America, and the reason that religion has thrived as it has for more than two centuries is precisely because of the free marketplace set up by the First Amendment. So you have the airing of religious ideas and views, and that lends a vitality to religion in America that you don't have in other parts of the world. And I think it's also worth pointing out in this case that as I understand it, Chick-fil-A is not a publically traded company, which means that shareholders in effect are not supporting these political views. It is simply the family that is expressing itself a certain way.
BALMERNow, I happen not to agree with their view, but they certainly have every right to do that it seems to me, and that's part of the expression of the marketplace. In this case it also has overtones of religious expression as well.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Christine in Elkridge, Md., Lele. "I love that Chick-fil-A emphasizes family, has books instead of plastic toys in their kids' meals, and I find their food addictive, but I also support gay marriage. So I keep wondering, can I make a donation and PFLAG and still eat the chicken?"
LELEIf you're looking for a papal indulgence, you won't get it here. But it's a matter of how important gay marriage is to that particular customer. I think if it drives us to a certain level of importance where you say, well, I can see that Chick-fil-A might be convenient, or it might be something I like, but still, you know, this is a bigger issue, well, you certainly must boycott. In the case of customers, I think it's a fairly straightforward thing as to, you know, how strongly do you feel about a particular issue?
LELEFor business leaders, on the other hand, it's a slightly different calculus in terms of when do you go forward and when do you not. Professor Balmer raises a really interesting point about the structure of this firm, that it is a privately-held firm. It is not a publically-traded corporation from what we understand. And that does have very serious implications for what kinds of actions beyond the very sort of mundane business decisions the leader might take.
LELEHere is a person who is not necessarily indebted to shareholders and so on, so I really don't see, in the case of Mr. Cathy, as to -- he has this unity with his -- in terms of his personal views, as well as his business views. He has managed to sort of see that well, there is a seamless flow. In the case of Amazon and Starbucks and other publically-traded corporations, now you might run into the problem of well, if the CEO feels this way, but the shareholders don't necessarily agree, then does the CEO have either a right or should the CEO then go and air his or her social view?
LELEMy personal opinion on that is that even in those situations, I think it is better actually for -- in fact for all people, to not sort of say well, ethics I what I do from, you know, business is what I do 9 to 5 and ethics is for, you know, the weekends. There is indeed something to be said for having this greater unity in your professional life as well as your personal life, and it is not the case that one can sort of just leave your values at the door when you walk in at 9:00 in the morning.
LELEAs to what those values should be? Well, we will start, you know, we are getting into divisive issues here. But asking people to suspend their values, whether they are in a privately-held firm, or in a publically-held firm, I don't that is necessarily a great thing. It may come, and the cost of this maybe smaller businesses, but as long as you are willing to put up with that, I really don't see a problem with airing your values at your workplace.
NNAMDIMartin, care to comment?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, again, I'm as a firm a supporter as you can get of same-sex marriage rights. I mean, so to me -- and I don't often eat at Chick-fil-A. Honestly, the last time I ate at Chick-fil-A was probably in January, and it was probably because it was on a, you know, the side of the interstate and it was one of the few options that I thought was palatable. And I'm not going to deny, I think the food is relatively good. I've had friends tell me that, yes, that they do -- it is better for kids. There are certain things about it that they like.
AUSTERMUHLENow, that being said, again, it's the intersection of politics and food is so complicated that it's impossible to say, you know, to have a blanket statement either way. So just before the show, I started looking up political contributions that restaurants had made over the years, and for 2011, I found that, you know, yes, restaurants do contribute to the political process, whether through political action committees or directly to the candidates.
AUSTERMUHLEIn restaurant groups owning, you know, chains like Outback, and Carrabbas, and Red Lobster and Olive Garden give, you know, a couple hundred thousand dollars a year mostly to Republicans. Now, they do that because they believe -- they don't want more regulation, which they see coming from Democrats. Now, that's one thing. That's not the same as same-sex marriage, but it is again one of these very odd territories that I think these owners probably tread upon and don't want their customers to find out, because they don't want solidly Democratic voters to find out that Outback Steakhouse is giving a ton of money to Republicans for fear that those Democrats are going to go somewhere else.
