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Pressing American Questions, By Way Of One Controversial Sandwich

The Chick-fil-A controversy has tapped into larger social and political questions facing America today.
The Chick-fil-A controversy has tapped into larger social and political questions facing America today.
Crispy, juicy, controversial -- three words to describe the chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A.

The signature menu item at the popular U.S. fast food chain earned the latter, less savory description in July when its conservative Christian president, Dan Cathy, spoke out against same-sex marriage.

He told the Baptist Press, an online religious publication, that his company supports "the biblical definition of the family unit."

It was soon revealed that Cathy had been putting his money where his mouth is. Equality Matters, a gay rights group, cited public tax records to show that the restaurant and its charitable foundation had given millions of dollars to anti-gay-marriage organizations, including nearly $2 million in 2010.

On social media, the controversy bubbled like oil in a deep-fryer. Gay rights activists called for a boycott of the chain's more than 1,600 restaurants, all of which are closed on Sundays and most of which are in the deeply Christian U.S. south.

Supporters responded by calling for Chick-fil-A feasts.

Broader Questions

But social scientists following the debate say it relates to far more than one fast food chain’s stance.

They say it has gained strength by tapping into broader questions concerning politics, rights, and religion in the United States today.

"The combination of two things -- the political polarization that you see in the United States right now and the fever-pitch battle on this cultural issue of same-sex marriage equality -- are kind of converging in this current Chick-fil-A protest," said Timothy McCarthy, the director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, who has written widely on social protest in America.

A June survey by the Pew Research Center found Americans to be more polarized along political lines today than at any time in the past 25 years.

The authors stated, "Party has now become the single largest fissure in American society, with the values gap between Republicans and Democrats greater than gender, age, race, or class divides."

Social values are at the core of that divide, and as such, so is the debate over same-sex marriage.

Eight U.S. states along with Washington, D.C. allow gays and lesbians to wed, while 30 states have legislation that confines marriage to heterosexual couples.

The latest polling numbers show a dead heat between the percentage of citizens who favor and oppose gay marriage.

In a May interview, President Barack Obama expressed support for same-sex marriage, and in doing so, differentiated himself more starkly from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who backs a constitutional ban.

The two will face off in November.

It wasn’t much of a jump then, McCarthy observes, for the Chick-fil-A controversy to expand beyond the activist community.

Last month, former Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum called on supporters to send a message about "traditional values" and counter the calls for a Chick-fil-A boycott by turning out in droves at the restaurants.

House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted, "For the record, I prefer Kentucky Fried Chicken."
An gay rights protestor holds a sign outside a Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant, in Hollywood, California.
An gay rights protestor holds a sign outside a Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant, in Hollywood, California.

David Meyer, an expert on social movements at the University of California at Irvine, says the controversy has become a "high-profile opportunity for people on either side of the issue to actually do something, or at least think they are doing something, short of voting."

Indeed, crowds flocked to Chick-fil-A nationwide on August 1, dubbed "Chick-fil-A appreciation day." The chain announced it had experienced "record-setting" patronage.

Gay 'Kiss-In'

Gay rights supporters, meanwhile, have called for a "kiss-in," urging same-sex couples to kiss publicly in front of a Chick-fil-A location on August 3.

Ken Chapman, a gay Floridian, indicated he would be heading to his local franchise to do just that.

"I think [Chick-fil-A] has the right to have any viewpoint that they like," he said. "They have the right to state that viewpoint. But I feel that when they crossed a line for me and gave money to organizations that espouse the denial of my equal rights, I can no longer support them. If I'm good enough to spend my money at their store, then I'm good enough to enjoy the same rights as everyone else who spends their money there."

Meyer notes that the calls for a Chick-fil-A boycott, and the other acts of protest that the controversy has inspired, not only speak to the issues America is grappling with right now.

He says they are also the way the country has always responded when politics and social issues collide.

"The United States was born in an act of rebellion and we have a constitution that encourages people to organize on behalf of their beliefs and to form groups and to find some place to make their claims about what they care about," he said. "That's one piece of the American legacy. Protest is as American as any kind of pie you can name -- apple pie, cherry pie, pizza pie."

Or maybe even a chicken sandwich.

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