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New York Newsday: Christian right exhorts consumer crusades

by Carol EisenbergNewsday
December 14th, 2005

The mere mention of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's name sends ripples of anxiety through corporate boardrooms.

A sort of César Chávez of the religious right, the United Methodist minister from Tupelo, Miss., has championed consumer crusades against Sears Roebuck, Ford, Lowe's, Reader's Digest, Kraft and Disney, to name just a few, for dissing Christmas or supporting gay rights and abortion. Just last week, his group's threatened boycott against Ford for its "homosexual agenda" appears to have prompted the automaker to pull its ads from gay magazines, although Ford has denied that was the reason.

There was a time when even Wildmon thought boycotts might be beyond the pale for conservative Christians.

"At first, I felt very strange carrying a placard which screamed, 'Boycott Sears,'" he confessed in his autobiography about his first boycott against Sears in 1978 for advertising on the sexually charged "Charlie's Angels."

"When I had watched civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations on television, I had never envisioned that I would one day be doing the same thing. In my mind, carrying a sign conjured up images of rebellion, disrespect for authority and even violence. That's something good Christians just didn't do."

Using boycott as a strategy

But ever since that boycott achieved its goal in less than an hour, conservative Christian groups have been following the playbooks of the civil rights and labor movements. What began with Wildmon and a few others as a fringe effort in the late 1970s has become the strategy of choice of dozens of conservative Christian organizations, which now boast Internet databanks with millions of addresses and full-time advocacy staffs.

Today, Wildmon's American Family Association, the New York-based Catholic League and the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, to name a few, use techniques such as boycotts, investor resolutions and e-mail campaigns to "promote the Biblical ethic of decency in American society," as Wildmon's group puts it.

While analysts say that such efforts often have just a small effect on companies' bottom lines, the negative publicity is often enough to spur quick action from corporate executives - especially if the company is already financially beleaguered like Ford.

"Don't forget that corporations, large and small, are spending significant sums of money to create and to nurture a brand image, and these actions chip away at the foundation of that image," said Jeff Stoltman, a Wayne State University marketing professor. "So all the equity they built up in the Ford name or the Disney name is put at risk."

Major retailers targeted

In the last few weeks, major retailers including Sears, Target, Lowe's, Nordstrom and Wal-Mart have been caught in the crosshairs for substituting "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" in promotions. Most have changed in response.

Wells Fargo abruptly lost its contract with Focus on the Family because the San Francisco bank contributed to a gay rights group. Kraft, Walgreens and Harris Bank are being threatened with boycotts for giving money to the 2006 Gay Games, slated for Chicago next summer.

American Girl, which manufactures dolls and books, is being boycotted because the company donated proceeds from the sale of a special "I Can" wristband to Girls Inc., a nonprofit group that supports girls' education programs, including those that promote the right to abortion.

Even Microsoft, a leader in offering domestic partner benefits, dropped its support for a gay rights bill in the state of Washington this spring after a local minister threatened a boycott. After a public outcry, the company reversed its position.

"I think what you're seeing is certain groups on the Christian right more openly embracing what's been called the culture wars and demanding litmus tests over issues that are important to them," said Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Mass., group that researches the religious right.

To Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, it's just common sense to put your money where your mouth is - especially if you believe your values are under assault.

"Just about any poll today shows that a great majority of Americans are concerned about the moral direction of our country," Sharp said. "They're fed up with political correctness. They're fed up with anti-Christian bias. And they want their voices to be heard. We simply provide a tool for them to make their voices heard."

Boycotts, of course, are nothing new in a nation that cut its teeth on the Boston Tea Party. The country's most famous boycott was the Montgomery, Ala., protest in 1955, when blacks refused to ride city buses in a protest that helped end legal segregation.

And plenty of left-leaning religious groups still use economic pressure to advance their own agendas, from the recently ended boycott of Taco Bell over its pay of tomato pickers, to the Presbyterian church's call for divesting from companies that supply the Israeli military.

What has changed is both the upsurge in conservatives' use of such tactics and a track record that includes some high-profile, if often indirect, successes - from getting companies to restore "Merry Christmas" to ad campaigns to pressuring them to ax their support for Planned Parenthood, said Pratap Chatterjee of Corpwatch, a corporate watchdog group in Oakland, Calif.

Others, however, are skeptical, suggesting the tactics are most effective at building the groups' membership and donations.

"If you measure success in terms of framing an issue, doing education and outreach, raising money and raising awareness, then these efforts have been wildly successful," Berlet said.

"But if you measure it as whether the group achieves the stated goal of the boycott, then most of them are not successful."

Success of tactic debated

Doubters cite the example of Disney, which endured nine years of conservative boycotts but never backed off its gay-friendly policies, including offering benefits to same-sex partners.

"They dropped that boycott because it wasn't successful," said Brad Luna, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. "When companies don't cave, they suffer no consequences."

Sharp, however, calls the effort a success, citing the September resignation of chief executive Michael Eisner, the company's split with Miramax, which had produced some of its most controversial films, and the company's support of more family-friendly fare, such as the newly released "The Chronicles of Narnia."

"Is there more to do?" he asked. "Yes, of course. But there always is."

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