Culture Ethics

Franklin Graham’s boycott points us toward an enclave society (COMMENTARY)

A Wells Fargo branch is seen in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young
A Wells Fargo branch is seen in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young
A Wells Fargo branch is seen in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young


A Wells Fargo branch is seen in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

(RNS) The news that Franklin Graham’s effort to boycott gay-friendly Wells Fargo had only landed him at gay-friendly BB&T was embarrassing for him in several ways. But the bigger story is the rise of boycott culture in America.

It seems that every day brings a new boycott threat. Many of these are across the culture-wars barricades:

Corporations, entertainers, and religious groups began boycotting Indiana this spring for its refusal-to-serve laws, which some consider a matter of “religious liberty” and others say are “anti-gay.” Similar pressure was brought to bear on Arkansas. The same boycott pressures killed such a bill in my home state of Georgia.

In response, two Christian right organizations — the Family Research Council and the American Family Association — called for a boycott of boycotter Angie’s List to protest its protests.

Boycotts can be used by any side — right, left, center, kitty-corner, diagonal or whatever — for any purpose deemed significant enough for a boycott threat.

One of the most visible and highly organized boycott campaigns is the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel — sometimes targeted more narrowly against companies that do business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A movement to divest investment portfolios from companies dealing in fossil fuels has gained some traction in recent years, as schools such as my alma mater Union Theological Seminary in New York have embraced such divestment.

One of the first times I ever found myself opposing a boycott threat was in 1997, when the Southern Baptist Convention decided to boycott Disney for being too gay-friendly. I thought it was a disastrous decision and said so in the pages of Christianity Today under the memorable title, “The Speck in Mickey’s Eye.”

“Nashville” was not pleased. It was the beginning of the end of my relationship with that particular denomination.

But I was right. The Disney boycott was an embarrassing failure, abandoned eight years later — a powerful foreshadowing of the Christian right’s defeat in U.S. culture.

Boycotts have a long track record. From a history-of-ethics perspective, they can be seen as one tool among dozens in the nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, and social change toolbox. Boycotts — which can take many forms, all essentially involving a morally based refusal to engage in commercial affairs with some corporate or political entity — are a way of bringing about social change through moral pressure felt at the bottom line.

Nations can boycott other nations — this is usually called economic sanctions or embargoes. The U.S. has deployed such sanctions repeatedly, against all kinds of foes for all kinds of reasons.

Citizen groups can boycott nations.

Citizens, businesses, cities, even other states can boycott other states. Connecticut, for example, barred state-funded travel to Indiana this past spring over its anti-gay legislation.

An entire tradition of socially responsible investing is built on the idea of making moral distinctions among business entities for investment purposes. SRI is not a dramatic public protest strategy but the goal is not altogether different.

Boycotts are most likely to work when the boycott is very carefully planned; when the boycotters clearly have the moral high ground; when they can convince the broader public that the boycott is a last resort; when they can build a critical mass of public support; and when there is some chance that a boycott can make a meaningful difference.

Rev. Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Rev. Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Graham’s effort to boycott Wells Fargo failed on all five counts. There was no apparent plan. Only a minority of Americans finds the effort to turn back advances in gay rights morally compelling. The shrinking constituency of the Christian right limits the ability to build a critical mass of support. There is no chance that a boycott can make a dent in Wells Fargo’s bottom line. And discovering that BB&T is also gay-friendly is not only embarrassing but instructive — corporate America has already made its decision on the gay issue. Other than hiding his funds in a mattress, Graham has few banking alternatives.

What’s really worrisome is the tattered state of the American cultural fabric revealed and worsened by constant boycott threats.

Commerce is the great amoral American public square. Generally speaking it’s a good thing that we don’t take each other’s moral temperatures when we go shopping.

A society where everyone threatens everyone else with a boycott is a dystopian nightmare. All our threats push us further toward an enclave society where we talk and do business with only those who share our entire package of religious, political, and moral beliefs. We’re partly there already.


About the author

David Gushee


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  • I fully agree. And as an evangelical Christian who works at Wells Fargo, I feel kinda embarrassed by Graham’s approach to this matter, even though I agree with his ethical stance on homosexuality. I just don’t find anything Biblically compelling about boycotting. The goal of boycotting is to financially harm somebody else to bend them to conform to your will. That doesn’t scream New Testament to me.

    Consider the following:

  • There is nothing new testamenty about Graham’s slander, reviling and obvious malice directed at gay people either. but there you have it.

    Does it bother you at all?

    ““In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” So laws restricting freedom of speech and assembly are just fine, as long as they “protect the children” from a non-existent threat.

    “guest anchor Martha Raddatz played a clip where Graham said, “Yes, they can recruit” when the interviewer noted that gays and lesbians can adopt children.” Slander, fear-mongering, lies.

    “allowing lesbian and gay couples to adopt is “taking advantage of children, exploiting children.”

    there is more, of course. It is one thing to believe homosexuality is a sin, though I believe it is an abuse of scripture in service to prejudice.

    It is quite another thing to…

  • Boycott language that is still perfect:

    “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.”

