Chick-fil-A’s decision to stop donating to the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes last month was met with a lot of anger on the part of conservatives and Christians because it was seen as a betrayal of a large portion of its customer base, many of whom were fans of the place for reasons beyond food. It wasn’t merely its clean atmosphere, polite and efficient service, and good chicken that drew crowds, but also its distinct culture that appealed to people. In an age of 24-7 business, Chick-fil-A dares to close on Sundays. In an age in which pressure groups organized boycotts because the company’s CEO had supported efforts to keep the legal definition of marriage as that between a man and a woman, many people saw the company as something different. Now, it’s true that the company seems to have backed off of supporting groups (such as the Family Research Council) that were actively working on policy issues around marriage as far back as 2012, but they have never said they would refuse to give to groups that oppose same-sex marriage in general. That narrowing of their donations did not satisfy their progressive critics. They continued to experience setbacks in permissions to set up shop in more liberal cities, airports, and some foreign countries. They continued to garner protests, though usually tepid ones, when they did open in New York and Toronto among others. Nevertheless, they rose to become the third largest fast-food chain in the country.

This is why their failure to renew their charitable giving to targets of progressive and LGBT groups this past year stung so much. It is perhaps why some people attempted to defend them from the idea that they were indeed doing something wrong. The most notable attempt was by Michael Pakaluk, professor of business and social ethics at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America, in his article “There’s More to the Chick-fil-A Flap than Meets the Eye.”[1]

Dr. Pakaluk rightly argues that the company has done many good things, including its no-Sundays-Thanksgiving-Christmas policy and its “giv[ing] away large portions of its profits to food banks and homeless shelters.” He goes on to argue, however:

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.” 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.

I would go further than Dr. Pakaluk on his first line. Indeed, I don’t even think they have an obligation to give away their profits to food banks and homeless shelters. Rather, their obligation as a business really is about running their business well, providing good work to workers, a good product to consumers, and a good return to investors. If they have extra profits, I think they would be within their moral rights to reward workers with higher wages and investors with better returns.

It is not, however, unjust to describe what Chick-fil-A did as “capitulation.” Their stated reasoning for their shift in giving is to focus on education, homelessness, and hunger. That would have been enough of an explanation if they had simply stopped donating to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But they stopped donating to the Salvation Army, too, which specializes in education (at least job training), hunger, and homelessness.

Professor Pakaluk then makes two further arguments as to why Catholics (he’s writing in The National Catholic Register) shouldn’t really care about this. The first is that the Salvation Army as a church denies the validity of baptism. The second is that as a charitable group it has gotten a bit wishy-washy about the entire LGBT agenda, including a web page that documents how they serve this community.[2]

Concerning the first point, while this is true, it is also true of much of Protestantism. I’m not sure in the matter of providing homeless shelters or food for the poor that it really matters all that much. Concerning the second point, one can concede to Dr. Pakaluk that their web page does seem groveling about their openness to this “community.” But in the message from the head of the Salvation Army, it is clearly communicated that they hold to a traditional Christian understanding of marriage. Though it’s not explicitly said, this is why they do not allow those in open same-sex relationships to be officers in their church. Despite their policies of giving benefits to same-sex couples employed by them and their shelters and services being open to all, they are indeed being attacked for their views on marriage and sexuality. It’s simply not the case, as Dr. Pakaluk says, that “support of the Salvation Army in no way amounts to support of traditional marriage.”

The final argument from Dr. Pakaluk is that it is a contradiction in terms to say that Chick-fil-A did not do anything wrong because there are no obligations to continue giving to any group. “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).”

Again, I have no disagreements with the professor on whether businesses or even individuals are required to start giving to any particular group. But when a company stops donating to a group that does exactly what that company says its giving is focused on and it just so happens that the group is under attack for its Christian beliefs about sexuality (shared, of course, by religious Jews as well), then what that company has done is indeed wrong. Wrong not because it had an obligation to give in the first place. It had none. Wrong not because it had an obligation to give in perpetuity. It didn’t have that. But it was wrong because in the circumstances in which it was operating, it was a surrender to the powers that be accompanied by a patently silly excuse that makes no sense.

The biblical passage that I had in mind when I read about Chick-fil-A’s decision was not Matthew 20, which concerns an owner’s decision to pay people who come at the last minute the same as he paid those who showed up earlier in the day. That passage interestingly reflects the way in which wages can work based on demand that changes over time. No, the passage brought to mind was Acts 5. In the first part of this chapter a rich man named Ananias, having heard that Barnabas sold a property and offered all the proceeds to the Apostles, decides to sell a piece of his own property and then lay down only a portion of the proceeds at the Apostles’ feet, apparently hoping they would think he too had given all the proceeds of his sale. Peter’s response to him was not what he expected:

Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God. (Acts 5: 3-4)

Ananias is then struck dead by divine power, as is his wife who approaches the Apostles soon after.

Just as with Chick-fil-A, there was no obligation on the point of Ananias or his wife to give at any point in the exchange. This even though we’re not talking about some baptism-denying group but the Apostles themselves. No, they were struck dead because they were concerned more with what people would say about them in their giving than with integrity in the act of giving.

I don’t wish anybody dead, but I do wish those in Chick-fil-A’s management would take a look at Acts 5. Chick-fil-A’s ham-handed abandonment of a charity because of the progressive mob hasn’t won them any plaudits from that mob. It has also disheartened others who hoped that the organization, whose growth was in part due to its perceived integrity, would stand up and say that they support an organization run by Christians who serve people who do not have a Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage. It has also disheartened others to see the company defending their cowardice with what appears to be a very bald lie. Businesses don’t have moral obligations to give money, but they do have obligations to be honest to men and to God.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Michael Pakaluk, “There’s More to the Chick-fil-A Flap Than Meets the Eye,” National Catholic Register, November 21, 2019.

[2] “The LGBTQ Community and Salvation Army,” last modified 15 December, 2019, accessed 16 December 2019.

The featured image is a photograph of a sign over the entrance of a Chick-fil-A, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0. The image has been slightly modified for color.

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