A dean at Rider University in New Jersey announced her resignation from her position this month after the school declined to pursue a contract with Chick-fil-A for a new restaurant on campus. The university explained that it had removed Chick-fil-A from consideration specifically because of “the company’s record widely perceived to be in opposition to the LGBTQ+ community.” It sounds unwise to give up a university deanship because your campus isn’t getting a particular fast-food franchise, no matter how much you love the waffle fries. But the dean, Cynthia Newman, didn’t quit over chicken sandwiches.* She told the conservative site Campus Reform that she resigned rather than parrot the school’s talking points about Chick-fil-A’s unwelcome “corporate values.” “I am not willing to compromise my faith and Christian values,” Newman said.
Newman quit because she understands what many other conservative Christians do: The Chick-fil-A brand is so strongly associated with their values that the restaurant serves as a kind of avatar for conservative American Christianity as a whole. A community that embraces Chick-fil-A is a community friendly to “Christian values,” the thinking goes, and a community hostile to Chick-fil-A is likely hostile to those values as well.
Not so long ago, that was something that most progressives believed too. In 2012—when only a handful of U.S. states allowed same-sex-marriage—Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy famously made several comments in the Christian press about his opposition to the unions. “We are 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 a Christian radio host. Facing backlash, he doubled down a few days later, saying he was “guilty as charged” and that he supported “the biblical definition of the family unit.” It turned out that Chick-fil-A’s charitable organization had donated millions to conservative organizations, including “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International, which shuttered in 2013 but was still active at the time.
Cathy’s 2012 remarks turned a fast-food joint into a loyalty test. Many progressives quickly said they would boycott the chain. GLAAD staged a “kiss-in” at Chick-fil-A restaurants across the country. Another protest asked people to order a large water at Chick-fil-A drive-thrus, as a way of taking money from the company. (The customer was supposed to cite a Bible verse about feeding your enemies if the employee declined.) The mayors of Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston suggested the restaurant would not be welcome in their cities. “Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer,” the mayor of San Francisco tweeted.
But over the years, the furor has faded, and many progressives have slunk back through the restaurant’s doors. “For several years, the only time you’d catch an LGBTQ person or an ally at Chick-fil-A was for a protest,” the editorial director of HuffPost Personal, Noah Michelson, wrote last year in an essay lamenting the slump in resolve. “For some strange reason I still don’t fully understand, some queer people and their friends and families began eating at Chick-fil-A again and are still eating there.” A Daily Beast columnist called for queer people to “forgive Chick-fil-A” in 2015, citing the Supreme Court decision that year that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. It’s legal, she argued, so who cares what Dan Cathy thinks? When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted last June—Pride Month—about ordering from the restaurant, he later confessed that he “completely forgot about their background.”
How did Chick-fil-A gradually become uncanceled? For one, the chain has gotten harder for urban progressives to avoid. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in 2012 that the company’s values “are not Chicago values,” but there are now multiple Chick-fil-A outlets in Chicago, and they seem to be thriving. The first New York City Chick-fil-A opened in 2015, and the chain opened “the world’s largest Chick-fil-A” in downtown Manhattan a few years later. It is now planning its first outlets in Boston and Brooklyn. Anecdotally, many progressives still feel vaguely guilty about eating at Chick-fil-A—but they eat there anyway, citing factors like convenience, picky kids, and the universally acknowledged excellence of its food compared with fast-food competitors.
The company has also tried to leave its anti-gay reputation behind, although its actual efforts have been minimal. It often reminds critics that anyone is welcome to eat there, the lowest bar imaginable for a national consumer-facing business. The company now focuses its corporate giving on youth and education programs, rather than on political activism. (Critics point out that some of the organizations it supports, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, are not LGBTQ-friendly, but they are also not primarily devoted to opposing gay rights.) And the company still rates 0 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Buyers Guide. Among other issues, it does no diversity training for employees on LGBTQ cultural competence, and its nondiscrimination policy does not include LGBTQ people.
As it turns out, it’s hard to stay mad at a ubiquitous and popular brand, especially when it does the bare minimum to stop pissing you off. Just ask the conservative Christians who boycotted Disney in the mid-1990s over issues including its participation in the so-called homosexual agenda. In declaring victory nine years into the boycott, the American Family Association’s president said it was harder than ever to find “evidence of new missteps” by the company. That’s a fair summary of the reason progressives seem increasingly comfortable eating at Chick-fil-A, too: It’s not as egregious as it used to be, and the product is irresistible. That may be a reasonable moral calculation. But it still seems worth a little guilt.
Correction, March 8, 2019: This post originally misidentified Cynthia Newman as Catherine Newman.