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This Tool Takes More Than Grace to Work

Father Andrew M. Greeley is an author and professor of social sciences at the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago. His most recent novel is "Summer at the Lake."

Is the boycott against Disney proclaimed by the Southern Baptist Convention an effort for cheap grace? Does it enable the “messengers” (delegates) to the convention to take a stand four-square for traditional morality while at the same time not presenting any risks or costs to themselves? Will anyone notice if Disney does not cave in? Or if the boycott has no effect?

Boycotts are delicate matters. They work only if a large group of dedicated people can be mobilized toward a clear and specific goal with a highly focused strategy that will cause immediate harm to those against whom the boycott is directed.

In its origins in Ireland’s County Mayo in 1879, tenant farmers organized by the Land League refused to harvest crops on any land administered by one Charles Cunningham Boycott, a 48-year-old former British army officer. It worked.

It is difficult to see the similarities between the original boycott and the one proposed by the Southern Baptist Convention.

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Is it any more of a real threat to Disney than if the National Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed a similar boycott? While my research demonstrates that Southern Baptists take their leadership more seriously than do Catholics, there is no evidence that large numbers of either group take their cues on political, social or economic issues from their religious leadership.

How many precincts can a national denomination deliver?

The convention (in the sense of the annual meeting of the denomination) reflects the beliefs of Southern Baptists no more accurately than does the bishops’ conference reflect the opinion and beliefs of ordinary Catholics. While the convention rejects all compromise with its stand on the literal interpretation of the Bible, only 57% of Southern Baptists agree with that stand (according to data from the National Opinion Research Center’s annual General Social Survey). Among Southern Baptists under 40 years old, only about two-fifths of those who attend church weekly accept literal inerrancy. Moreover, less than 7% of the Southern Baptists support the entire agenda of the Christian right on abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex and school prayer.

The national media have given the Southern Baptists a bad rap because they assume that the convention of 12,000 adequately represents all 15 million members, all of whom will automatically fall into line once the convention has spoken.

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In effect, the convention has engaged in collective gay bashing and has asked its membership to join in the bashing. Against all the evidence that a homosexual orientation is not chosen (a position that even Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s gatekeeper, has reluctantly admitted), the convention insists that it is chosen freely and is therefore sinful. Doubtless many Southern Baptists find homosexuality less than attractive. But many also know gays who seem to be fine human beings. Such folks are not likely to be attracted to boycott over an issue about whose fundamental assumption they are ambivalent. Many other Southern Baptists might agree that homosexuality is willful and sinful but have other things to do or will not want to miss any of their TV programs on Disney stations or deprive their children of the newest Disney movie. The boycott will appeal to those who are already convinced and who probably have turned against Disney anyway.

The point is not that the Southen Baptist Convention is engaging in censorship when it takes on the Irish tactic against the notorious Capt. Boycott. Or that it is wrong to try to throw its weight around in the entertainment world. Rather the point is that a boycott that has little effect may finally be worse than no boycott. The entertainment world might begin to realize that the churches have less clout than they claim and that the people who write letters and carry placards can’t really deliver the votes.

Most boycott targets tend to assume that it is wise to settle the dispute before they lose money. Certainly the various boycotts of the Rev. Jesse Jackson are victorious precisely because of that management reaction.

Disney is perhaps made of sterner stuff. Apparently it realizes that it has enormous appeal in its vast entertainment empire and that a boycott that will activate much less than 5% of the American people is not a threat.

Do the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention realize that they will be able to deliver only a small number of their membership to such a vast project? Some may, but figure that they must be true to their moral convictions. Others probably believe that their membership is solidly behind them.

Just like some Catholic bishops believe that their membership is solidly behind them on the birth control issue.


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