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Toronto vs. Chick-Fil-A: Only About Chicken?

photograph of Chick-fil-a storefornt

My hometown of Toronto, Canada recently saw its first Chick-Fil-A restaurant open, to a very mixed reception. While some were excited to try a new take on fast food fried chicken (with some even going so far as to line up for hours beforehand), many others attended the opening in protest. There were a few different reasons for the protest, although the most prominent was the owners of Chick-Fil-A’s well-documented financial support of evangelical Christian organizations that oppose gay marriage and have funded so-called “gay conversion therapy” (a number of protesters were also there to express the view that the killing of animals is morally wrong, although this is not a transgression solely committed by Chick-Fil-A).

Some did not take well to the protesters. For example, in response to protesters who chanted “shame!” at those leaving the restaurant, Canadian evangelical Christian personality Charles McVety – who was leading the city’s annual “Jesus in the City” parade – encouraged people to show their support for Chick-Fil-A, instead. When interviewed, he expressed his view that:

It’s upsetting that people want to stop a business simply because it adheres to Christian values. The business is only about chicken. It should only be about chicken…It should not happen in Canada, if you just want to get chicken, you shouldn’t be shamed.

Is this a business that is “only about chicken”, though? Is there reason to think that someone should, in fact, feel ashamed when they visit Chick-Fil-A, or is it really as morally unproblematic as those like McVety think it is?

There are a couple of things to say about McVety’s statement right off the bat. First: protesters, of course, have every right to peacefully assemble and demonstrate in support of their cause, so McVety is straight-up wrong that such protests “should not happen in Canada.” Second, while Chick-Fil-A does not hide the fact that it is run by those who identify themselves as Christians, there are many Christians who would deny that supporting anti-LGBTQ causes is coherent with Christian values. McVety himself avows numerous views most typically associated with right-wing Evangelical Christianity, which, in addition to his opposition to same-sex marriage, also includes the denial of evolution and global warming. There is plenty of room, then, to be Christian and not agree with McVety, and no reason to think that in protesting Chick-Fil-A one is trying to thwart a business simply because it is run by self-identified Christians.

More to the point, though: why should someone feel ashamed, just because they want to try out a new chicken sandwich? Consider what one of those visiting the restaurant said when interviewed:

I do not agree with [Chick-Fil-A’s] ideology and the policies of the owners, but I’m not here to support the policy of the owner. I’m here to have a meal that I really enjoy.

So, here’s one way to think about the situation: one should not be shamed or feel ashamed for eating at Chick-Fil-A because the business should be kept separate from the values of the owners, and people have a right to eat what they want without being harassed. If they were supporting anything, then, it would be the consumption of fried chicken.

It is difficult to find these lines of thinking persuasive. In supporting the business, one does, of course, support the policies of the owners insofar as the money one spends profits the owners, who in turn use that money to support anti-LGBTQ causes. This may not be your overt intention, of course – you may just want to eat some chicken – but what you intend and what ends up happening as a result of your actions can be two very different things. That you are part of a larger customer base whose collective spending on Chick-Fil-A actively support these causes means that you are, at least in some way, supporting those causes as well.

But can’t someone just be neutral on the matter? Can I not just go and eat a greasy chicken sandwich in peace without having to worry about politics or being judged? Maybe I’m like the patron interviewed above: sure, all that stuff about supporting groups working against gay marriage sounds bad, and gay conversion therapy is not something I would ever endorse, but my buying fried chicken is not about that, it’s just about being hungry and stuffing something palatable down my gullet.

Again, while one’s ideologies can certainly be opposed to those endorsed by the owners of Chick-Fil-A, one’s actions may say something different. It would be nice if the business side could be separated from the ideological one, but when the profits from that business are used to directly support the ideology, it is difficult to find room to draw a line.

Okay, but wait: I order things from Amazon all the time, despite their well-documented horrendous working conditions; I like to take Ubers despite their well-documented horrendous working conditions; I buy all kinds of products from places that are no doubt not terribly concerned with the health and well-being of their employees. I don’t really feel bad about that, so why should I feel bad about buying some B+ chicken from a new restaurant in town? Is this really that big of a deal?

This is a tempting way to think about the problem insofar as it is a tempting way to get oneself to stop thinking about the problem. That one has supported a bunch of businesses with questionable business practices in the past does not, of course, excuse adding another one to the list. We may indeed wonder whether any ethical consumption is possible under late-stage capitalism, but the fact that there are problems everywhere does not mean that there are not still problems in specific cases, either.

While these are big problems to think about, what should I do when it comes to Chick-Fil-A? Perhaps the take-home message should be this: even though one’s intentions may be apolitical, and even though one may very much disagree with the causes that Chick-Fil-A’s owners have chosen to support, one does not simply get to choose to remain a neutral party if one willingly gives their money to the business. One cannot have one’s chicken and eat it, too.