A Cautious Defense of Boycotts

By now I’m sure that most of you are aware of the Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney debacle. Just in case you haven’t heard, let me bring you up to speed. In an effort to make the brand more inclusive and less “fratty,” executives partnered with actor turned transgender celebrity Dylan Mulvaney for a small ad campaign. Mulvaney, who has become famous both for finishing his first full year as a “woman” and for possessing a once-in-a-generation capacity for annoyance, celebrated the partnership with a series of short videos posted to social media. The campaign was one of the clearest examples in recent memory of ideological capture. Ideological capture is when an institution gets taken over by a small group of individuals who are more committed to an ideology than they are to the mission of the institution. The institution is no more than a vehicle for their own agenda. If the vehicle happens to crash, so be it. In the case of Bud Light, the crash was epic. In less than three weeks after Mulvaney’s video, Bud Light sales dropped 26 percent. Anheiser-Busch’s stock has also tanked. The company lost about 5 billion dollars in value in the first month after the controversy and has still not recovered. Not great. Everything Anheiser-Busch touched had an awful April including the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Bud Light situation appears to be the rare case where a consumer boycott actually worked. To be clear, Bud Light is still the most popular beer in America, and by this time next year, it’s likely that few people will even remember the controversy. There is no doubt, however, that corporate America has learned a lesson. There are real bottom-line consequences when you go out of your way to antagonize your customers. This was the rare case where progressive ideology ran into some stiff cultural headwinds. A peculiar coalition including conservative commentators, gay bars in Chicago, feminists, frat boys, and a whole bunch of normal folks decided there are other beers they could spend their money on. It was the Alliance of the Fed-Up, and this alliance has much more cultural power than they realize.
This was a boycott where many Christians were left out of because they either don’t drink beer or they don’t want their friends and family to know they drink beer. Christians, especially conservative evangelical Christians have a history of engaging in boycotts. Many of these protests in recent memory were ill-conceived (Harry Potter) or ineffective (rock and roll). But go back a little further into history and you’ll find protests that literally changed the shape of society. Most of the abolitionists, prohibitionists, suffragists, and civil rights leaders were acting from deeply held Christian belief. The Mulvaney drama has me wondering about the place of boycotts in the life of the Christian today. To what extent is boycotting a business or a product a faithful witness to Christ in the world? Are they a distraction and waste of time, or are they a necessary element of our public lives of faith?
As I thought about this, several passages of scripture came to mind.
  • Acts 19 – Do you remember the riot in Ephesus? A silversmith named Demetrius was furious because Paul’s preaching in the city was so effective that it was hurting his idol-making business. This story is fascinating. There is no evidence that Paul was organizing an official boycott of idols, but the gospel of Jesus was bringing enough people to conviction in that city that it actually started to effect the local economy. Imagine that! What this should tell us is that the gospel does indeed effect what we spend (or don’t spend) our money on. The things that slander our God should not enjoy our financial blessing.   
  • 1 Corinthians 8 – In this chapter, Paul is addressing the thorny issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to an idol. It was thorny because in those days it was considerably cheaper to buy meat from the pagan temples. It’s one thing to avoid buying an idol. That seems obvious. It was less obvious that a Christian should avoid buying meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Paul gives them a nuanced answer. He basically says that this is a matter of personal conscience. To some, eating this meat offends their conscience. To others, eating this meat is not a problem because idols are ultimately meaningless trinkets anyway. He admonishes the Corinthians to recognize that not everyone will have the same perspective. Those who feel no need to boycott should not put a stumbling block in front of those who believe in the need for a boycott. Within the Christian community, then, we should expect to find nuanced positions on things like public boycotts. Some will see them as necessary while others will not. We should avoid being overly hostile to one another on matters of conscience.
  • Daniel 3 – The story of the three friends in Daniel illustrates the complexities of living faithfully while being embedded and integrated in a culture hostile towards holiness. These three friends made a decision that following God was going to mean saying no to certain things in Babylon. Their beliefs were not merely abstract ideas in their heads. They were not content to simply live quiet lives of safe cultural accommodation. Their beliefs had public consequences which put their very lives in danger.
  • Revelation 18:4 – Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.” There is no doubt a thread of removal and withdraw in the New Testament. We are called to go into the world as ambassadors of Christ, but we should not live under the illusion that this world is not under the judgment of Christ. We would be wise to reject without apology the lies, deceptions, and sins that this world has normalized and turned into virtues.   

It seems to me that there is biblical warrant for participating in boycotts and protest. We should do this in a manner than honors Jesus, loves the lost, and respects the conscientious choices of our fellow believers, but a faith lived in the public square will often find itself having to say “no” to the world. There are three things that are worthy of our protest: products, policies, and postures. There are some products that Christians simply shouldn’t consume. These products are toxic to our faith and to our general well-being. It may also be justified to protest the introduction of these products into our communities. There are also policies that are worthy of our objection – companies who abuse their workers, governments who trample on justice, or hegemony that stifles dissent. Lastly, there are postures that are worthy of protest. This is what companies like Bud Light are guilty of. It is naïve to expect corporations to act in a Christianly way, but it is well within our rights to expect the companies who sell us their products to not aggressively ridicule our beliefs (or common sense). Why exactly should I give you my money when you have made it clear that you hate me? Why should I give you my business when you have adopted a posture of antagonism towards large portions of the population?
I think there are three main arguments made against participating in boycotts: 1) it’s a negative witness, 2) they don’t work, and 3) every company is sinful, so boycotting will lead to hypocrisy. I’ll close by briefly addressing these arguments. First, I don’t see how turning a blind eye to the unrighteous of the world is a good witness. I don’t see how having a quiet faith that never makes any waves or any difference is a good witness. It is true that sometimes Christians have been guilty of fighting the wrong battles. I’ve written about that previously, so I won’t say much here. But these failures aren’t a justification for quietism; they just mean we need to grow in discernment. Secondly, boycotts are economic protests aimed at the bottom line, but their success doesn’t have to be judged by whether or not someone goes out of business. That wasn’t Daniel’s three friends’ purpose. It wasn’t the purpose of the disciples in Ephesus. The purpose is righteousness, obedience, and a clean conscience. Finally, it is true that there is no way to boycott everything because the world is full of evil. (We also shouldn’t boycott everything because the world is also full of goodness.) The point of a boycott, however, is not to fix everything that is broken about the world. The point is to protest against a particular incidence of unrighteousness while also recognizing that the only ultimate hope to fix the brokenness of the world is Jesus.      

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