Five years after launching a blistering verbal attack on the Walt Disney Company, the Southern Baptist Convention is mute about its boycott.
At the 1996 SBC meeting, Southern Baptists passed a resolution warning of a boycott if Disney continued its “antiChristian and antifamily trend.” It urged Baptists “to give prayerful and serious consideration” to visiting Disney theme parks and purchasing Disney products.
Richard Land, president of the SBC’s public policy agency, declared, “The clock is running; the alarm goes off next June.” He said, “Unless Disney is far more forthcoming in their sensitivity to Southern Baptist concerns, I predict it will be a bumpy road ahead.”
In 1997, the SBC launched its boycott. It adopted a resolution urging Southern Baptists to “refrain from patronizing The Disney Company and any of its related entities.” The resolution said, “The Disney Company has not only ignored our concerns, but flagrantly furthered this moral digression in its products and policies.” It accused the Disney Company of “increasingly promoting immoral ideologies … which are biblically reprehensible and abhorrent to God.”
Following the resolution’s adoption, the SBC busied itself identifying Disney-owned companies and telling Southern Baptists how to boycott the corporation.
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “Michael Eisner, Donald, Mickey, and company had better listen—there is a thunderous outrage building outside the Magic Kingdom.”
By 1999, the Baptist outrage was fast disappearing.
Before the SBC met in Orlando in 2000, convention spokesman Herb Hollinger told a reporter, “We know a bunch of them [Southern Baptists] are going to go” to Disney. “That’s just the way it is,” he said.
In his presidential address, the typically pontifical Paige Patterson said Southern Baptists must “be discriminating in our entertainment,” referring to the convention’s three-year-old boycott of Walt Disney Co. Almost no other official comments were made about the boycott.
Convention messenger Jessie Sanders of Titusville, Fla., did make a motion asking for a study on the effects of the SBC boycott of Disney. His motion was referred to the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for a report in 2001, according to Baptist Press, the official communications arm of the SBC.
Rather than present a study on the effects of the boycott, the ERLC redirected the motion. It reported to the 2001 SBC what Disney must do in order for Baptists to end their boycott.
According to a search of Baptist Press’ Web site, the denomination’s news organization carried 26 Disney stories in 1997 and 18 in 1998. As of May 31, 2002, BP had run only 1 article about Disney in 2002.
The lack of press coverage provides evidence that the SBC understands the boycott failed. But why did it fail? And how does the SBC end its boycott?
If compared to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, the Disney boycott failed for three reasons. First, the bus boycotters had a clear objective: the desegregation of the bus system. The SBC’s objectives were too broad, targeting too many Disney-owned companies.
Second, Montgomery blacks participated fully. An estimated 90 percent of the African-American community stayed off the buses. Southern Baptist commitment was spotty from the beginning. One boycott leader said he would still use his passes to Disneyland. Another leader said he would continue to watch sports on ESPN, a Disney affiliate. Both leaders were widely quoted screaming support for the boycott.
Third, the moral wrong of bus segregation was easily recognized across the nation. The charge that Disney promoted “immoral ideologies” never was accepted.
Boycotts are a proven and noble approach to social change, but only when leaders are prudent about their strategy and committed to their cause. Boycotts rooted in moral self-righteousness and lacking moral endurance wash away like sandcastles on a beach.
As for ending the failed boycott, the SBC has two paths. One way is to redefine the boycott. The SBC can claim success by saying it faithfully condemned sin, defended the American family and testified to God’s will. Emphasizing spiritual matters instead of economic ones, faithfulness instead of effectiveness, the boycott will be declared a victory.
Another way is silence. Unable to admit failure, Southern Baptist leaders will ignore their earlier pontifical threats and hope that rank-and-file church members forget their bombastic statements. Like the three monkeys, SBC leaders will speak no failure, see no failure and hear no failure. The boycott will quietly disappear from the SBC agenda.
The moral of the story may be that self-righteous chest-thumping brings no real social change.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.