AUSTERMUHLENow, finally -- I mean, interestingly, I found out that there was basically no case where a big restaurant group was giving more money to Democrats than they were giving to Republicans. It's all -- it's basically Republican money.
NNAMDIHere's Abderaman (sp?) in Ashburn, Va. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ABDERAMANLong-time listener, first time caller. Thanks for the show, I enjoy it. I think I total agree with the CEO. As a Muslim observing Ramadan, and it's just a moral issue, and it doesn't matter if the read the Torah or the Quran, or the Bible, all of them is very clear, and I totally agree with the CEO and definitely (unintelligible) Chick-fil-A for say thank you for your striving for moral issue.
NNAMDIWell, Abderaman, you say if you read the Quran or the Bible, it's clear. Our guest from Dartmouth College says no, it is not that clear. However, since that is your view, when you hear that the CEO of Amazon has also given $2.5 million to a pro-same-sex marriage organization, would that affect your patronage of Amazon? Abderaman?
ABDERAMANNo. It doesn't really affect it. Anybody can -- we live in a free county, so anybody can (unintelligible) whatever they want to spend their money. So totally, if I see somebody spend some money on this other issue, that's fine. That's why we live in a democracy so it will have opinion, and there's nothing wrong with it.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. We move onto Chris in Arlington, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi. Just to bring it back to the issue freedom of speech and American rights, a lot of times in these debates, when these sorts of debates come up, you often hear people characterize the backlash (unintelligible) as an assault on, you know, the First Amendment, or assault on freedom of speech. And of course, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the actual First Amendment and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech in this country doesn't mean freedom from, you know, criticism of your speech, or the consequences of your speech, and I think a lot of times it gets lost in the debate.
CHRISThat's obviously different from any actions that a city or a mayor might actually take against Chick-fil-A, and I'm glad to see that a lot of those mayors that have made those statements have recently backed off, but I just wanted to point out that distinction that deciding not to go to Chick-fil-A, deciding not to spend your money there, criticizing the CEO or the president for what he said, those aren't assaults on freedom of speech, that's actually just more speech, and that's the purpose of the First Amendment.
LELEI definitely agree with the caller that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech does not protect you from criticism. I'd also like to add that the freedom of -- that the religion part of the First Amendment is actually far more controversial than most people realize. There are sub clauses there. There's the free exercise part and then the establishment part that Congress -- that we should not have any establishment of religion and also individuals should be allowed to exercise their religion freely.
LELEThe problem arises when the actual exercise of religion, as is understood by, you know, real people sort of going about their lives. When that often involves some kind of an establishment, so if your view of religion is something that you do that is an extremely person something you do in the privacy of your bedroom, that's fine. But that is really not how I think most people in the world understand religion. They do understand religion as something that is extremely social, that comes with a set of rules not just about that person, but about how the person and other people in a society relate to each other.
LELEAnd so even though in our Constitution we say well, you are allowed to exercise your religion freely and we shall have no law respecting an establishment of religion, that is an inherent contradiction. There is an inherent tension between these two sub clauses. When people quite reasonably, as several of your callers have pointed out, I really believe, you know, that this is what it says in the Quran or the Bible, and so on, and -- but exercising that requires me to suppress someone else's right.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Chris. And...
BALMERWell, it's one thing to believe, but it's another thing to try to codify that into law as public policy, and I guess I don't see the conflict there.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Randall Balmer is chair of the Department of Religion and Mandel family professor of arts and sciences at Dartmouth College. He's also an Episcopal priest and author of numerous books including "God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush." Martin Austermuhle is the editor-in-chief of DCist, and Shreevardhan Lele is the Ralph J. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow of Business Administration at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
NNAMDIGore Vidal, the talented novelist, playwright, historian and all-around iconoclast died yesterday at the age of 86. He will be greatly missed. Tonight in his honor we'll be airing an interview from September 2000 in which Gore Vidal and I discussed everything from his famous fights with other authors to why he wants to be buried in Washington's Rock Creek Park Cemetery. Tune into WAMU 88.5 tonight at 9:00 p.m. for that interview, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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