This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Despite the fact that most of us have grown tired of the slippery slope of culture wars and their seemingly endless parade of “problematic” issues, the tensions between conservative Christians and progressives in America have no clear end in sight. In 2015, Starbucks was boycotted because its holiday-themed cups were simply red rather than a more explicitly Christmas design. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump connected this design choice to the “war on Christmas” and said, “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.”1 In 2016, Target was boycotted for allowing transgendered customers to use the bathroom of their gender identity. In 2005, the Southern Baptist Convention ended their eight-year boycott of Disney, a boycott that never achieved the support it needed to “win” the culture war at Disney. In 2012, a boycott/buycott battle erupted over Chick-fil-A’s support of groups that support traditional marriage. Progressive customers protested the chain’s “anti-LGBTQ” stance against its affirmation of the biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman, while conservative religious pundits called for a Chick-fil-A support day to counter the boycott. The conflict made me terribly sorry for those young Chick-fil-A workers, conscripted without warning into a culture war, armed only with the phrase, “My pleasure.”
While there are some legitimate and effective uses for boycotts, Christians should be hesitant to use them to shape culture.
Discernment in Boycotting. Boycotts appeal to us because they are a legal way to coerce someone to conform to our preferences. When we spend money, we “vote with our dollars” in some sense. When a business acts in ways that we feel are immoral, taking our business elsewhere is a natural free-market response, no different in kind from avoiding a fast-food restaurant because of reports of salmonella poisoning. As consumers, we have the right to patronize companies based on any number of qualifications, from the quality of their product or service to the aesthetics of their logo. In that sense, making consumer decisions based on the ethical practices of a company is one of the most meaningful standards we can use. There is a distinction, however, between making purchasing choices based on any number of criteria, including ethical behavior, and boycotting a company.
To demonstrate this distinction, consider that when you chose not to shop at a supermarket because their produce is poor quality, you don’t tell your friends that you are “boycotting” the store. You simply don’t shop there. We make a decision about how to best steward the resources God has given us. Our motivation stems from our consumer preferences; however, in a boycott, what motivates us is primarily altering the company’s practices. When I choose to shop at a different market to find better produce, I don’t really care if the original market takes the loss of my patronage as a sign that they need to change. In a boycott, that is the primary thing I care about.
Saying Christians shouldn’t take a company’s behavior into account would be to put an artificial boundary on how we discerningly steward our resources. We all should be prudent about our purchases, but in a boycott, we take the principle of discerning consumerism and narrow it to a single issue in order to advance an agenda.
Christians should be very hesitant to wield boycotts as a tool for cultural change. In general, boycotts are unproductive and blunt tools for advancing a cause. They rely on coercion rather than dialogue to produce change. They are only as effective as the economic cost they can produce. And their effects are hard to measure, making them less influential than people believe.
The Problems with Boycotts. By their nature, boycotts require people to publicly announce their motive and desired outcome. If you merely stop shopping at a store without announcing why you have stopped shopping there, the store will have no way of knowing why you changed your mind. But this announcement is also a public threat of affecting livelihoods unless there is a change in a business’s behavior or policies. Certainly there are times when such a strong stance ought to be taken, but it’s worth reflecting on how drastic this option is and what it does to public discourse.
For example, if you were deeply concerned about Target’s move to allow transgendered people to use any bathroom in the store, boycotting Target would not persuade the corporation that they were wrong, only that their view was unpopular and therefore costly. Importantly, because you have to announce boycotts publicly for them to have any real effect, you aren’t merely closing off dialogue with the business; you are discouraging dialogue with your neighbors. When you post on Facebook about your choice to boycott Target, your friends are unlikely to take a sincere interest in understanding your perspective. They will see your statement for what it is: an announcement that your disagreement with a business is so profound that you will try to coerce them to change.
