The New Yorker stirs up a storm with analysis of Chick-fil-A evangelism in the Big Apple

First things first: I am not a New Yorker. I just live here -- lower Manhattan, to be specific -- two-plus months a year. Thus, I do not pretend to offer any special insights into the heart and soul of New York City.

However, part of my ongoing relationship with this great city is that I spend lots of time talking to New Yorkers about life in their city (as opposed to the New York seen in movies and television). I do this, in part, to help students in the New York Journalism Semester at The King's College, since they come here from all over America and even overseas.

Now, a wise New Yorker gave me this advice when I first started working here. This scribe advised me to never, ever, think of New York City as one place. If you do that, he said, your head will explode. New York City is just too big, too complex, to do that.

Instead, he advised me to figure out how people live in their own unique New York City neighborhoods and then move out into the wider city. And avoid the tourist places. Visit the neighborhood delis, pizza joints, coffee shops, pubs, hole-in-the-wall grocery stores. Talk to people there and, before you know it, those people will know your name and call it out.

The paradox: While New York is the world's greatest Alpha city, its neighborhoods are more like small towns. New York is not a super-crowded shopping mall.

You will not be surprised that this brings me to that viral headline in The New Yorker, the one that proclaimed: "Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City." The photo tagline on the picture of the new Chick-fil-A on Fulton Street, in my way downtown neighborhood, perfectly captures the tone: 

Chick-fil-A’s corporate purpose begins with the words “to glorify God,” and that proselytism thrums below the surface of its new Fulton Street restaurant.

Yes, this piece was commentary, as opposed to news. But that raises an interesting point, one heard often here at GetReligion: Why settle for commentary? If New Yorkers are angry or upset about a Bible Belt company selling chicken sandwiches, shouldn't there be a way to write a hard-news story about this fact?

Another question: Did the author of this piece simply assume that HIS New York is one big monolithic place, that it is one unified city where everyone thinks and feels the same way? Did he make the same mistake as millions of New York-haters?

 

OK, where to start? How about the thesis statement?

New York has taken to Chick-fil-A. One of the Manhattan locations estimates that it sells a sandwich every six seconds, and the company has announced plans to open as many as a dozen more storefronts in the city. And yet the brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, are adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays. Its C.E.O., Dan Cathy, has been accused of bigotry for using the company's charitable wing to fund anti-gay causes, including groups that oppose same-sex marriage. “We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation,” he once said, “when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’ ” The company has since reaffirmed its intention to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect,” but it has quietly continued to donate to anti-L.G.B.T. groups. When the first stand-alone New York location opened, in 2015, a throng of protesters appeared. When a location opened in a Queens mall, in 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a boycott. No such controversy greeted the opening of this newest outpost. Chick-fil-A’s success here is a marketing coup. Its expansion raises questions about what we expect from our fast food, and to what extent a corporation can join a community.

Now, there's a lot going on in that big paragraph. Oh man, can you imagine how upset this journalist must be about the thousands of halal food trucks and carts there are in New York City?

But I digress. One of the common tensions in many news articles about Chick-fil-A is that reporters often confuse the actions of the COMPANY with those of the Cathy family's own foundation (which, yes, is full of money made from selling chicken sandwiches). The New Yorker article gets that right, and wrong, in the same passage, only a few lines apart.

But that is a valid question for journalistic investigation: Should consumers boycott a corporation because of the beliefs and actions of the founders when using a mechanism other than the foundation?

Thus, donations to groups that back centuries of religious tradition about marriage represent one kind of sin. I would assume that there are right-wingers out there so vicious that they get mad when Chick-fil-A helps the progressive Girl Scouts of America or opened its Orlando stories ON A SUNDAY to give free food to people standing in line to donate blood to help victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

I will leave it to readers to dissect the psychological issues in this article's in-depth study of why the famous Chick-fil-A cow ads are so evil. I'm not sure what's going on there.

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However, there are a few scattered bones in this piece of another potentially valid article that could be written after normal reporting and research. I think it would be interesting to know more about how New York foodies feel about the city's thousands of establishments linked to corporate fast-food. However, even there, can one assume that "Park Slopers" in ultra-hip Brooklyn have the same values as, well, baseball fans in the Bronx? 

No, that isn't what this opinion piece is all about. Check out the end of this sermon:

Defenders of Chick-fil-A point out that the company donates thousands of pounds of food to New York Common Pantry, and that its expansion creates jobs. The more fatalistic will add that hypocrisy is baked, or fried, into every consumer experience -- that unbridled corporate power makes it impossible to bring your wallet in line with your morals. Still, there’s something especially distasteful about Chick-fil-A, which has sought to portray itself as better than other fast food: cleaner, gentler, and more ethical, with its poultry slightly healthier than the mystery meat of burgers. Its politics, its décor, and its commercial-evangelical messaging are inflected with this suburban piety. A representative of the Richards Group once told Adweek, “People root for the low-status character, and the Cows are low status. They’re the underdog.” That may have been true in 1995, when Chick-fil-A was a lowly mall brand struggling to find its footing against the burger juggernauts. Today, the Cows’ “guerrilla insurgency” is more of a carpet bombing. New Yorkers are under no obligation to repeat what they say. Enough, we can tell them. NO MOR.

Wow. Love that variation on a Doctor Who riff there at the end.

To see some different perspectives on this controversy, readers may want to see (out of a tsunami of digital ink):

* This Samantha Allen piece at The Daily Beast: "It’s Time For Gays To Forgive Chick-fil-A." 

* Rod Dreher's take at The American Conservative: "Yankee Bigot Scared Of Chick-fil-A."

* This re-upped piece at The Atlantic by progressive Jonathan Merritt: "In Defense of Eating at Chick-fil-A." 

* Finally, this hilarious piece by Father Dwight Longenecker, a married Roman Catholic priest with Oxford University cred who has returned to the Bible Belt: "Starbuck's Creepy Infiltration of South Carolina." Here's the opening:

Ah cain’t help noticing that this here Starbucks keeps setting up new coffee shops all over South Carolina
My and my younguns were comin’ back from church and headin’ for the rifle range for some practice, and goshdarn if I ain’t seen another one of them liberal, communist coffee shops opening up. I said to Houston (he’s my fourth boy), “Son, look at that sign up air. You see that?”
“Yessir.” he said.
“You see that mermaid kinda woman on that Starbucks sign?”
“I can see it Daddy!” says San Antonia. She’s my girl.
“That there is a pagan symbol of a mother goddess -- the goddess of the sea and the moon. That Starbucks is a devil worshipping kinda place.”
“What are they doin here in South Carolina Pa?” says my boy Austin. He’s the oldest. 

You can see where that's going.

Anyway, let's wrap this up. Here is my main question: When the New Yorker's New Yorker talks about New York being all hot and bothered about Chick-fil-A, which New York are we talking about?

If any New Yorkers or former New Yorkers want to chime in on that, please do so -- in our comments pages. As for me, it's lunch time. I need to go get a salad. I’d go you know where, but the lines are too long.

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