The Lover’s Quarrel Between Chick-fil-A and Evangelicals: A MinistryWatch Analysis
Is It Time To Kiss And Make Up?
When Chick-fil-A’s foundation announced in November it would no longer contribute money to the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home, many long-time Chick-fil-A supporters found the decision frustrating and confusing. The last straw came when MinistryWatch and other outlets reported that the Chick-fil-A Foundation had donated money to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization notorious for labeling Christian ministries as “hate groups.”
The backlash from evangelicals, whose support for Chick-fil-A goes far beyond love for a chicken sandwich and waffle fries, was strong.
A notable but by no means unique example was talk show host and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He helped organize a national day of support for Chick-fil-A back in August of 2012 when the restaurant chain was, in Huckabee’s words, “being bullied by militant hate groups. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded Chick-Fil-A restaurants, creating a record sales day.
Fast forward to Nov. 19, 2019, the day the Chick-Fil-A announcement went public, Huckabee tweeted, “Today, Chick-fil-A betrayed local customers for $$. I regret believing they would stay true to convictions of founder Truett Cathy. Sad.”
Chick-Fil-A appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the onslaught of criticism. Its phone lines were jammed in the days after the announcement. Finally, it created a new option on its customer service line for those wanting more information about its giving policy. Truett Cathy’s son Dan, who now leads the company, didn’t respond to media inquiries (including repeated inquiries from MinistryWatch). However, on Nov. 21 he did take a phone call from Franklin Graham, who assured the world that Dan Cathy was not waffling on the Christian values upon which his father Truett built the company.
But not everyone was convinced. Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, said in the Christian Post that Graham did a “huge disservice” by not asking more questions about the company’s “betrayal and capitulation to the LGBT agenda.” Staver added: “While Dan Cathy may say the company has the same values, the company’s statements and actions tell a different story. Staver singled out Chick-fil-A Foundation’s partnership with Covenant House, a group he says “celebrates homosexuality, transgenderism, and the entire LGBTQ agenda.”
It’s reasonable to argue that Chick-fil-A is a privately-owned company and the Cathy family is free to do with its money what it wants. However, Chick-fil-A, from its founding more than a half-century ago, has actively courted the evangelical community, and the company owes much of its early success to evangelicals choosing it over other options. “It was never just about the chicken sandwich,” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, said in an interview with MinistryWatch. “It was about supporting a company we thought shared our values.”
Whether Dan Cathy has changed his values or not is still an open question. But there’s no doubt that his interests now include far more than chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. And to see that, one need look no further than Dan Cathy’s Pinewood Atlanta Studios.
The Hollywood of the South
Fayette County is a southern suburb of Atlanta that has grown explosively in the past decade, fueled in part by the film industry. Twenty years ago, states started passing laws that gave film producers generous tax credits if they’d produce a movie in their state. North Carolina led the way, and Wilmington quickly became known as the Hollywood on the Atlantic, or “Hollywood East.” The production of long-running television programs, “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill,” kept studios and crews busy.
But in 2010, the North Carolina General Assembly flipped from Democrat to Republican, and in 2014 the first Republican governor in a generation ended the tax credit. The film industry fled the state, much of it settling in Georgia, which had just passed a tax credit of its own.
That’s when London-based Pinewood Studios, a global powerhouse with facilities around the world, became interested in Georgia. Pinewood wanted a presence in Atlanta to serve those taking advantage of the tax credit. To leverage capital, it wanted a local partner.
Enter Dan Cathy.
In 2013, Pinewood and River’s Rock, a trust of the Cathy family, formed a joint venture. The partnership resulted in the construction of Pinewood Atlanta, the largest production studio facility in the country outside of California. In 2016, in part because of the build-out of Pinewood Atlanta, Georgia overtook California as the state location with the most feature films produced. These movies included several in the Marvel superhero franchise. In 2015, at least 248 television and movie projects were shot in Georgia, spending $1.7 billion in the state. That’s more than six times the film business spending in Georgia in 2008. And Pinewood Atlanta Studios was a cornerstone of this growth.
But culturally speaking, Georgia is not California.
