Religion & Liberty Online

Chick-fil-A and Free Exchange

Former governor, pastor, and presidential candidate (and current radio host) Mike Huckabee has been a primary driving force in turning today, August 1, into an ad hoc appreciation day for the fast food company Chick-fil-A.

Huckabee’s activism in support of the “Eat Mor Chikin” establishments was occasioned by criticism leveled against the company’s support for traditional “family values,” including promotion of traditional marriage. Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy said, “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.” That, apparently, was enough to galvanize many opponents of “the biblical definition of the family unit” and the rights of a company to be supportive of such. These opponents include, notably, a Chicago alderman and the mayor of Boston.

In addition to Huckabee’s response, others have argued that there should not be a religious, or even political, test of sorts for determining our partners in free exchange. Jonathan Merritt, a Southern Baptist pastor and author, wrote a piece for The Atlantic, “In Defense of Eating a Chick-fil-A,” in which he writes, “in a society that desperately needs healthy public dialogue, we must resist creating a culture where consumers sort through all their purchases (fast food and otherwise) for an underlying politics not even expressed in the nature of the product itself.” Likewise Branson Parler, a professor at Kuyper College here in Grand Rapids, contends that “Christians need to disconnect the cultural goods and services provided by numerous institutions (including Chick-fil-A) from the gods of politicization and partisanship.”

It is curious and a bit ironic, although understandable perhaps, that both Merritt and Parler translate the debate over Chick-fil-A into primarily political terms. After all, some of the most vocal figures in the public debate are either politicians, pundits, or those with an explicit political agenda. But that’s of course not how Dan Cathy presented the statement originally. His assertion was a statement about the biblical teaching of a fundamental social institution and how a corporate culture recognizes and promotes that reality. It’s the politicization of Cathy’s statements that have got Merritt and Parler concerned about political ideologies and social disruption (whether or not their respective analyses contribute to such a framework of politicization is another matter).

In this limited sense regarding politicization, though, I’d like to agree with both Merritt and Parler, and raise the stakes a bit more. The problem really is about the coercive logic of political ideology in these kinds of debates. One of the great virtues of the free market system is that the customers get to decide what they value and why. There’s an important distinction to be made then between persuasive rhetoric and political coercion, and thus a significant distinction to be made between voluntary boycotts and legal discrimination. We should celebrate the virtues of the former without collapsing them into the latter. And legal barriers to trade, like prohibiting a Chick-fil-A from opening in your city because you don’t like what Cathy said or what the company stands for, are what really ought to concern us.

So if you don’t care one way or another about this issue, or don’t care about your service provider’s position (or lack thereof) and are “hungry for a chicken sandwich,” you, like Parler, will “eat at Chick-fil-A.” Such action just tells us that you don’t care to consider such things in making your decision to engage in a particular economic exchange.

But that doesn’t mean it is inherently wrong, or worse, indicative of an unchristian worldview, to take into account such things if you are moved by conscience to do so. This is, after all, why many people are motivated to buy fair trade or organic goods, or take into account any other number of subjective considerations in their valuation of a good or service. This is the same motive that is behind much of the impetus to pursue socially responsible investing (SRI). Would Merritt and Parler denounce all such similar action as problematic?

What’s wrong with what Merritt calls “culture war boycotts” is not endemic to boycotts (or “appreciation days”) themselves, but rather to the logic of coercive reliance on state action that all too often lies behind them. Let the customers be heard and let the companies respond, both for and against. But let’s not conflate voluntary action and political coercion or undermine the place of conscientious consumption. To do so would regrettably secularize social action in a deleterious fashion, and even allow the kinds of divisive political ideologies that ought to concern us to be even more firmly entrenched.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.