In April, the American Family Association (AFA) instituted a boycott of Target, in response to the retail giant’s policy to allow transgender persons access to opposite-sex bathrooms and fitting rooms, in accordance with the gender identity of “team members and guests.” Target stated that, “Everyone deserves to feel like they belong.” AFA has cited objections to this practice, calling it “misguided and reckless” and as “pos[ing] a threat to women and children” via those “predators and voyeurs who would take advantage of the policy to prey on those who are vulnerable.”
By June, more than one million people had signed the boycott pledge within the first eight days of its existence, according to the AFA Journal. The boycott was initiated in conjunction with AFA’s cancellation of PayPal services, in response to that company’s abandoning its plans to open a new global operations center in Charlotte, North Carolina as a protest of the state’s HB2 law. AFA has urged others to follow suit.
This has caused a resurgence of the debate surrounding whether Christians have biblical grounds to boycott. AFA Executive Vice President Ed Vitagliano has answered in the affirmative, whilst others, including Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, have objected.
Vitagliano’s arguments are superficial and utilitarian at best. In response to part of Dr. Moore’s opinion that boycotts are unsustainable and often disappointing, Vitagliano insists that boycotts do, in fact, effectively capture the attention of the offending company. Allegedly leading to a dialogue about the issues of contention, and finally “move[s] [the culture] incrementally in a more godly [sic] direction.” Vitagliano cites the 1955 boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus company as his proof case (a poor comparison). Without research of the historical success of similar boycotts premised on Christian moral convictions, it can at least be said that the assumption of the effectiveness of boycotts has been proven untrue in the current case.
Vitagliano’s biblical argument in favor of boycotts falls into two errors. First, he sees Jesus’ judgement of sin (John 3:18) as a justification of Christians making a “display of power” for their own causes. If ever a boycott could accurately and purely confront the world with its own sin and turn sinners to Christ for the sake of their own souls (and not the sake of Christian sensibilities or money), then this argument would begin to hold some water. Otherwise, boycotts fundamentally remain a “contest of who has more buying power.” Secondly, Vitagliano considers the witness of the boycott as a sort of “salt and light” fulfillment of Matt. 5:13-16, and an important aspect of the Great Commission in our current historical context. His claim is that the corruption of the world demands a response in this fashion, making boycotts not a display of power, but a display of righteousness. This raises some questions that demand reflection of every Christian as they map out their own cultural and political engagement in the world.
Where’s the line? Our standard for the behavior of citizens and corporations (which, as we’ve been told, are “people” according to Citizens United v. FEC) should be a biblical one. The Kingdom of God is what we aspire to foreshadow here on earth until the establishment of the consummate Kingdom. If we were to boycott everything that falls short of this standard, then we would be forced to resort to cave-dwelling monasticism. To be proponents of the truth, “embracing wisdom itself wherever it is found” (Augustine)1, then we are forced to take our convictions to their furthest logical conclusions and implications. Failing to do so creates inconsistency, evident to the outside world. Such inconsistency serves only to undermine the legitimacy of our other convictions of biblical morality. The Christian boycotting record is remarkably inconsistent,. In reality, the usual outcome is the sabotage of our broader Christian witness, which undermines the true mission of the Church (Matt. 28:16-20), the conviction of sin leading to the salvation of souls.
Division. American evangelicals in particular have a tendency to flatten the social and moral landscape, simplistically dividing the world into poles: us versus them. This causes deep division in our society, which is not only counter to our own cultural mandate in our modern context, but undermines our true mission in said culture. By resorting to “us versus them” or caricatures of those with whom we disagree, we often ignore or reject arguments/viewpoints prematurely, which only serves to further discredit the One for whom we are ambassadors. It is indefensible to say that the offenses spawned by boycotts in recent memory are purely for the sake of the gospel (or the witness of “salt and light”), and that we were thereby fulfilling our role as gospel protectors (1 Tim. 6:20), as Mr. Vitagliano suggests.
Our security. By resorting to boycotting we are “joining the world in their frantic search for identity within themselves and using their tools to define it.”2 In reality, our identity is already secure, before the foundations of the earth, and in no need of defending. Picketing, boycotting and the like are more about projecting the perceived supremacy of our own identity rather than proclaiming Christ’s.
This is different than standing up for justice for the sake of others with sacrificial love. When we defend the well-being and dignity of others, we illustrate selflessness of another World. Therefore, we demonstrate that Christ brings both forgiveness and justice against sin, and that he does so with sacrificial love at his own expense, not self-serving vengeance. This defense of others could arguably be the exception to when we would be willing to take part in boycotts, as they are for the sake of others and not our own personal comfort or power grab.
