Wednesday marked Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Across the United States, conservatives gathered in chicken restaurants to show support for the company after its president, Dan Cathy, came out against gay marriage. Democratic mayors in Chicago and Boston at first threatened to halt expansion of the Chick-fil-A chain to their cities, which turned a question of sexual morality into a debate about freedom of speech. The motto of conservative Christians seems to be, "They'll take my chicken from my cold dead hand..."
Writing as a European, this story combines two of the things we most readily associate with America: Jesus Christ and fast food. It certainly reflects a uniquely American phenomenon. There are religious businesspeople and raging conservatives in other parts of the world, but only the United States enjoys all the elements that could turn a statement of conscience into nationwide movement.
Where else in the world would a) the president of a chicken restaurant chain feel it was within his remit to publicly endorse "the traditional family," b) liberal mayors totally overreact by trying to stop his business' expansion, c) a former presidential candidate declare an "appreciation day" for the restaurant, and d) hundreds of people actually show up to eat there in solidarity?
The whole scenario seems so preposterous as to be contrived, which makes me wonder if it was a brilliant sales gimmick. Yet, we have no reason to doubt the strength of Cathy's faith and, after all, Chick-fil-A isn't the only company with a taste for Christian witness. Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, discusses his faith on his company's website and offers advice on prayer.
In-N-Out Burger prints "John 3:16" on the bottom of its paper cups. Hobby Lobby says it is committed to "honoring the Lord" and closes all its stores on a Sunday. Are there other corporations out there with a hidden religious agenda that we all missed because we weren't looking for it? Is Ronald MacDonald the acceptable face of Seventh-Day Adventism?
That this story revolves around a chicken restaurant might incline us to be skeptical about its political significance. But don't forget that the Tea Party started with a trading floor rant and was initially lampooned for its innocent association with the tea bag. In America, businesses have often been the battlegrounds for political conflicts, think of the Civil Rights movement's lunch counter sit-ins.
Time will only tell whether or not this is an important moment in the revival of conservative religious activism. However, it does offer two immediate warnings about the November election.
First, culture will matter. There's always a tendency to presume that in presidential elections "it's the economy stupid." The polls confirm that voters still place moral questions very low on their list of priorities. But cultural issues keep on coming up in ways that we didn't expect: contraception in February, gay marriage in May, guns in July, and now we're back to gay marriage. It could be that bad jobs reports are so common that they've become the background noise of the campaign, while the matters related to sex and violence compete more colorfully for our attention.
But no, something more complex is taking place: Economics and culture are becoming synonymous.
In rallying to Cathy's defense, some conservatives have pointed out that his company has created jobs and that attempts to block its growth are bad for middle-class Americans. They made the same case against Michael Bloomberg's war on supersized drinks. There's a theme to the complaints emerging: that in their pursuit of liberal ends the Democrats are costing jobs, while patriotic conservatives like Cathy are repairing the economy and spreading the gospel.
Mitt Romney is now running billboard ads that lampoon Obama's claim that businesses need government support to flourish. The implicit choice that the right is trying to establish is "hardworking, self-reliant Christian businessmen" vs "welfare-supporting, anti-growth, atheistic bureaucrats." Hence, debates that can seem only to be about culture can actually become a way of discussing who is to blame for our economic woes.
Second, the sheer number of people involved in the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day suggests that turnout will matter in November. A common theme among tweets coming out of the restaurant demonstrations Wednesday was that conservative strength lies in numbers. One photo caption read, "Hey liberals, the turnout for Chick-fil-A appreciation day is a preview of the polling stations in November." Maybe, maybe not. But the polls are close and the number of undecided voters is falling.
America is settling down into two, surprisingly partisan, camps of voters who probably won't change their minds significantly until voting day. If that pattern holds, then turnout is all important. In 2004, the ability of the Bush team to get out their religious vote swung them a relatively close election. If Mitt Romney can effectively establish the link between economics and culture, and then motivate conservatives to turn out in big numbers, then the Chick-fil-A moment could prove prophetic.
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