It’s hard to keep track of all the scandals swirling around EPA head Scott Pruitt, but the funniest one has to be the revelation this week that he attempted to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife soon after he arrived at the EPA. The Washington Post reported that Pruitt used a government employee to set up a later-canceled call with Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy about a “potential business opportunity” that turned out to be a franchise for his wife, Marlyn. Asked about the incident on Wednesday, Pruitt tried to explain himself. “I love, she loves, we love Chick-fil-A as a franchise of faith,” he told a reporter. “We need more of them in Tulsa and we need more of them across the country.”
The phrase “franchise of faith” was immediately ridiculed online. “I’ve been washed clean in the blood of the chicken,” Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall joked. But Pruitt wasn’t pulling the concept out of thin air. Many conservative Christians embrace the chain for the same reason Pruitt does: They recognize the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich as a signifier of conservative Christianity. (Not incidentally, the chicken is also delicious.)
For many liberals, Chick-fil-A first became a symbol of conservatism in 2012, when Cathy made a series of comments about his opposition to same-sex marriage. “We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,” he told one interviewer, later doubling down by saying he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Activists took note of the fact that the company’s charitable organization had donated millions to conservative organizations like the Family Research Council and now-shuttered “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International. Boycotts were threatened, protests were held, and Chick-fil-A’s anti-gay reputation lingers to this day. In April, a writer for the New Yorker opined that the brand’s arrival in New York “feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.”
The company’s chicken sandwiches became a favorite choice among conservatives in Washington after the marriage controversy. In a 2015 article titled “Why Republicans Can’t Stop Eating Chick-Fil-A,” National Journal reported that “the scent of fried chicken practically permeates the walls of the Capitol.” At the time, Chick-fil-A catered a monthly event for House conservatives hosted by the Heritage Foundation, whose office ordered in from the chain regularly. Reporter Sarah Mimms found the 2012 controversy was a turning point: House Republicans spent $345 in taxpayer funds on Chick-fil-A in the three years before the dust-up, and almost $13,000 in the two years afterward. “[Chick-fil-A] kinda got abused,” then-Sen. Jeff Sessions told Mimms, “and I guess some would like to support ’em.”
It’s clearly a mistake, though, to believe that the Christians who love Chick-fil-A are all doing so as a statement about same-sex marriage. For many, the Atlanta-based company’s reputation as a Christian business goes far beyond its most public cultural controversy. Founder Truett Cathy, Dan Cathy’s father, infused his business with religious symbolism from the start. Every Chick-fil-A restaurant closes on Sundays, because Truett didn’t believe in handling “money on the Lord’s Day.” The company’s “corporate purpose” begins with the words To glorify God. And its leadership reflects its values: All six members of the company’s executive committee list some kind of church involvement or Christian nonprofit in their bios. The company remains private in part to retain its Christian identity. And that character is expressed in countless subtler ways too. Dan Cathy’s bio describes him as a “servant-leader,” for example, a term drawn from the argot of evangelicalism.
Chick-fil-A’s culture has presumably cost it some business over the years: To say the least, closing one day a weekend is a risk. But the average Chick-fil-A restaurant still earns four times more than the average KFC, and overall it out-earns many chains that have many more locations, including Arby’s and Pizza Hut. It has also drawn enormous loyalty from people who share its values. Most evangelical Christians have no problem going out to eat on Sundays, but they still like the gesture of a company that avoids it. A 2017 survey found that 62 percent of evangelicals believed Chick-fil-A has a positive impact on their local community, compared with 48 percent of respondents overall. A recent parody video by Christian comedian Jaron Myers poked fond fun at the chain’s reputation, like its welcoming of local Bible study groups.
As for Scott Pruitt’s alleged Chick-fil-A–related ethical lapse, it didn’t come to anything: Marlyn never finished filling out the application to become a franchisee. Perhaps that’s because Chick-fil-A’s rather strict guidelines for potential franchisees make clear that the restaurant should not be considered a passive investment, and that franchisees are expected to work in their restaurants full time and be free of other business commitments. Chick-fil-A may be a “franchise of faith,” but it still drives a pretty hard bargain.