The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s Liberty University commencement speech is that he went easy on the right-wing pandering, that he soft-soaped the evangelical Christian graduates yesterday with platitudes about faith and family, that he steered clear of ideological politics except to assert in passing that “marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”Forget the conventional wisdom. Virtually all of the media coverage overlooked the episode when Romney spoke in code.It happened when Romney lauded Chick-fil-A.Say what?Bear with me, folks. We’ll decode this together. Romney appeared on the commencement stage with Truett Cathy, the 91-year-old founder of the popular chicken chain. He was awarded an honorary degree. Take it away, Mitt: “In some ways, it is fitting that I share this distinction with Truett Cathy. The Romney campaign comes to a sudden stop when we spot a Chick-fil-A. Your chicken sandwiches were our comfort food through the primary season, and there were days that we needed a lot of comforting. So, Truett, thank you and congratulations on your well-deserved honor today.”As a deft dog whistle to the gay-hating Republican right, as a coded shout-out that escapes the ears of the average listener, that passage wins first prize.The paean to Chick-fil-A may seem innocuous to most people, but not to religious conservatives. Because it just so happens that Chick-fil-A is a major source of money for religious conservatives. Rest assured that the methodical Romney team knew all about Chick-fil-A and its right-wing role before it crafted that paragraph of praise.
Chick-fil-A is also the only big restaurant chain that’s closed on Sundays, and franchisees who flout that rule risk being fired. Truett Cathy won’t hire anyone whose private life fails to meet moral muster (his people investigate the backgrounds, and even question the children, of potential hires), and he likes to say that “the Lord has never spoken to me, but I feel Chick-fil-A has been His gift.”Granted, it’s his private business, and he can certainly run it the way he wants. But here’s the political link: Between 2003 and 2008, according to public IRS records, the chain’s charitable arm dispensed nearly $700,000 to the National Christian Foundation, which in turn divvied up the bucks into hundreds of grants for groups that oppose gay marriage and equal rights for gays in general. The lucky recipients included Focus on the Family, Family Life (whose CEO has railed on his website about “a radical homosexual element” that’s out to capture America’s children), and the Family Research Council.In addition, Chick-fil-A’s charitable arm gave money directly to the Family Research Council (whose director, Tony Perkins, said yesterday that Romney gave “a really good speech”), to the Alliance Defense Fund (which is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of America’s most influential anti-gay groups), and to a group called Serving Marriages Inc. (which says its mission is to honor God by promoting “Biblically accurate marriage models for society to pattern”).So when Romney said yesterday that his campaign entourage suddenly stops whenever it spots a Chick-fil-A (a claim I don’t believe for a moment), he was dog-whistling to his most well-attuned listeners that Team Romney applauds the chicken chain that helps to finance the movement to deny gays their equal rights as Americans.Even for Romney, this may have been the shrewdest and subtlest right-wing pander of 2012. ——-I’m slated to do another Live Chat tomorrow morning. Stay tuned for the link.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1