Skip to main content

Is Chick-fil-A turnout a preview of November?

By Tim Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Chick-fil-A dustup so preposterous it almost seems a brilliant sales gimmick
  • He says U.S. has odd tendency to turn statements of principle into a nationwide movement
  • He says it might be pre-election warning: Culture wars can be blended with economic worries
  • Stanley: Chick-fil-A protest support could preview voter turnout if Romney plays it right

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- Wednesday marked Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Across the United States, conservatives gathered in chicken restaurants to show support for the company after its president, Dan Cathy, came out against gay marriage. Democratic mayors in Chicago and Boston at first threatened to halt expansion of the Chick-fil-A chain to their cities, which turned a question of sexual morality into a debate about freedom of speech. The motto of conservative Christians seems to be, "They'll take my chicken from my cold dead hand..."

Writing as a European, this story combines two of the things we most readily associate with America: Jesus Christ and fast food. It certainly reflects a uniquely American phenomenon. There are religious businesspeople and raging conservatives in other parts of the world, but only the United States enjoys all the elements that could turn a statement of conscience into nationwide movement.

Where else in the world would a) the president of a chicken restaurant chain feel it was within his remit to publicly endorse "the traditional family," b) liberal mayors totally overreact by trying to stop his business' expansion, c) a former presidential candidate declare an "appreciation day" for the restaurant, and d) hundreds of people actually show up to eat there in solidarity?

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Opinion: Chick-fil-A and free speech

The whole scenario seems so preposterous as to be contrived, which makes me wonder if it was a brilliant sales gimmick. Yet, we have no reason to doubt the strength of Cathy's faith and, after all, Chick-fil-A isn't the only company with a taste for Christian witness. Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, discusses his faith on his company's website and offers advice on prayer.

In-N-Out Burger prints "John 3:16" on the bottom of its paper cups. Hobby Lobby says it is committed to "honoring the Lord" and closes all its stores on a Sunday. Are there other corporations out there with a hidden religious agenda that we all missed because we weren't looking for it? Is Ronald McDonald the acceptable face of Seventh-Day Adventism?

That this story revolves around a chicken restaurant might incline us to be skeptical about its political significance. But don't forget that the tea party started with a trading floor rant and was initially lampooned for its innocent association with the tea bag. In America, businesses have often been the battlegrounds for political conflicts, think of the civil rights movement's lunch counter sit-ins.

Same-sex smooches planned at Chick-fil-A
Blocking construction of Chick-fil-A
Mayor: Chick-fil-A not 'Chicago' values

Time will only tell whether or not this is an important moment in the revival of conservative religious activism. However, it does offer two immediate warnings about the November election.

Opinion: The right way and the wrong way to protest Chick-fil-A

First, culture will matter. There's always a tendency to presume that in presidential elections "it's the economy stupid." The polls confirm that voters still place moral questions very low on their list of priorities. But cultural issues keep on coming up in ways that we didn't expect: contraception in February, gay marriage in May, guns in July, and now we're back to gay marriage. It could be that bad jobs reports are so common that they've become the background noise of the campaign, while the matters related to sex and violence compete more colorfully for our attention.

But no, something more complex is taking place: Economics and culture are becoming synonymous.

News: Jim Henson Co. ends five decade relationship with Chick-fil-A over gay marriage stance

In rallying to Cathy's defense, some conservatives have pointed out that his company has created jobs and that attempts to block its growth are bad for middle-class Americans. They made the same case against Michael Bloomberg's war on supersized drinks. There's a theme to the complaints emerging: that in their pursuit of liberal ends the Democrats are costing jobs, while patriotic conservatives like Cathy are repairing the economy and spreading the gospel.

Mitt Romney is now running billboard ads that lampoon Obama's claim that businesses need government support to flourish. The implicit choice that the right is trying to establish is "hardworking, self-reliant Christian businessmen" vs "welfare-supporting, anti-growth, atheistic bureaucrats." Hence, debates that can seem only to be about culture can actually become a way of discussing who is to blame for our economic woes.

Second, the sheer number of people involved in the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day suggests that turnout will matter in November. A common theme among tweets coming out of the restaurant demonstrations Wednesday was that conservative strength lies in numbers. One photo caption read, "Hey liberals, the turnout for Chick-fil-A appreciation day is a preview of the polling stations in November." Maybe, maybe not. But the polls are close and the number of undecided voters is falling.

America is settling down into two, surprisingly partisan, camps of voters who probably won't change their minds significantly until voting day. If that pattern holds, then turnout is all important. In 2004, the ability of the Bush team to get out their religious vote swung them a relatively close election. If Mitt Romney can effectively establish the link between economics and culture, and then motivate conservatives to turn out in big numbers, then the Chick-fil-A moment could prove prophetic.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT