Skip to main content

Is Chick-fil-A turnout a preview of November?

By Tim Stanley, Special to CNN
August 3, 2012 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Chick-fil-A dustup so preposterous it almost seems a brilliant sales gimmick
  • He says U.S. has odd tendency to turn statements of principle into a nationwide movement
  • He says it might be pre-election warning: Culture wars can be blended with economic worries
  • Stanley: Chick-fil-A protest support could preview voter turnout if Romney plays it right

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- Wednesday marked Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Across the United States, conservatives gathered in chicken restaurants to show support for the company after its president, Dan Cathy, came out against gay marriage. Democratic mayors in Chicago and Boston at first threatened to halt expansion of the Chick-fil-A chain to their cities, which turned a question of sexual morality into a debate about freedom of speech. The motto of conservative Christians seems to be, "They'll take my chicken from my cold dead hand..."

Writing as a European, this story combines two of the things we most readily associate with America: Jesus Christ and fast food. It certainly reflects a uniquely American phenomenon. There are religious businesspeople and raging conservatives in other parts of the world, but only the United States enjoys all the elements that could turn a statement of conscience into nationwide movement.

Where else in the world would a) the president of a chicken restaurant chain feel it was within his remit to publicly endorse "the traditional family," b) liberal mayors totally overreact by trying to stop his business' expansion, c) a former presidential candidate declare an "appreciation day" for the restaurant, and d) hundreds of people actually show up to eat there in solidarity?

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Opinion: Chick-fil-A and free speech

The whole scenario seems so preposterous as to be contrived, which makes me wonder if it was a brilliant sales gimmick. Yet, we have no reason to doubt the strength of Cathy's faith and, after all, Chick-fil-A isn't the only company with a taste for Christian witness. Norm Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries, discusses his faith on his company's website and offers advice on prayer.

In-N-Out Burger prints "John 3:16" on the bottom of its paper cups. Hobby Lobby says it is committed to "honoring the Lord" and closes all its stores on a Sunday. Are there other corporations out there with a hidden religious agenda that we all missed because we weren't looking for it? Is Ronald McDonald the acceptable face of Seventh-Day Adventism?

That this story revolves around a chicken restaurant might incline us to be skeptical about its political significance. But don't forget that the tea party started with a trading floor rant and was initially lampooned for its innocent association with the tea bag. In America, businesses have often been the battlegrounds for political conflicts, think of the civil rights movement's lunch counter sit-ins.

Same-sex smooches planned at Chick-fil-A
Blocking construction of Chick-fil-A
Mayor: Chick-fil-A not 'Chicago' values

Time will only tell whether or not this is an important moment in the revival of conservative religious activism. However, it does offer two immediate warnings about the November election.

Opinion: The right way and the wrong way to protest Chick-fil-A

First, culture will matter. There's always a tendency to presume that in presidential elections "it's the economy stupid." The polls confirm that voters still place moral questions very low on their list of priorities. But cultural issues keep on coming up in ways that we didn't expect: contraception in February, gay marriage in May, guns in July, and now we're back to gay marriage. It could be that bad jobs reports are so common that they've become the background noise of the campaign, while the matters related to sex and violence compete more colorfully for our attention.

But no, something more complex is taking place: Economics and culture are becoming synonymous.

News: Jim Henson Co. ends five decade relationship with Chick-fil-A over gay marriage stance

In rallying to Cathy's defense, some conservatives have pointed out that his company has created jobs and that attempts to block its growth are bad for middle-class Americans. They made the same case against Michael Bloomberg's war on supersized drinks. There's a theme to the complaints emerging: that in their pursuit of liberal ends the Democrats are costing jobs, while patriotic conservatives like Cathy are repairing the economy and spreading the gospel.

Mitt Romney is now running billboard ads that lampoon Obama's claim that businesses need government support to flourish. The implicit choice that the right is trying to establish is "hardworking, self-reliant Christian businessmen" vs "welfare-supporting, anti-growth, atheistic bureaucrats." Hence, debates that can seem only to be about culture can actually become a way of discussing who is to blame for our economic woes.

Second, the sheer number of people involved in the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day suggests that turnout will matter in November. A common theme among tweets coming out of the restaurant demonstrations Wednesday was that conservative strength lies in numbers. One photo caption read, "Hey liberals, the turnout for Chick-fil-A appreciation day is a preview of the polling stations in November." Maybe, maybe not. But the polls are close and the number of undecided voters is falling.

America is settling down into two, surprisingly partisan, camps of voters who probably won't change their minds significantly until voting day. If that pattern holds, then turnout is all important. In 2004, the ability of the Bush team to get out their religious vote swung them a relatively close election. If Mitt Romney can effectively establish the link between economics and culture, and then motivate conservatives to turn out in big numbers, then the Chick-fil-A moment could prove prophetic.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT