Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy once told me, "Christ never died for a corporation."
The Bible "doesn't say, "For God so loved GM or IBM or Microsoft," the chicken magnate continued. "Our purpose is not to hang a sign outside that says "50 billion Chick-fil-A's sold.'"
We broke bread, or at least breaded chicken, in the wee hours of the night in March 2005. Mr. Cathy was hosting a $26,000 grand-opening celebration in Castle Rock, Colo., handing out free food and valuable prizes to Chick-fil-A groupies.
More than 100 people pitched tents in the parking lot for the all-night affair. Mr. Cathy very humbly camped out with them. He played "Happy Birthday" on his trumpet for a woman who spent her special day waiting in line for free weekly combo meals for a year. He told heartwarming stories about the company's founder, his father, who opened his first restaurant in 1946. He read scripture and he preached.
I don't remember Mr. Cathy saying anything about "the biblical definition of the family unit." But lately, he has caused quite the ruckus with this line, airing his views on same-sex marriage in a July 22 article in the Baptist Press. His words inspired nationwide boycotts, tongue-lashings from liberal politicians, but also a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" on Wednesday, encouraged by conservative Republicans Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. The Atlanta-based chicken chain recently issued a press release amid the backlash, saying it respects everyone and "our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena." The company is not saying more and declined my request to interview Mr. Cathy.
I am left with my first impression that Mr. Cathy is basically a nice guy who stands up for what he believes, however misguided.
His father, S. Truett Cathy, is a decent man, too. I interviewed him in 2008 after three teenage girls broke into his Florida summer home on a $30,000 vandalism spree. Instead of prosecuting and demanding restitution, he made them write "I will not vandalize other people's property," 1,000 times. "I did not want to damage their reputations," he told me. "The older I get, the more I realize the importance of a good name."
Chick-fil-A and its good name is worth an estimated $4.5 billion, according to research firm PrivCo. This makes the senior Cathy and his two sons worth $1.5 billion apiece, PrivCo calculated. This valuation comes despite Chick-fil-A closing its 1,600 stores on Sundays, foregoing $42.5 million in additional revenue each year, PrivCo estimated.
It is often foolish for anyone selling a consumer product to take sides in a politicized debate. But anyone willing to lose millions in sales to honor ancient religious beliefs will easily withstand boycotts over same-sex marriage and whatever perception problems they may cause for the brand.
If this were not an election year, the blowback would not be so heavy. People are not just angry about Mr. Cathy's comments, but about the millions Chick-fil-A reportedly pumps into Christian organizations with anti-gay political agendas. Some of these groups pretend they can covert gays into straights through counseling and prayer. And at least one has been dubbed a hate group.
Why "Eat Mor Chikin" if the money you pay helps finance this family circus?
I don't think Mr. Cathy is a hater, as many allege. I think he firmly believes he is honoring God and the sanctity of marriage. But it is difficult for an increasing number of Americans to accept a biblical argument on any issue.
High-profile Bible thumpers have had affairs, divorces and scandals, making a mockery of the "family values" they seek to impose on everyone else. Throughout history, the most religious people have convincingly argued absurdities: The sun revolves around the earth; slavery is part of God's intended order; evolution is a fraud; rock-and-roll is inspired by Satan; and my favorite, God is a conservative Republican.
The Bible is an anthology of strange stories compiled over thousands of years. People routinely pick whatever rules they want from it and ignore the rest--especially, love your enemy, do not judge and help the poor. This is why there are so many divisions in modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Every religious denomination began with an internal fight over which verses to believe literally, which verses to believe figuratively and which verses to completely ignore.
Many verses are best ignored. The Bible calls men lying with men an abomination and prescribes the death penalty for this offense. It offers the same punishment for many other people, including children who curse their parents and anyone who performs the least bit of work on the Sabbath.
Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays for biblical reasons. But the ancient Semites who transcribed the earliest books of the Bible, said God created the Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday. This puts the entire Chick-fil-A empire in technical default.
I am not in favor of stoning Chick-fil-A to death, given my liberal interpretation of scriptures and unconditional love for fried chicken. But to my mind, God is not on Chick-fil-A's side.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)