Cover Story

Building a better BOYCOTT

As "Gay Days" spread to other theme parks, proponents of the Disney boycott are seeing some success in the face of nagging divisions. They are also finding the action is about more than mere economics.

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

By 6:45 a.m., sleepy teens clutching lunches or CDs or backpacks were piling into the Bethel Assembly of God Church vans (and a few cars) in Temple, Texas. At 7 a.m. sharp, the vans and automobiles pulled out of the parking lot, heading north on Interstate 35 with 40 kids and five parents, for the annual trip to Six Flags over Texas. The trip took about two hours. Ken Riley, the church's youth minister of 10 years, corraled the kids in the parking lot for last-minute instructions and a prayer. Then he handed out their tickets and watched them scatter though the gates. Mr. Riley didn't go in just yet; he had purchased tickets for another (smaller) youth group with his group's discount; he waited at the gates for the other group to arrive. That's when he started to notice the homosexuals. "I saw two men walk by, wearing T-shirts that, well, expressed their lifestyle," says Riley. "I didn't think about it much, other than thinking they had a lot of nerve. Then another couple went by; then it clicked. I started watching the people as they entered. And I realized something was going on." The entrance to the Arlington, Texas, theme park had the feel of a Gay Pride rally (indeed, it was Dallas' Gay Pride Weekend). Couples or small groups of men or women came through, usually sporting some form of homosexual heraldry: the pink triangle or the rainbow. Some wore Micky Mouse ears (to indicate they'd attended "Gay Day" at Disney World). Many wore T-shirts that ranged from obscure to obscene. "I've had a gay complex all my life" read one. "I'll go straight (into bed!)" read another. " Don't stand in my way. I just wanna go bi." "I like my women the way I like my coffee. I don't like coffee." "Flaming. As if you hadn't noticed." There were open displays of current affection: "lots of hand-holding," the youth minister recounts. Mr. Riley realized he had just dispersed his youth group into a park celebrating Gay Day. "It's a helpless feeling," he says. "I was angry, of course, because I don't like the thought of my young people in a crowd like that. I didn't know what kind of demonstrations there might be, what kind of conflicts. There was no calling the kids back together; they were scattered everywhere." He approached a few park employees and asked if they had known about Gay Day. They reiterated the company line, that Six Flags can't deny access to anyone. "But why couldn't they have just let me know?" Mr. Riley asked. "Just given me a warning? When I called (to buy tickets), they knew I was buying for a church group." Throughout the day, Mr. Riley passed members of his group, and most tossed him a comment or two. "I can't believe this!" said one girl. "Yuck." "Guess what I saw!" By the end of the day, when the group finally gathered at the vans, Mr. Riley had decided how he would handle the situtation. He decided to take full advantage of the opportunity. "The thing I want us to learn from this is that we saw all kinds of men, from all different lifestyles and income levels and backgrounds," he told the group of high school boys who were in his van. "They were diverse, but they were all united around one issue, around one purpose. And because of that they succeeded. They got their message across. Now, why doesn't the church seem able to do that?" Mr. Riley pointed out his own fault. "I have a closet full of Christian T-shirts. Why didn't I wear one of those today? If all the Christians in the park had been as united, ... [w]e could have gotten our message across." Organizers of the infamous Disney boycott agree; if all the Southern Baptists, all the Catholics, all the listeners to Dr. James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" broadcasts, all the members of Concerned Women for America, and the dozens of other groups involved in the boycott truly withheld their money from Disney and Disney's various commercial divisions, the cartoon conglomerate would crumble. And, in varying degrees, it seems that's starting to happen. "If you had told me a year ago that we'd be where we are today, I'd have thought you were crazy. It's just not natural that all these different denominations and groups are uniting behind this boycott," says Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association, which launched the boycott in 1995. "What effect we'll have, we'll know in a year or so." But the Baptists and others are anything but united. Christianity Today has sniffed disdainfully at the boycott, criticizing "the continuing elevation of the issue of homosexuality on the moral agenda of Southern Baptists and evangelicals." Even within Southern Baptist circles, the debate is still hot. "The zealots among us are demanding that the world conform to their standards rather than working to ensure that they personally conform to God's standards," opined editor Mark Wingfield of Kentucky Baptists' Western Recorder. "When we attempt to control the world, we deny the power of Jesus to change the world. Jesus did not operate from a position of power, but of love. If we really believe what he taught, we ought to shun power and seek love, as well." Michael Whitehead, an assistant professor of church and law at Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and a member of the committee that produced the Disney resolution, called the Wingfield editorial "absurd" in its attempt to paint the boycott as a quest for world domination. Mr. Whitehead told a chapel audience at the seminary that the boycott is rather "an expression of opinion of the family of Southern Baptists gathered in Dallas, Texas, on that particular day, expressing their opinions to other family members in Southern Baptist life." But Michael Clingenpeel, who edits the Virginia Baptist Religious Herald, underscores the problem of disunity with this comment: "Ultimately, the issue of whether to boycott Disney rests with every Baptist, as it should. There is no need to insist that one stance or the other is morally right or wrong." The AFA's