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Boycotts: New Tool In Moral Crusades

Southern Baptists target Disney's bottom line

The long and once-affectionate relationship between George Knox and the Walt Disney Company came to an end last week.

Never again will Mr. Knox, a Southern Baptist from Garland, Texas, watch a Touchstone Pictures film, read a Hyperion book, or buy a Disney video for his granddaughter. He has even blocked ABC from his TV set.

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"The Bible tells us to flee from evil," Knox says. "I want my Lord to know that I'm not in agreement with the policies of this company."

By joining a boycott of Disney and its subsidiaries called for by the Southern Baptist Convention last week, Knox is the latest member of a growing and increasingly effective movement among evangelical Protestants to exert economic pressure on companies whose products or policies threaten "traditional" values.

This wave of "biblical boycotts" also illustrates a conundrum more corporate executives are wrestling with, particularly in the entertainment business: The larger you get, the harder it is to sidestep moral debates.

"A decade ago, if the owners of a local store carried a magazine you didn't like, you could confront them," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "Now, these stores are part of a chain based in New York that isn't responsive to community influences. You have to apply national pressure to national institutions."

Baptists with attitude

The resolution agreed to by the Southern Baptists here last week condemned Disney for extending benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees. But many Baptists admit the convention's beef with the entertainment giant is largely driven by the content of TV shows and movies it produces - including the film "Pulp Fiction" and the ABC sitcom "Ellen."

It's unclear how many of the nation's 15.7 million Southern Baptists will abide by the ban, and it's doubtful the convention's decision will make a significant dent in Disney's profits. But the resolution does represent the widening belief among conservative Christians that the purveyors of popular culture are out of touch with family values.

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For more than a decade, evangelical groups like the American Family Association (AFA) in Tupelo, Miss., have been issuing boycott orders.

Although the AFA takes credit for convincing 7-Eleven to remove pornographic magazines from its stores in 1987, similar boycotts against Holiday Inn, which provides in-room access to pornographic films, and Levi-Strauss, which withdrew support from the Boy Scouts after they banned homosexual scoutmasters, have not yet changed those firms' policies.

"The only language many corporations understand is the bottom line," says Allen Wildmon, AFA's public relations director. "We want companies like Disney to know that they can't walk on both sides of the street."

The movement's surest sign of success is the growing list of companies taking voluntary measures to avoid controversy. United Airlines recently decided not to abide by the city of San Francisco's new law that requires equality for domestic-partners.

Last week, Emory University in Atlanta banned same-sex weddings in campus chapels.

Big media targeted most

Yet the entertainment industry remains the most common and most vulnerable target. Companies like Disney are particularly susceptible to boycotts because they rely on retailers and corporate sponsors to support and distribute their products.

In recent years, the Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Blockbuster retail chains have refused to stock videos and albums that contain controversial scenes, lyrics, titles, and cover images - prompting some producers to ship "cleansed" versions.

Although these firms often attract criticism from free-speech advocates and face counter-boycotts, few seem to believe self-censorship is bad for business. It is, in some ways, the ultimate acknowledgment that the values of evangelical Protestants are creeping into the mainstream.

"Conservative Christians are especially sensitive to the changing role of the media in our lives," Mr. Guth, the Furman professor, says. "I think a lot of parents recognize that even if they try to keep their children away from nefarious influences, it can be difficult to do so."

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