BOSTON, MA — In a summer of headlines dominated by conflict in Syria and the Olympic Games, restaurant chain Chick-fil-A has become an unlikely cause célèbre.
Of course, the current debate over whether or not to patronize Chick-fil-A, given its CEO's belief in "the biblical definition" of marriage and family, isn't about what to eat. As the Associated Press writes, the fried chicken sandwich has become suddenly politicized.
"It’s hard to believe that the greatest division in American politics these days is ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-Chick-fil-A,’” tweeted comedian Conan O'Brien.
Well — is it? Or is there something uniquely American about a debate raging at the intersection of religion, marriage equality, free speech and fast food?
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The Chick-fil-A controversy, if easy to ridicule, is the latest opportunity for an important national discussion. Kara Suffredini, the Executive Director of Mass Equality, a Massachusetts organization that advocates for LGBT rights in the state, told GlobalPost that the “kerfuffle” around Chick-fil-A is "not just about policies."
"It's really about people," she said. "These conversations are really important." They're most important, according to Suffredini, because "hateful public positions" reflect, and contribute to, the real inequality that LGBT individuals face every day. Suffredini cited the statistic that 40 percent of homeless youth across America are LGBT, because so many of them are not accepted by their families. She also noted higher rates of HIV and poverty within the LGBT community.
Chick-fil-A's charitable arm, WinShape, has a history of donating to conservative Christian organizations like Exodus International and the Family Research Council. Suffredini says that such groups "promote hate and harm" of LGBT people, a claim that is supported by their records. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the FRC as an anti-gay "extremist" organization with an active lobby in Washington, while Exodus International calls homosexuality, like "adultery, arrogance, [and] gossip," a "sin."
The recent controversy in the US all began with statements made over the past two months by Chick-fil-A’s president, Dan Cathy, in interviews with The Ken Coleman Show and the Biblical Recorder. "All throughout the New Testament there is an evangelism strategy related to our performance in the workplace," Cathy told the Recorder, later adding, "We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit." By defining marriage as anything other than a union between a man and a woman, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation,” Cathy said to Ken Coleman.
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Reaction to Cathy's statements reached new heights this past week after the Jim Henson Company pulled its toys from Chick-fil-A meals (The Daily Beast’s Ramin Setoodeh pointed out that the toys were not, in fact, Muppets — since the Henson company sold the Muppets to Disney in 2004). Public officials started weighing in and taking sides. Students, activists, and ex-Chick-fil-A patrons have protested the chain's storefronts from California to Kansas. Mike Huckabee, with Rick Santorum’s endorsement, is leading the conservative call for a nationwide "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" on August 1. The mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have all said Chick-fil-A isn't welcome in their towns.
Though in many ways a dispute over fundamental rights and equalities, it's impossible to ignore that religion, specifically Christianity, is a polarizing force in this debate. Is the role of religion in decisions over marriage rights uniquely American, or more universal?
Eleven countries around the world have made same-sex marriage universally legal, while three others, the United States included, allow same-sex marriage on a regional basis. Scotland recently announced that it would introduce a bill to allow same-sex marriage, which would make it the first part of the United Kingdom to allow it, the BBC reported. Civil unions, however, have been legal in the UK since 2005, according to CNN.
Much like in the United States, strong beliefs against same-sex marriage in Scotland appear to hinge on religion. While Scotland's deputy first minister called allowing same-sex marriage "the right thing to do," the Catholic Church there described it as a "dangerous social experiment," according to the BBC. The debate was also similar to the one in the United States for its apparent personal importance: of any Scottish government consultation, the one on same-sex marriage received the biggest response, according to the BBC.
In Brazil — "the world's largest Catholic nation" — the path to same-sex civil unions also found a major stumbling block in the Catholic Church and its supporters. After the end of Apartheid, South Africa's 1994 constitution was the first in the world to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Associated Press reported. But it still took twelve years to legalize same-sex marriage, which was opposed by the Catholic Church, Muslim groups, and traditional African leaders who said gay marriage ran against cultural norms, according to the AP.
"Culture," of course, is also an interesting word to consider here. In the US, with the presidential election just 100 days away, the oft-referenced "culture wars" among the American public are taking on an unusual intensity.
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How else do you think questions of same-sex marriage are similar or different around the world? What about the fusion of corporate power and religious evangelism — is it especially potent in the States? What do you think is the crux of the debate? We want to hear from you in the comments below.