Disney is notorious for staying above the fray. You don’t become a company with its virtually unprecedented level of universal appeal by taking sides. The company has coasted to enormous power on the smooth winds of inoffensiveness.
But every now and then, Disney has found its back against a wall and on the business end of a boycott. It happened a full generation ago, when the Religious Right engineered a (very loose) boycott over LGBTQ inclusion at Disney parks. And now, Disney has found itself in the same conflict, tangling with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and an army of culture warriors over what critics have deemed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The result has been a very high profile dissolution of Disney’s unique, self-governing district in Florida — a move that will shift a burden to the state’s taxpayers. But that might be an acceptable bit of collateral in the culture war, where branding Disney employees “groomers” is quickly getting mainstreamed into acceptable strategy.
But if Disney finds itself in unusual territory, it’s a pretty standard one for many American Christians, who have often wielded boycotts against companies and corporations as a way of making their voice heard. But should Christians be using boycotts like this?
Boycotts Never Work
In 2012, Starbucks was one of a number of high-profile companies that were (unsuccessfully) boycotted for having some sort of tie to the support of same-sex marriage. To date, Starbucks, Heinz, Wells Fargo, Home Depot and other companies targeted by the activists seem to be doing pretty well despite a handful of boycotters loudly taking their business elsewhere.
Every year, a “Naughty” list of retailers who use holiday greetings other than “Merry Christmas” is released by one organization, which encourages readers to boycott places that don’t employ the exact seasonal terminology they deem required to do business in the United States. And every year, businesses manage to stay open despite being subjected to an all-out boycott for not saying the words “Merry Christmas.”
Harry Potter, Disney, the Beatles and Martin Scorsese all have been the targets of organized efforts of some concerned Christian consumers who felt their values or beliefs were under attack by privately held companies that, despite misconceptions, are actually entitled to their own opinions without having to consult groups of angry, offended Christians.
Ironically, most of the time, when a notable Christian or Christian group organizes a boycott, it’s not over labor violations, dangerous working conditions, unethical business practices or environmental irresponsibility. It’s usually because of some perceived “attack” (aka having an opinion different from their own) on a social value or religious belief.
The reason these “boycotts” almost never work is because they were never about principles in the first place. They’re almost always about grandstanding.
Just like any consumer, Christians are free to support whatever companies they want with their business, for whatever reason they want. It’s not illogical that some people will do business with companies that share their values, opinions or ideas. It’s a free market and a free country, after all. But freedom works both ways.
People are allowed to have ideas that other people don’t like.
But, too often, public boycotts aren’t about shining a light on companies doing things some people don’t like. They’re about people grabbing the spotlight and turning it on themselves. The boycott is simply a megaphone.
The problem with these pop-culture boycotts (besides being ineffective), is that they operate under the notion that certain people’s ideas are so superior to anyone else’s, that the others don’t even deserve to exist. Even if you believe your values and faith represent the truth, squashing out all other beliefs isn’t an effective way to enter into meaningful dialogue.
Engagement VS. Suppression
The Apostle Paul demonstrates a different way of interacting with ideas and values we may not always agree with in culture. Instead of just suppressing them, we should know how to engage with them.
In the book of Acts, Paul is in the cultural hub of Athens. While in the marketplace, he was “distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul went to a meeting of cultural leaders, but instead of admonishing them for their beliefs and values, he praised them, and used their own culture as a means of civil engagement.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god … The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.”
By using an example of one of their own cultural ideas (even though he didn’t agree with idolatry), he was able to show that they were inadvertently “ignorant of the very thing you worship,” not in a way that trashed their culture, but in a way that actually used thoughtful, gracious engagement.
He then referenced one of their own cultural influencers saying, “He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else … God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
If Paul would have marched through the Athens marketplace attempting to drive everyone out of business for selling things he didn’t personally agree with, he would have missed an opportunity to share his own beliefs.
Boycotting would have made it about him, instead about the people he was called to serve and to love.
There’s a time to stand up against real injustice. Boycotts have been used to draw attention to actual social evils. But when Christians simply organize ineffective boycotts every time a celebrity, TV show or company does or says something they don’t disagree with, these Christians start to look like they are more concerned with protecting themselves than actually engaging with others.
We’re called to spend our lives making disciples, not closing down people’s businesses for not effectively celebrating our holiday or upholding our personal beliefs.
Christians shouldn’t be afraid of culture. They should be helping to shape it. And it’s hard to do that when you’re boycotting it.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.