7/28/12 A Chicken Sandwich?

I first ate at a Chick-Fil-A (CFA) when one opened in my hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, I suppose, about 25 years ago. I thought their sandwiches were delicious . . . at least, delicious as far as a chicken sandwich can go. I ate there a few times, enjoyed it every time, but did not like the locations since they seemed to favor the food courts in shopping malls, and I despise shopping malls. Shopping malls, the world over, are all much the same, much like CFA’s: like a pot of chicken stock reduced to the same, salty consistency of bouillon – sure it’s good, but it is entirely predictable. I suppose this is what one wants in a shopping mall and a fast food restaurant.

I knew that the owners of CFA were serious enough about their Christian beliefs that they did not want their employees working on Sundays, so the agreements other Mall vendors have to sign are modified by CFA so that they are not required by their lease contracts to be open on Sundays. I know this because of a friend who opened a store in a mall and was required to be open every Sunday, even though Sundays never produced enough income to justify the expenses for staying open. Sunday closing was not an option for them. Sunday opening was not an option for CFA. I’m sure that with their commitment to this agenda, CFA refused to sign some lease agreements and were thus denied space in some shopping malls. CFA and the mall-property owners made these decisions, each in their own best interests. This is how business should be done.

I mostly forgot about CFA, other than occasional reminders from their “Eat Mor Chikin” commercials. I can understand why cows might prefer that we all eat more chicken. We have not yet begun to earnestly apply political correctness standards to those items we humans perceive as food, though there are certainly those who would like to do so. The commercials seemed harmless enough, except to chickens, I suppose.

Somewhere along the way, I developed an aversion to eating chicken that was not prepared at home, or by my mother, or by a greasy spoon meat-and-three restaurant where I could see an elderly matron sweating over a deep fryer, knowing that SHE knew how to fry chicken and get it done to my satisfaction. It was all the more desirable if the matron looked like my grandmother or my nanny. I still have this aversion to eating chicken in a restaurant. When ordering enchiladas in a Mexican restaurant, my standard reply to the question of what type enchilada is, “No Pollo!” I never touch a chicken dish at a Chinese buffet, opting instead for beef or pork. I wonder how one says “No Chicken” in Mandarin?

I last ate at a CFA this past August when doing some work in The Grove on the campus of Ole Miss. There is a CFA in the student union and after looking at my other choices and the lines of students at them, I opted for the CFA. The sandwich was just as tasty as I remembered them from 25 years ago. It is hard to not like a breaded, deep-fried, salty piece of chicken breast on a bun, even with my hesitation about eating chicken away from home. Having said this, it is nearly a year since I have eaten at that CFA, or any CFA, and eating there once every twenty-five years or so hardly makes me a critical part of their business success. I wish them well, but no one should base their business model on ME eating chicken at their restaurant.

Now we have this great controversy surrounding CFA and the owner’s outspoken faith-based views. That so many groups would be outraged by an opinion that is not new, nor unheard of, nor unpopular throughout the entire country is remarkable to me. That the owners of this private company want to take some of the money they earn and donate it to groups that promote similar political and social beliefs, in a just exercise of their free speech, is not a cause for me to get alarmed. I will not boycott or protest about what someone else believes or supports. I may choose to vote with my wallet or my feet, but that is an exercise of my free speech. Even those who want to organize protests and boycotts are using their right to free speech when they do so. I can’t really complain about them either, though in this case, I would think they might choose their battles more carefully.

However, when political officials in cities say that CFA does not reflect their community values, and declare that CFA is not welcome in their community and actually say that they will work to prevent CFA from opening stores in their cities, or make it very difficult for them because of the faith-based beliefs of their owners, I find this hard to take. It’s akin to telling the orthodox owner of a Jewish delicatessen that they must remain open from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and demanding that they serve pork tenderloin on rye, too. The business owner gets to decide what’s on their menu, and what issues are important to them. I get to decide if I will eat there, or not. Politicians and city officials do not get to decide these things for us. When politicians get to make decisions on which businesses gets a license based on the owner’s personal beliefs, we are headed into very dangerous territory.

I like ice cream. OK, I admit, I MORE than like ice cream . . . but who doesn’t? When I want some ice cream and all that’s available to me is Ben and Jerry’s, I usually stop for about two seconds, consider all the political things Ben and Jerry’s vociferously supports which I don’t, then proceed to purchase the Ben and Jerry’s anyway. Their ice cream is excellent. Their politics I could live without. But, Ben and Jerry were passionate about those things they believed in and always said so, ignoring the folks like me who, when given a chance, any chance, would pick another ice cream over theirs because of that. I still do. When the desire for ice cream overwhelms my sensibilities, I will opt for any ice cream other than Ben and Jerry’s if it is available. If not, I buy the Ben and Jerry’s, wince at their politics once, maybe twice, then open the container and say to myself, “This is really good ice cream!”

It’s a shame I don’t have chicken sandwich attacks. If I did, I’d pick CFA every time. Even now, the thought of a CFA sandwich is becoming more appealing BECAUSE of the political controversy surrounding them. I’d dislike it if an urgent cause I supported was reduced to the relevance of a chicken sandwich. I don’t think I’d like the debate framed that way. I’d like it even less when those who chose to support me framed the debate in such a way as to have that support become an attack on First Amendment rights of private citizens.

I would not find it remarkable if CFA sees a spike in it’s business, simply because of the free press they have been given by taking a stance on an issue that a very large number of voters happen to agree with. After all, didn’t California voters reject a ballot initiative that would have allowed same-sex marriages? Hmmmm! I must be missing some pieces of this puzzle.

I am beginning to think wistfully of chicken sandwiches. I just wish that CFA only hired cooks that look like my Grandmother. If they did that, then there’d be a legitimate cause for an outcry from public officials. They could post signs that said, “Unless you look like Chris’s grandmother, there is no need to apply for a job here.” That would be workplace discrimination. That is already illegal. This is a crime of which the management of CFA has not been accused. They have just been accused of actively supporting their religious beliefs in a manner allowed and guaranteed to all Americans. The more distasteful this becomes to me, the more I have noticed an increasing appetite for a chicken sandwich.

Maybe I’ll hustle down to CFA and get me one of those sandwiches. Then, just as soon as I’m through eating it, I’ll get a pint of ice cream. I may even choose Ben and Jerry’s on purpose, after all, I support their right to the free speech and the right to choose how they will spend their corporate income, even though Ben and Jerry sold the company long ago to the Dutch conglomerate, Unilever, whose management has indicated a commitment to the same level of “social awareness” that Ben and Jerry promoted.

I don’t mind. I can’t be FOR one and AGAINST the other, simply because I don’t like the ISSUES they have chosen to support. We get to decide the issues for ourselves. We also get to choose how we will respond. Will it be CFA or some other chicken sandwich? Will it be Ben and Jerry’s or some other equally good brand of ice cream?

Will we allow our voices on issues we hold dear to be trampled underfoot by politicians whose own sense of authority is misguided? Will we allow what we perceive as important to be reduced to the relevance of a chicken sandwich?

Who would be so foolish?

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