The Ethics of Christian Boycotting: If, When and How

In the wake of roiling controversies over whether Christians should frequent Starbucks, AT&T, Home Depot, J.C. Penney, Disney, Google or a host of other targeted brands in the marketplace, The Christian Post has asked Christian leaders to address boycotting and to consider whether or not the approach is consistent with Jesus' command to be "salt and light" in the world. A second question is how to make a boycott effective if and when a Christian boycott seems prudent and necessary.

Successful Christian boycotts are not new. In fact, Christian leaders argue, it was the boycott of the Montgomery Bus Company in Alabama led by the Rev. Martin Luther King that many claim to be the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement. When African-Americans, who were the overwhelming majority of the bus company's customers, refused any longer to ride or stand in the back of the bus, the company quickly went to authorities to get bus segregation laws revoked because of the drastic loss of revenue.

Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association (AFA) argues that the most successful boycotts are targeted tightly. "You cannot boycott the world. That is why AFA has generally stuck to one at a time as with Home Depot now," said Wildmon, son of Don Wildmon, who has pioneered many boycotts. "The idea is that if you demonstrate effectiveness with one company, others are going to take notice and listen when you approach them."

Christian leaders point out that MLK did not target all segregation laws at once, but did it sequentially. African-Americans in mid-20th Century Alabama were disenfranchised in many ways but they had power in the transit system because they represented the majority of the ridership. The essence of a Christian boycott, say these leaders, is the use of an available economic power in a specific and targeted way.

"A boycott is only after you have exhausted all other means of getting results such as persuasion based on the reasonableness of your request," Wildmon argues. "With companies, we just ask that they remain neutral in the culture war, not support one side or the other. Home Depot, for instance, has actively participated in homosexual pride parades across the country. For AFA, that crosses the line. We are not so much concerned about a company's internal affairs with their employees. It's when they financially support activism that we have a problem with. For example, giving financial contributions to the Human Rights Campaign or Planned Parenthood."

Other Christian leaders are not so sure targeting companies is a good witness. When the National Organization for Marriage launched a campaign in the wake of a confrontation at a shareholders meeting over Starbuck's active support of gay marriage, Russell Moore, outgoing dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and president-elect of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, disagreed with the plan.

In an opinion piece, he argues: "We won't win this argument by bringing corporations to the ground in surrender. We'll engage this argument, first of all, by prompting our friends and neighbors to wonder why we don't divorce each other, and why we don't split up when a spouse loses his job or loses her health. We'll engage this argument when we have a more exalted, and more mysterious, view of sexuality than those who see human persons as animals or machines. And, most of all, we'll engage this argument when we proclaim the meaning behind marriage: the covenant union of Christ and his church."

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. agrees. "Boycotts are ineffective and only cost Christian organizations time and money. They are futile and ineffective. Boycotting is not how Jesus did business. He was a carpenter and routinely mingled with known sinners."

Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, argues that "boycotts can be effective and have a variety of impacts." In a CP opinion piece she asserts: "One of the most notorious victories occurred in 1986, when an American Family Association (AFA) boycott successfully convinced 7-Eleven to ban its distribution of Playboy and Penthouse magazines. In 2008, too, an AFA boycott led to a McDonald's executive stepping down from a homosexual rights association board. We win moral victories, but might not always gain ground in the public arena. But if we abandon the argument, then there will be no light in the darkness."

Phil Cooke, a Christian CEO of Cooke Pictures in Hollywood, argues that Christians should not risk failure with an ill-formed boycott, for it weakens the Christian witness as well as accomplishes little. "A boycott should be a last ditch, nuclear option – only used when all other possibilities have failed," Cooke argues. "Obviously there are life and death issues in the culture, and if negotiation, influence, and every other option fails, a boycott may be the only option left. But remember – you have to be able to mobilize enough influence to make the boycott hurt the other side. The problem is, too many Christian organizations pick the wrong cause, pull the trigger far too early, or can't mobilize enough influence to cause any impact, and end up looking foolish."

Editor's Note: Alex Murashko, Paul Stanley, and Leonardo Blair contributed to this report.

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