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Ford Decision Shows Economic Power of Right-Wing Christian Groups

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) As more companies adopt gay-friendly business policies, they risk the wrath of conservative Christian groups prepared to take action with their collective buying power. “People are willing to fight back with their pocketbooks,” said Tim Wildmon, president of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association (AFA), a conservative group that […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) As more companies adopt gay-friendly business policies, they risk the wrath of conservative Christian groups prepared to take action with their collective buying power.

“People are willing to fight back with their pocketbooks,” said Tim Wildmon, president of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association (AFA), a conservative group that has boycotted such companies.

Its latest victory was a big one, a concession from Ford Motor Co. to pull most of its advertising from gay publications. The American Family Association called off a threatened boycott against Ford on Nov. 30, six months after Ford dealers asked for time to address the conservative group’s complaints.

The AFA accused Ford of “extensive promotion of homosexuality.” Ford, along with General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, offers domestic partner benefits to gay employees, and has contributed to gay causes.

Ford “has heard our concerns,” said Donald Wildmon, the AFA’s chairman, in a news release. “They are acting on our concerns.”

Ford officials told the Detroit Free Press that shrinking marketing budgets, not the possible boycott, led the Jaguar and Land Rover divisions to pull ads from gay magazines. Ford’s Volvo brand, however, will continue to target the gay market.

“We reserve the right to advertise our brands and products wherever we think it makes business sense,” said a company memo to an employee group, the Gay Lesbian Or Bisexual Employees, according to the Free Press. “This is something we spoke very candidly about with the AFA.”

A coalition of 18 gay rights groups, meanwhile, blasted Ford for apparently agreeing to the demands of the “extremist” AFA.

The organization’s methods are not unique. Liberal and moderate religious groups have long used economic pressure to leverage what they consider social justice.

A four-year boycott of Taco Bell, led by mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, ended in early March after the company agreed to raise pay for tomato pickers in Florida. Now Presbyterians and the National Council of Churches are seeking to apply equal pressure on McDonald’s.

And during the past year, some of those same churches _ led by the Presbyterian Church (USA) _ have considered withdrawing millions of dollars in investments from Israeli companies to protest that country’s treatment of Palestinians.

Christian conservative organizations like AFA are employing some of those same tactics to target companies for practices that don’t align with their values and beliefs, especially gay rights. And they say they’re just getting started.

“The companies that are aggressively promoting the homosexual agenda, we are going to highlight,” Tim Wildmon said.

He said boycotts are used only in cases they consider egregious. As examples, he mentioned donating money to gay rights parades and groups like Human Rights Campaign or buying advertising during the television shows “Will and Grace” or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” or in gay magazines like Out or the Advocate.

Wildmon said AFA may launch a boycott against Kraft Foods because of the company’s support of the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. “If most people knew Kraft sponsored the Gay Games, they probably wouldn’t buy their macaroni and cheese anymore,” he said.

The decision to boycott Kraft, Wildmon said, will depend on whether the company agrees to never sponsor the games again.

Economic efforts by religious conservatives have had mixed results. In 1997, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, launched a boycott of the Walt Disney Co., in part for festivities at its theme parks reaching out to gays. In June, that boycott was lifted. Critics of the boycott said it failed because Disney has not changed its position on gays. But Southern Baptist leaders argued the boycott contributed to financial troubles at Disney and an increasing receptivity to their values. They cited Disney’s current film “The Chronicles of Narnia” as an example of positive change.

Religious conservatives say other cases of economic pressure have been at least partially effective:

_ Microsoft received harsh criticism and boycott threats from an evangelical minister earlier this year after it voiced support for legislation that would outlaw workplace discrimination against gays in the company’s home state of Washington. Microsoft pulled back its support for the bill, then returned to its original position after feeling pressure from gay-rights activists inside and outside the company.

_ In September 2004, conservative Christian groups including the AFA and Focus on the Family asked supporters to suspend purchases of Procter & Gamble’s Tide laundry detergent and Crest toothpaste after the company donated $10,000 to a campaign to repeal a Cincinnati ordinance barring the enactment of gay-rights laws. The boycott was dropped in April because AFA said P&G was “backing off its support for the homosexual agenda.”

Companies are being forced to consider complicated and charged issues surrounding such threats, according to Bradley Googins, executive director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College.

“Now a company has to weigh who is going to be putting pressure and how to calculate impact,” Googins said.

The threatened boycott hit Ford at a vulnerable time. The automaker has seen falling sales and plans to announce a restructuring plan in January, with plant closings and layoffs expected.

Alan Murray, a business columnist with The Wall Street Journal, wrote that a boycott “could have been a serious nuisance to Ford at a time when it is considering launching a political-style campaign to win over red-state soccer moms.”

Daryl Herrschaft, deputy director of the workplace project of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based group advocating gay rights, said his organization is keeping its members and the community aware of economic actions by AFA and other conservative Christian groups, but is confident companies will, in the end, continue their commitments to diversity.

“At the end of the day, the fundamental American value and business value is of equal opportunity for all,” Herrschaft said.

Wildmon said he hopes the efforts by AFA and its supporters will persuade companies to take themselves out of the “culture wars.”

“We aren’t asking for them to write checks to the American Family Association, we are asking them to stay out, stay neutral,” he said.

MO/KRE/JL END PATEL

Editors: This is an updated version of a story, RNS-GAY-BOYCOTTS, that first ran July 20.

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