In 2018, the Georgia Senate passed a bill that protected Christian adoption agencies from being forced to place children with gay couples. (The bill did not prevent gay couples from adopting from other agencies.) In early 2019, Georgia passed a heartbeat, saying abortion was illegal once a baby’s heartbeat was detected.
Progressive activists in the film industry reacted strongly to both moves, threatening to leave the state if the bills passed. The Senate bill banning gay adoption was rapidly revised in the House. The final version did not prevent gay adoption. As for the heartbeat bill: Disney and Netflix were among the half-dozen studios and scores of actors who threatened to boycott the state if the bill was passed. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the heartbeat bill into law, but court challenges have prevented enforcement.
So maybe, after all this pressure, Georgia was becoming more like California after all.
Through it all, Dan Cathy was silent. Was he feeling the pressure, too? Repeated attempts to interview Cathy produced no results. But one thing was clear: his British partners had had enough. In August, Pinewood Group announced it has sold its stake in Pinewood Atlanta Studios to the Cathy family trust.
The Company He Keeps
Pressure from Hollywood may not be the only reason Dan Cathy’s priorities have shifted. Another reason for shift in priorities at Chick-fil-A may be some of the associates Dan Cathy has brought into his inner circle in recent years.
One of them is Frank Patterson. Since 2016, Patterson has been president of Pinewood Atlanta Studios. He oversees film, television, music, video game, and digital operations. Patterson was previously co-founder and chief creative officer of Pulse Evolution, a digital media company. Patterson also taught at Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts, where he served as dean from 2003 until taking over at Pinewood.
A look at Pulse Evolution’s projects provides a glimpse into the worldview of its founder. The company develops “hyper realistic digital humans.” It is perhaps most famous for creating computer-generated likenesses of real people (such as a Michael Jackson hologram at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards).
Pinewood’s British parent was best known for providing state-of-the-art studio space for the productions of others. Since opening in 2014, Pinewood provided studio space for “Ant-Man,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” and Sony’s “Passengers.” Under Frank Patterson’s leadership, he wants to turn Pinewood Atlanta into a content producer. It’s too early to tell what kind of content he will be bringing to the studio, but Patterson’s best known protégé while at Florida State University was Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed “Moonlight,” the first LGBTQ movie ever to win an Oscar.
Movies don’t seem to have much in common with chicken sandwiches, but Dan Cathy insists, “I got involved in the film and motion picture industry based on a philosophy or strategy by my late father Truett Cathy: ‘Learn to obey those unexpected opportunities.’”
Another person helping Dan Cathy “obey…unexpected opportunities” is Rodney Bullard, the executive director of the Chick-Fil-A Foundation. Bullard has become a lightning rod for Chick-fil-A criticism because of his political donations to the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns. He was also a supporter of congressional candidate Kevin Abel, whose pro-abortion and pro-LGBTQ positions became rallying cries for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Georgia.
What is perhaps most interesting about the sudden uproar over Chick-fil-A’s donations is that they’ve been hiding in plain sight for years. Under Bullard’s leadership, the Chick-fil-a Foundation has quietly re-directed money toward liberal and sometimes anti-Christian groups. It was Ryan Bomberger, writing for Townhall, who first blew the whistle on Chick-fil-A’s giving. He wrote:
Chick-fil-A also gives tens of thousands to Chris 180 ($27,500 in 2017, $25k in 2019), a pro-LGBT behavioral health and child welfare service agency. The organization boasts of being awarded the “Leader in Supporting and Serving LGBT Families and Youth from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC).” Nothing promotes human degradation quite like the pro-abortion HRC—the multi-million dollar LGBT powerhouse that recently pushed for the legalization of prostitution in D.C.
A Village for “Creatives”
Dan Cathy has also made a big bet on the real estate around Pinewood Atlanta Studios. He’s the founder and “chief visionary” of Pinewood Forest, a 230-acre densely packed development that caters to “creatives.”
