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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT