There is exactly one Chick-fil-A in New York City. Which is striking, because New York City is big and lucrative, and Chick-fil-A is a big and lucrative brand. And, as I discover during lunch at its sole location on the New York University campus, it’s decently tasty, too. The menu is just what one would expect from the name: Chicken in various states of fry served on buns, with fried potatoes in various different cuts on the side, and pop and milkshakes for drinks. It’s cheap, quick, and charmingly kitschy, with a menu spare enough to limit the anxieties of choice.
This simple business model has made Chick-fil-A very successful — it is to the South what In-n-Out is to California — and its founder, 92-year-old Samuel Truett Cathy, very rich. Forbes estimates his worth at $1.2 billion. And he’s devoted his considerable wealth to a life of philanthropy. He has distributed more than $35 million in scholarships to help Chick-fil-A employees go to college, another $26 million to scholarships for students at Berry College, and another $18 million for foster homes throughout the United States. He’s been honored by the Children’s Hunger Fund, and won the Horatio Alger award and the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, for his charity.
Incidentally, Cathy is also an enthusiastic Baptist, and one domain of his charitable giving reflects that fact. Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays, includes religious language in its mission statement, and donates some money to causes like the Campus Crusade for Christ. Consequently, a meme has developed on left-leaning and pro-gay-rights websites in the past year that Chick-fil-A is virulently anti-gay. Since then, the nonagenarian Samuel Truett Cathy has gone from a noted philanthropist to a hate-figure — in two senses of the phrase — for many liberals, and has gotten a string of very negative press.
It’s become a prickly issue. The company will no longer take requests for comment regarding its donations, philanthropy, and political or religious activism. Cathy issued one statement when the controversy began to congeal: “In recent weeks, we have been accused of being anti-gay. . . . We have no agenda against anyone. While my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees.”
Nonetheless, when a Chick-fil-A opened in Chicago last year, activists affiliated with getequal.org protested to “stop the hate” and distributed flyers styled with a pun on its name, “Bigot-fil-A,” that the organizers apparently found clever. Elsewhere, college students have tried to get Chick-fil-As removed from their campuses. They were successful at Indiana University at South Bend. Which might have something to do with the fact that there’s exactly one Chick-fil-A in New York City: If the chain wanted to open another store here, it would likely face similar protests.
But the dirt that activists have dug up on Cathy isn’t really that incriminating, even from a pro-gay-rights perspective. His top sin, according to the agitprop flyers produced by getequal.org, is financial support for the National Christian Foundation and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Also among Cathy’s anathema affiliations is Campus Crusade for Christ. (When you think Campus Crusade for Christ, you think homophobia, right? Me neither.) There is no evidence that Chik-fil-A has funded groups that are primarily devoted to opposing same-sex marriage, such as the National Organization for Marriage (which is not to imply that such a donation would demonstrate anti-gay animus).
Judging by the arguments put forth on lefty blogs, there are three additional justifications for singling out Chick-fil-A for protests: The first is a local Chick-fil-A catering for a Pennsylvania Family Institute marriage retreat at which, PFI president Michael Geer says, “At no time . . . was the subject of same-sex marriage discussed or presented” (despite what was erroneously reported elsewhere). The second is relatively small donations to the group Focus on the Family (which, despite its reputation among bien pensants, actually devotes most of its funds to charitable efforts outside of the culture war, as David French has pointed out). And the third is Chick-fil-A’s ties to WinShape, a charity with dozens of projects, one of which is a marriage retreat limited to legally married, opposite-sex couples.
So the facts show Cathy to be a generous philanthropist who devotes millions to uncontroversial education charity; who gives some thousands more to Christian groups; who admits that for theological reasons he opposes the legal institution of same-sex marriage, but isn’t preoccupied by it; and who doesn’t exclude from his charity socially conservative groups. Reasonable people can disagree with WinShape’s requirements for couples on its marriage retreats and dislike aspects of Focus on the Family’s research and advocacy. But no reasonable person can see proof of frothing anti-gay bigotry in Samuel Truett Cathy’s donations, especially when his own words convey “love and respect” for same-sex-marriage advocates.
Activists are obviously welcome to protest and withdraw their patronage from any business, especially one whose political advocacy they disagree with. That’s democracy. But if we really want to “stop the hate” — and we should stop hate where it actually exists — we should look elsewhere than Chick-fil-A and the aged philanthropist at its head.
— Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.
editor’s note: This article has been amended to correct the misspelling of the restaurant chain’s name.