Mr. Wildmon agrees, up to a point. "I don't measure someone's Christianity based on whether they participate in a boycott. But if we Christians are going to say we are concerned about the culture, if we're going to say the Bible is true, then we've got to take a stand. And that means personal evangelism, and it also means uniting and taking a stand with our pocketbooks." There are those who will be "embarrassed" by boycotts and stands, he says. "Even within the evangelical church, there are those who want to just be identified with love and forgiveness. Those are biblical things, but there's more to the Bible than that. There's also holiness." Disney isn't commenting on the boycott, beyond its canned statement: "We are proud that the Disney brand creates more family entertainment of every kind than anyone else in the world, and we plan to increase that production." And Disney isn't changing its ways, either. Last week, a new show premiered that is profoundly hostile to the Christian faith. The show, Nothing Sacred, portrayed a nun praying to Christ and to Buddha. The character Father Ray told a visitor to the parish's soup kitchen that "we let the transvestites use the ladies' room if they're dressed nice." The theme of one subplot was that earning money in the corporate world is morally inferior to panhandling (an intolerant, upper-class black youth is befriended by an older black alcoholic). And just last week, Disney donated money to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, to underwrite a party for the premier of the pro-homosexual movie In & Out (though the movie was made by Paramount). "Isn't that something?" asks Mr. Wildmon. "They're so committed to the homosexual agenda that they're willing to give money for a party for a competitor's movie." Still, many believe Disney is beginning to feel the effect of the boycott. Last summer, USA Today conducted an unscientific poll that found that 49.5 percent of the public-not just Christians or churchgoers-are in favor of the Disney boycott. That means nearly half of the people in the country feel Disney's products have been in some way offensive. And Disney's stock has been slipping while the stock market as a whole has soared. Though it's impossible to determine exactly how much the boycott has had to do with it, the stock's price has fallen from its 52-week high of $85.375 a share to a low of $77.065. On Sept. 26, the stock opened at $79.625. And there's a growing body of evidence that boycotts do work. *In 1989, Pepsico was pressured into pulling from television an ad featuring Madonna. *In 1988, the Roy Rogers fast-food chain bowed to pressure from lunch ladies (the American School Food Service Association) and dropped an ad campaign that featured vile school lunches and mean cafeteria workers. *In 1989, a group of Christians began boycotting Clorox products; within months sales had dropped 12.1 percent and Merrill Lynch was downgrading the firm's earning estimates. Clorox asked for a meeting with CLeaR-TV (Christian Leaders for Responsible Television). The groups worked out an agreement to stop advertising on shows that promote sex and violence, and the boycott was discontinued. *Also in that year, Kmart (whose Waldenbooks division was selling pornography) tried to ignore a new AFA boycott. After a few months, it even sued the AFA's Florida affiliate for organizing pickets of stores. But the AFA held firm, and by the time the boycott ended in 1995 (after Kmart sold off Waldenbooks), Kmart was admitting it was hurt. "In certain regions of the country, the boycott affected the amount of store traffic, without a doubt," said Kmart spokesman Shawn Kahle. And it's a tactic opponents of Christianity are using effectively, too. The state of Colorado was boycotted by homosexual activists when the voters there tried to hold the line against ever-increasing homosexual "rights." The Boy Scouts have been under fire for not allowing homosexuals to be scoutmasters. Organizers of the Six Flags Gay Day say they pre-sold more than 2,000 tickets to the Arlington theme park, and estimate that another 2,000 homosexuals bought their tickets at the gates. No other Six Flags parks participated, although the park in St. Louis has had Gay Days in the past, usually in June. On Sunday morning following Gay Day at Six Flags, Ken Riley told his high school Sunday School students to open their Bibles to Luke, chapter 16. That's the parable of the unrighteous steward who was told by his master to account for the money he had handled. Knowing he would soon be out of a job, he arbitrarily reduced the debts of his master's debtors-thereby winning their loyalty ("... so that when I am removed from the stewardship, they will receive me into their homes"). "Jesus used the wicked man, the steward, to teach us a lesson about our resources," Mr. Riley told his class. "We can use our resources for good or for bad. I think it's important we take the lesson from the homosexuals, and use our resources wisely, but for the good." There's another lesson: Working for the good is often multidimensional, not always a choice between mutually exclusive options. In the case of the Disney boycott, Christian critics have pitted economics against evangelism, as if the Southern Baptists and others emphasizing boycotts have suddenly forgotten the Great Commission. That's a false dilemma. Thoughtful boycotts, supporters contend, communicate a sense of biblical right and wrong in a way that does not detract from the gospel message and may even show one of its practical applications. Lisa Kinney, a Florida schoolteacher, has a more personal application. During consideration of the Disney resolution at the SBC convention-as speakers debated whether the boycott would be successful-Ms. Kinney said: "Do I think that my stand will change them? No, I do not. But I know that it has changed me. A boycott will prove to the world that we love Jesus more than we love entertainment." Today, she says, her personal stand has "forced me to consider what I put into my mind and what I do with my time. When the TV is off, when the media isn't pressing me, I have more time for conversation and being involved in the lives of people I love."

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