Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy has been getting attention for his comments about gay marriage. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

It’s not every day that the leader of a big business steps into a national debate that has the potential to offend many of its customers.

But Dan Cathy, president of the popular fast food chain Chick-fil-A, has done just that, saying on a radio show that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage. And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.”

Following backlash after those remarks, Cathy then told the Baptist Press in an article posted July 16 that he is “guilty as charged” and is very “supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.”

Reaction has been fierce and swift. Bloggers sounded off. Celebrities promised to boycott Chick-fil-A. Fans of the company reacted on Twitter and Facebook with everything from support to disgust.

Chick-fil-A’s Christian ethos is already widely known. The chain, which has more than 100 locations in Virginia and more than 50 in Maryland, is closed on Sundays, pipes in hymns on the grounds surrounding its headquarters and has previously come under fire from lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender groups for donations made by the company’s foundation.

So why have Cathy’s comments caused such a stir? On the one hand, you could argue leaders of businesses, particularly private, family-owned ones, should be able to speak their minds. But when a business leader elects to take a public and vocal position on a hot-button political issue in an election year, he or she also risks losing the support of many of its customers. It is one thing to be an organization that “operate[s] on biblical principles”—staying closed on Sundays, making donations to groups it supports, remaining debt-free. But it is quite another to imply that people who support same-sex marriage—many of whom are surely customers—have a “prideful, arrogant attitude.”

Cathy’s remarks would have been less explosive, if still controversial, had he made them at least a bit more balanced, as he had in the past. In January of last year, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “we're not anti-anybody,” adding, “our mission is to create raving fans.” The company also issued a statement to the paper saying that ”while my family and I believe in the Biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who disagrees.”

It’s safe to guess Cathy may be making fewer such comments in the future. In a statement posted to the company’s Facebook page (and sent to me in response to a request for an interview), the company said its culture is to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.” In addition, it said, “going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

For leaders of companies with a national, diverse customer base, that’s probably where it should be.

More from On Leadership:

Boy Scouts reaffirms exclusion of gays, leadership question lingers

Poll: Will you continue to eat at Chick-fil-A?

On Faith: Dan Cathy’s stance

View Photo Gallery: A look at author Stephen Covey’s “habits” through the prism of seven successful leaders.

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