As Russell Moore recently pointed out, the gospel propels us to give up our own rights (i.e. Paul and Silas refusing to leave prison because of the mission of the gospel). Paul showed compassion on an agent of the state who had oppressed him because he cared about the soul of the human, rather than the motive of the agent. Furthermore, boycotting and the like have a dangerous capacity to feed our sinful urge to communicate inner outrage. “What we are trying to do is force behavioral modification for our own sakes rather than the new births for the sake of others.”3 Doing so expresses a loss of confidence in the gospel’s ability to transform lives.
Effectiveness. Russell Moore and others are right to point out that boycotts don’t have a high success rate. At face value the argument smacks of pragmatism, as if the merits of boycotting would be improved were they to produce more favorable progress. Yet, it is deeper than that. As Reinhold Niebuhr held, conflict between social viewpoints can be eliminated only when opposing groups achieve “a degree of reason and sympathy” that enables them to acknowledge and understand “the interests of others as vividly as they understand their own, and a moral goodwill which would prompt them to affirm the opposing view as vigorously as they affirm their own.”4 Given the “limitations of human nature,” Niebuhr concluded that this is beyond human capacity and therefore should not be expected or necessarily pursued. As Christians, we are conscious of the state of human nature because of our recognition of our own depravity and need of moral transformation. Niebuhr saw this as only possible on an individual level and scripture echoes this.
Regardless of how sound or reasonable an argument may be, most political actions don’t take into account the fallen nature of man, of which Scripture informs us. We should not become frustrated with the inadequacy of strategies that fail us in this way, but change the way we fight for ethical reform by appealing to the soul of the individual rather than their reason and social sensibilities, which sit under the shadow of the Fall. In light of this, boycotting and the like are in many ways doomed from the outset. Instead, a more effective and biblical way to enact social change is to address the morals of the individual on a personal level that leads to lasting change from the ground up.
Disengagement? It is also not right to disengage ourselves from our ordained office as citizens and damn ourselves through our own apathy. This failure to stand against injustice by disengaging and not holding others accountable only serves to place the blood of injustices on our hands. Like Paul (Acts 16:37), we must hold accountable those who would break the law (towards all citizens and law itself) and/or perform unjust acts. Many times this may look less like practicing the Reformed doctrine of “lesser magistrates” (that Protestants have come to know and love), and more like forcing the government to be accountable to their own purported standards of governance—even if the ultimate outcome circumnavigates our ideal end. Consistency in government policy, according to objective standards, still reflects the ordered nature of God and thus, should be promoted, as Paul demonstrated. This is different than merely protesting those opinions and worldviews that offend our personal sensibilities, which are often products of our own subculture, rather than sound biblical reasoning.
The power of public good works. The practice of public good works is how the Bible teaches Christians to respond to an adverse culture (1 Pe. 2:10-12).5 In the words of Dr. Moore, “holding fast to the gospel…and serving the world and our neighbors, as our Lord does, with a towel and foot bucket.” This is undeniably less gratuitous in the short-term, but is the only outlet by which we acquire ultimate vindication and obedience to Christ. We must address the culture with compelling, unselfish gospel living, and then, as lives are transformed by Christ, the culture (consumers) will organically and necessarily change the positions and practices of the corporations that cater to said consumers. Yet, our obedience to Christ’s example cannot be dependent on our success in changing the culture. Often, our allegiance to preaching the gospel is scarcely rewarded according to our own finite perspective (see Noah and Jeremiah).6 Nevertheless, our duty to spreading the gospel endures.
This doesn’t mean that we neglect public proclaiming biblical morality and truth. However, we cannot lose sight of the broader purpose of doing so: to shower the earth with common grace, yes, but ultimately, to direct sinners into the Kingdom of God—the Realm of our true and eternal citizenship.
By creating a contrast to the culture at large, we force people to investigate the foundation (“the hope within us”)7 of such a strange, and seemingly counter-intuitive, existence. Refusing to resort to boycotts is a way to truly be salt and light to a culture which naturally responds with protest and outrage when they feel threatened. This, rather than boycotts, will provide opportunities to point to Christ. That victory will outlast and out-reward any victory won over the Targets and PayPals of this world. Accordingly, the question becomes not “Ought biblical Christians boycott”, rather,“Do Christians value the souls of the lost more than their own earthly comfort and rights.”
Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, currently a J.D. candidate at Rutgers Law School, and will begin a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary this fall. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Rachel.
- Augustine, and Henry Chadwick. Confessions. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991). p. 39 (quoting Cicero’s Hortensius)
- Moore, Russell. “How the gospel reshapes evangelical political engagement.” Audio blog post. ERLC Podcast, 14 Jun. 2016.
- Niebuhr, Reinhold, and Elisabeth Sifton. Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics ; Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic Moral Man, An Immoral Society, The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness, The Irony of American History, Other Writings. (New York, NY: Library of America, 2015.) pp. 148-149.
- See Cline, T. “The Power of Public Holiness.” Audio blog post. Chillicothe Baptist Church. Apr. 24, 2016.
- See Spurgeon , C.H., Lectures to My Students. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954) p. 336.
- 1 Peter 3:15