The Common Good

Politics and Purchases

For another perspective on the Chik-fil-A flap, read Christian Piatt's "Farewell Chik-fil-A"

So, I kicked the hornets' nest with my recent piece in The Atlantic, "In Defense of Eating at Chick-fil-A." The comments were brutal, with most excoriating the chicken chain and rejecting my argument that boycotts such as this are a waste of time. I've received many emails about this, and a few issues have been raised that need addressing. 

First, is the matter of Chick-fil-A's funding. Critics claim that they have donated millions of dollars to "hate groups." A report by Equality Matters serves as the basis, but a deeper look at the actual numbers tells a different story.

Yes, Chick-fil-A donated money to "pro-family" groups, but most of them — with the exception, perhaps, of the Family Research Council, which received a paltry $1,000 from the fast-food company in the year cited — don't deserve the derisive title.

Included in the list are organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes. If you know anything about FCA, you'll agree that labeling them "anti-gay" is flat out dishonest. Regardless of your stance on gay marriage, I encourage you to investigate EM's report and do your homework on what the groups on this list actually stand for and work toward. You be the judge. 

Underlying the question of funding is a fundamental distinction that too few Americans fail to recognize. Our society must begin to recognize that being "anti-gay marriage" is not the same as being "anti-gay." Chick-fil-A's top executives and perhaps the corporation as a whole might be classified under the first label but not the second.

As I stated in my article — and which no one has attempted to dispute — Chick-fil-A does not discriminate against its customers. Gay and straight customers are treated identically, as well they should be. 

Second, there is the matter of how convictions should affect consumerism. As one emailer asked me, "Where do we, as socially conscience evangelicals, draw the line of where we do business? Is it more of a personal conviction, you think? Like 'I don't want my money to knowingly go to companies that use sweatshop/child labor, etc.'?"

And on this issue, I think we must return to the following sentence in my Atlantic article:

As Josh Ozersky argued on TIME thursday, "businesses should be judged by their products and their practices, not by their politics.

The word "practices" is critical here. When you go to make a purchase, you should look at that product (its quality, its value, how it got here, etc.) and make an informed and Spirit-led decision based on that information. If a shirt is made in a sweat shop, a follower of Jesus very well may refuse to buy it. But we don't need to track down the CEO of that company and ask what he thinks about tax policy or if who he is voting for in the presidential election to make an informed decision.

Of course, there are limits to this, which must be ultimately guided by conscience. If your conscience will not allow you to patronize a particular organization, you should honor that. If, however, you're trying to influence a larger conversation about a particular issue, there are far better ways to go about it.

I'll say it again: boycotts are generally ineffective. (If you don't believe me, ask Walt Disney how much of an impact the Southern Baptist boycott of the 1990s made on their company.) 

I say, "let's stop boycotting and begin talking." A culture such as ours — one that thrives on civil dialgoue —  only can function when we are willing to talk with each other rather than at each other.

What do you think?

Jonathan Merritt is author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. His writing has  appeared in USA TODAYThe Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionThe Washington Post, CNN.com, and, most recently, in The Atlantic. Read more from Jonathan on his blog and follow him on Twitter @JonathanMerritt.

Image: Chik-fil-A by Ann Larie Valentine/Wylio.

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