People sometimes call him the king of Jesus chicken.
Dan Cathy, president of the fast food chain Chick-fil-A, spoke to a group he referred to as "my Christian brothers and sisters" at First Baptist Church of Brandon last week. More than 600 people, I among them, attended the event.
The topic: applying biblical principles in the workplace.
"This idea of checking your faith at the door and then going on to work is not at all what Jesus wanted us to do," Cathy said early on in the talk.
"He said let your light shine on your men so that they see your good works, and," the chief joked, "taste your waffle fries."
Cathy had no qualms talking Scripture among friends, but admitted that not every crowd gets the same speech. To some, mixing God and poultry is a touchy subject, he said. And these days, being closed on Sundays is not the main complaint against Chick-fil-A.
For more than a year, Cathy has battled criticism from gay and lesbian advocacy groups that accuse Chick-fil-A of supporting organizations opposed to gay marriage, such as the Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and Focus on the Family. Chick-fil-A's charitable foundation, WinShape, reportedly donated to both organizations in 2009. Consequently, equal rights proponents nationwide have boycotted Chick-fil-A.
Cathy acknowledges that he personally believes marriage should remain between a man and a woman. Chick-fil-A as a company, though, does not have a stance on the issue, he said, addressing the controversy at the event.
The First Baptist crowd nodded approvingly as Cathy pointed to the company's mission statement, projected on a screen above him: To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.
"Thank God 30 years ago we wrote this out," Cathy said. "We by all means want to serve the whole community when they come and eat with us."
As Cathy moved on, he asked audience members to turn their Bibles to Matthew 5:41. The verse commands going the extra mile to serve others. Cathy gave examples of Chick-fil-A workers taking umbrellas to women in the rain and offering freshly ground pepper to customers.
When Cathy spoke about his father, Truett Cathy, who opened the first Chick-fil-A in Hapeville, Ga., in 1946, he beamed with pride. Truett Cathy taught his son to study Scripture and implement it in his daily life. Now Dan Cathy is trying to do so without offending anyone, and as times change, it becomes more difficult.
I do not agree with everything Cathy believes. I do respect his openness. Just as his opponents have a right to deny him their business, he has a right to his religious beliefs. Toting the faith badge in an increasingly secular world takes guts. I think that is true for people of all faiths. Talk of God inherently brings division, and division hurts business.
For decades, Chick-fil-A has made a statement that puts values before profits. In 66 years, the restaurant has never opened on a Sunday. Now protesters want the chain pulled from college campuses.
I think liking Chick-fil-A and opposing gay marriage are two very different things.
"We're doing the best we can to try and apply biblical principles in the workplace and compete with McDonald's, Wendy's and the others that are out there," Cathy said in a sanctuary of his peers.
At First Baptist, Cathy appeared hurt by accusations that he supports hate. He has said financial donations made to the organizations in question were to support other programs, not to back any political agenda.
Chick-fil-A does not discriminate when hiring or selecting franchise owners, he has also said.
I think the comments comedian Wanda Sykes made on the Tonight Show best sum up the issue. When asked about the controversy, Sykes, a lesbian, said she responded to tweets telling her to boycott Chick-fil-A with a message from her belly, adding that when the lady behind the counter at Chick-fil-A starts calling her names, then that will be her last Chick-fil-A sandwich.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]