Rob Parker, the president of Pinewood Forest, wrote on the community’s blog: “Early in the planning for Pinewood Forest, our founder cast a vision of a place where people would thrive physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.” That means, according to Parker, “Pinewood Forest has created a world-class Wellness Center in the heart of our Town Center.” The community will also include more than 1,200 residences as well as retail, office space, restaurants and coffee shops, and health care facilities. Parker adds, “The entire community has been planned with wellness in mind. Whether it’s the fifteen miles of walking trails, healthy culinary choices, tennis, basketball, pickleball, or numerous fitness events, this is a healthy place to live.”
Dan Cathy made his fortune with a sign in his restaurants that say his business will “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” It is among the ironies of this meticulously planned community, a community designed to meet every need, that there’s no mention of two amenities you might expect: A Chick-fil-A restaurant. Or a church. (Though in an email to MinistryWatch, Rob Parker wrote: “We have plans for a chapel, and we also anticipate there will be churches/faith-related programs in our commercial district/event center.”)
Perhaps that will come to pass, but elsewhere in the country, such “creative communities” are often not very faith or family friendly, which is ironic given Chick-fil-A’s success was built on “family values.” Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class originally championed the sort of development Dan Cathy is building. However, by 2014 he was having second thoughts about some of the ideas in his breakthrough book, and by 2017 he admitted in a new book that some of the developments motivated by catering to a “creative class” was leading to a “new urban crisis” that resulted in racial and class segregation and made it difficult for middle-class families to live.
Long before such television programs as “Portlandia” mocked the “creative class,” Timothy Egan of the New York Times documented the phenomenon of planned cities being good for deserts when it came to churches, elementary schools, and children. In a 2005 article headlined: “Vibrant cities find one thing missing: children.”
So much for family values.
A Method in the Madness?
Since the November uproar over Chick-fil-A Foundation giving patterns, things have calmed down a bit. Talk of a boycott never fully materialized. The American Family Association launched an on-line petition criticizing Chick-fil-A and asking for a clarification of its policies. Other than generating more than 100,000 names that the AFA can use for future fundraising efforts, the petition had little effect, though it did motivate a cordial letter from Chick-Fil-A President Dan Cathy to AFA President Tim Wildmon. In the letter, Cathy said, the changes in the foundation’s “giving strategy” had “inadvertently discredited several outstanding organizations.” He also said Chick-fil-A would continue to “give to faith-based and other organizations” but that “grant recipients will likely rotate.”
What the letter did not say was what many conservatives wanted it to say: That it had made a mistake when it gave to the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations that many Christians find objectionable. Though it did attempt to explain the SPLC donation: “The SPLC donation was made by a volunteer member of the Chick-fil-A Foundation Advisory Board,” a Chick-fil-A spokesperson told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Each volunteer advisor, in 2017, was offered the opportunity to recommend a grant recipient,” the spokesperson said, according to the DCNF. “The grants were given to a range of organizations, including Meals on Wheels, Atlanta Mission, the Holocaust Survivor Support Fund, Georgia Historical Society and brain health research at Emory University.”
And according to an analysis by Emily Belz of WORLD Magazine, most of Chick-fil-A Foundation’s contributions still go to Christian charities. However, even her analysis notes a shift. Belz writes that among the recipients of major grants from the Chick-fil-A Foundation was Atlanta-based City of Refuge. She explained:
City of Refuge is a homeless ministry in Atlanta started by a Pentecostal pastor. City of Refuge says it is “faith-based” on its site, but doesn’t have much other reference to Christianity in its mission or in videos interviewing organization leaders. Earlier this year, according to the Internet Archive, it had Matthew 5:14,16 on its homepage — “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. … Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” — but that is now gone.
These confusing messages are why Tim Wildmon said the AFA planned to keep a skeptical eye on Chick-fil-A, while hoping for the best. “Most of the Christians I know love Chick-fil-A and want to trust the company to uphold scriptural principles. We have all been huge fans of Chick-fil-A, and want that to continue,” Wildmon said.
Indeed, it is that love for Chick-fil-A that perhaps more than any other reason has been the source of this conflict. As conservative commentator Todd Starnes said, “A lot of folks took their original decision personally — leaving many people of faith feeling angry, bewildered and betrayed. The reason we took it so personally is that we never thought of ourselves as Chick-fil-A customers, we thought of ourselves as family.”