The combination of the public nature of boycotts and their severity makes them ideal weapons in a culture war, but very blunt tools for deep cultural change. Which is not to say that they should never be used. The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956, led by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., was appropriate and productive. The racist, discriminatory practices of the Montgomery Bus Line did not need to be reasoned with — they needed to be resisted peacefully. The effectiveness of this boycott was owed in no small part to the fact that the majority of riders on the line were African American. When they stopped riding the bus, the line was no longer profitable.
There will be times when faithful Christians must boycott businesses that are fundamentally unjust, when winsome persuasion is secondary to immediate justice. But for many cultural battles that face us today, this is not the case. Rallying your friends on social media to boycott Target over bathrooms is less likely to produce the lasting change you want and more likely to alienate your friends who are open to discussing biblical teachings on sex and gender.
Another challenge with boycotts is that they can be very difficult to measure. In a large boycott, some people who claim to be boycotting won’t actually change their economic behavior. Even when a business sees a dip in sales, it can be hard to pinpoint how much that loss is attributable to the boycott and how much to other variables. Directly contacting a business and urging them to adopt an ethical practice is more tangible than only withholding purchases, because it lets them know your exact concerns. And you can do this without taking a culture-war posture by simply and clearly expressing why their practices are unacceptable to you as a regular customer. Such direct communication can have a tremendous effect.
The most significant weakness of boycotts is that they make morality beholden to economic power. It’s one thing to say, “I cannot support this product because it would make me morally complicit.” It is quite another to say, “I will refrain from patronizing your business until you practice my morality.” The former is concerned with your righteousness. The latter is concerned with establishing public morality via economic coercion. But if our morality is true — if, for example, abortion is objectively the killing of a human life — then it does not matter whether or not we have the economic power to compel a company to stop supporting Planned Parenthood. They should cease their support because it is the right thing to do. Boycotts make morality subject to the whims of economic support, which Christians (and especially evangelicals) may be fine with so long as we have significant economic power, but what happens when we don’t?
If Christians help cultivate public discourse where morality is not debated but instead enforced through boycotts and buycotts, we will suffer tremendously when Christian morality becomes more socially unacceptable. We have already started to see early signs of this. LGBTQ groups have protested Christian schools that enforce sex and gender policies that reflect traditional biblical sexual ethics. For us to have a lasting influence on society, boycotts should be one of our last resorts. Christians should model public discourse and debate over morality. Our arguments should be about the rightness of our cause, not our ability to cripple the profits of a company. When we resort to boycotts and threats of boycotts without first exhausting efforts at reasonable dialogue, we imply that morality is ultimately a function of social norms exerted through economic pressure. But as Christians, we believe that the social costs of immorality are the fruits of sin — not our motive for avoiding sin. And we know that negative social costs (such as a boycott of our business) aren’t a sign of our immorality but the immorality of society.
A Last Resort. In the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, boycotts have been a common tool for Christians seeking to promote the common good, but their effectiveness is mixed at best. However, there will be times when gross injustices demand proportionally resolute protests, including boycotts. How do we know when it is appropriate to use boycotts?
First, boycotts should only be used for issues of profound injustice. If your chief complaint is that shopping there makes you complicit in their immorality, then simply don’t shop there. There is no need to organize a boycott. Save that tool for the greater evils: direct support of abortion, bigotry, or violence.
Second, we should resort to such tactics only after we have exhausted means of persuasion that invite and encourage change, rather than coerce it.
Third, we should be confident that we could muster significant support. A weak boycott that cannot compel a company to change only affirms that they were reasonable to ignore us. When used sparingly, with great deliberation, and as a last resort, boycotts have a place in the Christian life. —Alan Noble
Alan Noble (PhD) is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, editor-in-chief of the website Christ and Pop Culture, and author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (IVP, 2018).
- Theodore Schleifer, “Donald Trump: ‘Maybe We Should Boycott Starbucks,’” CNN.com, November 10, 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/11/09/politics/donald-trump-starbucksboycott-christmas/index.html.