    – 1 Peter 4

  • Apparently the Disciples Of Christ (Christian Church) denomination believes very strongly in boycotts, as everybody saw over in Indiana. They openly collaborated (via boycott) with the Gay Gestapo; they openly fought against the religious freedom of their fellow Christians.

    And that boycott worked very well. Killed religious freedom in Indiana, quite quickly. Thanks, Disciples Of Christ.

    Obviously Franklin Graham won’t have the same success with his boycott. Unfortunately, his effort will fail. Corporate America has indeed sold its soul to the Gay Marriage Religion.

    Besides, the real question is not whether Corporations agree with the Bible, but whether CHRISTIANS agree with the Bible. Unlike Graham, way too many Christians are clearly DIS-agreeing with their own Bibles. That’s no good.

    Rev. Graham is at least taking a real stand, instead of shrugging his shoulders and/or surrendering. THAT kind of conviction, is what we need right now.

  • I’m a liberal from Texas. Never mind Chick Filet, pretty much every mom and pop fried chicken joint down here is owned by born agains. If you won’t shop there, your frying your own chicken. Besides I’m sure I can find something to disagree about with just about anybody. I don’t care about your politics, I care about the quality of the chicken and believe me, the chicken is golden fried and sanctified down here.

  • Graham should realize that The Church came from and lived in the same kind of sexual and greedy evil society that we have demanding civil rights now. We don’t need to boycott companies, just unrepentant people.

  • No surprise here considering the theological slant of the author. This is simply a “bash Franklin Graham and evangelical Christians” propaganda piece. The message is crystal clear: Boycotts are awesome when David Gushee agrees with them; Boycotts are a huge embarrassment when he disagrees with them.

    Most expect better from someone who claims to be a “Christian ethicist”.

  • That would be true if it had nothing to do with Graham’s conduct. Franklin Graham does a lot to deserve negative criticism. The boycott plan was not only obnoxious in intent, it was completely boneheaded in execution. It was probably the only boycott out there which ENRICHED its target.

  • Nah, the Chick-Fil-A “boycott” and the impossibly silly “kiss-in” was the best thing that ever happened to CFA.

  • Except Chik Fil-A have killed any chances of expansion in many metropolitan areas and are lawsuit-bait here on in.

  • Hee hee…I hear one is coming soon to your neck of the woods.

    And no, they’re not lawsuit-bait, because they’ve never “discriminated against” anybody in any way. I hear they didn’t even bother the “kiss-in” participants — just stood back and let everyone point and laugh.

    But thanks for admitting that most of these “discrimination” lawsuits are a matter of bait. We all suspected as much already.

  • Susan, I’ve seen the children of gay parents (not sure whether adopted, or not), and the kids display the parents’ way of life. That is very bad. Kids only know what they are taught. They receive formation from their parents. And we all know how that living in a gay household would not be gender neutral training. So I would ten to agree with Graham in the general sense, but all situations are different.

  • “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” Rev 18:4

  • Greg. you are just making that up. But don’t let that stop you.

    Let’s see: every single one of the literally thousands of gay people I have known in my life have had heterosexual parents. They are surrounded by a heterosexual-only culture, surrounded by an anti-gay culture, and yet, they are all gay!!!!

    Go figure.

  • With BLESSINGS to ALL I hear and see these comments from many directions.
    The question that I have is, who among you, cast the first stone !!
    What was your experience when you became ” GOD ”
    The greatest sin (if you believe in sin) is to think you are Godley
    Where is the understanding we are all part of GOD !!
    Even more BLESSINGS !!
    Rec. Neil

  • Unless you count the lawsuits having to do with gender discrimination, sectarian discrimination, failing to take action with sexual harassment complaints. That doesn’t even factor in Cathy’s predilection for funding attacks on the civil liberties of gays.

    So if they are the subject of discrimination lawsuits, how can you say they never discriminated? You just can’t keep a story straight.

  • Where you get your facts is one large mystery. Invention? Next, the book of Revelations is hardly a slice of Christianity wherein the content matches history or any version of science. Christian veracity is a myth and yours suffers just a bit also!

  • I’m talking about anti-gay discrimination, of course. But lots of large businesses get sued for gender discrimination of some sort — and in case you didn’t know, it’s not the same as a finding of discrimination. Get back to me when you have one of those.

  • I guess you are now qualifying and limiting your previous statement of:
    “they’ve never “discriminated against” anybody in any way

    Because everything has to be qualified and weaselworded with you. Typical.

  • Hey Jimmy, just a few observations here.

    (First of all, I totally agree with you. I have my own reasons for not boycotting)

    Anyway, I wrote because you led with “as an evangelical Christian who works at Wells Fargo…”

    I just wonder why people do that so much in their writing nowadays. (As if their opinion wouldn’t be credible without the preamble/caveat, when in fact their opinion is every bit as valid without it.)

    I heard a commercial on the radio that said, “as a retired schoolteacher, I like to save money on my shopping bill”. To which I replied sarcastically, “as a man, I like to order a large cheese pizza”.

    Basically saying, “don’t all of us like to save money? Being a schoolteacher means more to saving money than a non-teacher?” What does one have to do with the other? LOL

    I also think it’s funny (not absurd, just chuckle-worthy) when doctors write to the newspaper and sign “M.D.” after their name on the letter.

    Sorry if offensive…