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.
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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.
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.