There’s More to the Chick-fil-A Flap Than Meets the Eye

COMMENTARY: The silence of St. Thomas More teaches us very clearly how we should hold ourselves out when martyrdom threatens.

(photo: James R. Martin /

It’s all about finding the determining principles, St. Thomas Aquinas would say. In practical matters, you must be familiar with the right principles and recognize when they apply.

Here is an important principle for Catholics, which will likely become more important in the coming years: We have no obligation to seek martyrdom. Actually, it works the other way. We have an obligation to avoid being martyred, if we can. If and when we are martyred, it should only be because there was no alternative but to sin. The silence of St. Thomas More teaches us very clearly how we should hold ourselves out when martyrdom threatens.

The same holds for persecution. “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11), indeed. But being reviled is not good. We should avoid it if we can. It would be wrong to court it.

Chick-fil-A is getting castigated by conservatives on social media because it announced that it would no longer give charitably to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes but instead give to local food banks and homeless shelters.

Critics say they have capitulated to angry “LGTBQ” activists instead of holding their ground. These angry activists were upset that executives of Chick-fil-A spoke out in favor of marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Using their typical method of guilt by association, they said that Chick-fil-A was wrong for giving money to the Salvation Army, which, they claimed, was not friendly to the LGTBQ cause.

Never mind all the decent people who earn a living and support their families working for Chick-fil-A, and never mind that nearly everyone loves Chick-fil-A sandwiches and waffle fries. Never mind the good works of the Salvation Army.

These angry activists thrive by ideological reductionism. They kept organizing boycotts and protests, trying to keep new Chick-fil-A sandwich shops from opening and trying to coerce universities — where Chick-fil-A is understandably very popular — into removing their shops from university food courts.

Let’s be clear that a thriving chicken-sandwich business that gives away large portions of its profits to food banks and homeless shelters is exemplary and good. That Chick-fil-A follows the spirit of the old, sensible “blue laws,” in these times of exaggerated consumerism, and honors the Lord by closing on Sundays, giving its employees a day of rest — that is extremely good, as well.

Chick-fil-A certainly has no obligation to do more than these things. It’s unjust, then, to describe their change of policy as “capitulation.” How can acting in an exemplary way, not violating any duties, be justly described as a “capitulation”? It cannot.

Someone might even say that Chick-fil-A’s change in charitable practices is a praiseworthy correction, for a business. It’s a recognized idea in business ethics that the charitable work of a business should complement its business identity.

What exactly does the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have to do with chicken sandwiches? Food banks are obviously more closely related. As for the Salvation Army, we have goodwill toward it because of the genial presence of their bell-ringers and kettles outside stores in the Christmas season. They remind and spur us to remember the needy. Maybe we know and love Guys and Dolls (in which the organization plays a prominent part).

But Catholics in particular should be wary of the Salvation Army, since it is a church, an offshoot of Methodism, rather than purely a charitable organization. The ministers of this congregation are the “military officers” in this “army.”  They deny that baptism is necessary for salvation: “The swearing-in of a soldier of The Salvation Army beneath the trinitarian sign of the Army’s flag acknowledges this truth,” they say. “It is a public response and witness to a life-changing encounter with Christ which has already taken place, as is the water baptism practiced by some other Christians.” One would therefore recommend to any Catholic business that, if it wanted to help the poor, it should do so directly, if possible, rather than through the Salvation Army. Doesn’t the same good advice hold objectively for Chick-fil-A?

Besides, in substance, support of the Salvation Army in no way amounts to support of traditional marriage. They now even have a webpage explaining how LGTBQ-friendly they are, how they reject “homophobia” and “transphobia,” and how, whatever their past policy, they offer the same benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

So Chick-fil-A is supposed to continue supporting the Salvation Army ad infinitum — why? — because LGTBQ activists have attacked that charity in the past? Not because of the Salvation Army’s actual stance right now, but because Chick-fil-A might appear to be giving in?

Please explain why that would be a sensible decision for anyone concerned with the common good of that company. Remember, it is positively wrong to court martyrdom or persecution.

One also wonders if these critics correctly understand what a charitable gift is. Chick-fil-A apparently entered into an extended agreement to give gifts over a period of years to the Salvation Army. Such structured gifts are helpful to the recipient as a way of planning cash flow and for reliance in initiating larger projects, but it’s a contradiction in terms to speak of a benefactor as being obliged to give a gift.

When the agreement period came to an end, Chick-fil-A had absolutely no obligations toward the Salvation Army. It does not need to explain to anyone its change. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Matthew 20:15). That principle, too, is one in which Christians can and should imitate Christ. Third parties have absolutely no standing to judge Chick-fil-A’s philanthropy, if the objects are good, as they clearly are.

One can understand that Christians feel besieged by a hostile culture and look for heroes to take a stance. But the Catholic blogosphere and social media have rushed to judgment in this matter, in my view. One prominent person says he will no longer patronize Chick-fil-A. Another opines that, as their business was doing fine, any change must be ideologically motivated. Another comes up with questions that we should pose to Chick-fil-A management as a litmus test of their intentions. Of course, all of these criticisms come from people safely positioned who will lose nothing if their advice is heeded.

Chick-fil-A has noticeably stayed quiet and not said a word in its defense. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). I suspect Chick-fil-A is following this maxim better than its critics.

I suspect the company is just as Christian and in favor of Godly marriage as before. But these criticisms from some Christians will only serve to protect them further from unjust persecution. So, no need to rebut them. And, as Christians and conservatives do not like to play the bully, and they reject guilt by association and other blackballing tactics of the left, Chick-fil-A can continue to think the best of them and bank on these critics soon enough becoming appreciative customers again.

I may be wrong in this assessment, but I’d be surprised if I am. Until then, I say, “Eat Mor Chikin!”


Michael Pakaluk is professor of ethics and social philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America.