It’s happening again: Someone did something bad and now other people are threatening not to do business with them. But in this case the target for the boycott is not Starbucks or Chick-fil-a or JC Penney or Forever 21; it’s Georgia. The state, like Indiana and Arkansas before it, has passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that, like the laws passed by Indiana and Arkansas before it, is basically identical to the Federal bill signed into law over 20 years ago by a Democratic president whose wife now brands herself as a champion for gay rights.

And, like Indiana and Arkansas, Georgia is now facing threats of boycotts from the mega corporations that have proven to be natural allies to those seeking to redefine the family. Of course, one can and should note that many of the companies threatening a boycott long ago lost all moral credibility.

Consider, the NFL, that paragon of virtue. When their players beat women senseless in elevators they look the other way until a video surfaces. When retired players kill themselves due to traumatic brain injuries suffered from playing the game, they wash their hands. When the game’s stars are accused of using PEDs, they plug their ears and go “lalalalala.”

But when a state tries to establish that religious believers have the right to refuse to provide service for specific occasions (which is very different from having the right to decline service to certain classes of people), Roger Goodell and his capitalistic cronies cannot wait to seize the moral high ground to which they were so indifferent when Ray Rice was beating his fiancee’s head in on a casino elevator.

Any sensible person should look at some of the corporations lining up to boycott the state of Georgia, cock their head a little and, doing their best impression of Eddie Izzard, say “quoi?” Do not kid yourself; the threats from these brands are not a genuine display of conscience but a cynical attempt to, as the NFL’s favorite phrase has it, “protect the shield.”

That being said, there is a deeper concern behind these boycotts. There are different reasons to boycott, after all. It is entirely reasonable to boycott a business due to a specific practice they engage in as a business which one considers to be unjust. Boycotting a business (or state) because of an opinion that some in that business or state hold is quite another matter. The former reckons with the corporate entity as precisely that, a corporate entity. It evaluates their actions on the basis of their behavior as a business  or other type of social body. The latter flattens all distinctions between social bodies and individual persons and, in so doing, militates against the very thing most needed in our polarized moment: the possibility of civil society.

Suppose you object to the way Amazon treats its employees. (And you should.) If you decide you will not do business with a company that treats its employees so poorly, that’s a fine and good thing. They are a business engaging in objectionable business practices. By all means, refrain from doing business with them. In our current context in which most anything can be justified by vaguely gesturing toward the size of one’s bank account, it’s entirely reasonable to boycott any number of large businesses.

To boycott over an opinion held by a small number of people involved in the company is quite another thing. It is an act that commercializes personal relationships and civil society in ways that will, eventually, lead to the destruction of both. It  displays a distressing and all too typical lack of nuance in our relationship to our neighbors; a lack of nuance that reduces people to their opinions on a small set of issues and completely blurs the important lines that exist between people and the businesses they run or work for.

To take only one example, there is a small neighborhood bar and grill a mile from my house in Lincoln. They have quite publicly announced their support for same-sex marriage and a host of other issues related to the LGBT population in Lincoln. That being said, to the best of my knowledge they treat their employees well. Their food is good. They are good for our neighborhood. And so our family is happy to patronize the business, even if we have significant disagreements on some reasonably significant political questions.

This same approach holds true with most of the coffee shops within walking distance of our home as well—and our family lives in the comparatively conservative midwest. If Christians in places like San Francisco or Seattle operated according to the principles currently on the rise, they would be hard pressed to find any business they can patronize. If my neighbor who owns a coffee shop supports a social agenda different than my own that does nothing to negate the fact that they are my neighbor. Since they run good businesses that serve the neighborhood in multiple ways (providing employment and third places especially) we are happy to support them.

This, of course, is how civil society ought to function. The “purity” tests to which one subjects one’s neighbor are quite loose. They are maintained not on the basis of our shared politics but by our relationship to the person and our dependence upon them.

However, because our republic has grown toward a kind of state-sanctioned individualism in which I need nothing and no one that I cannot provide for myself or solicit the state to provide, that material need which has sustained memberships in the face of deep disagreement has largely disappeared. In the absence of real dependence upon one another, commerce has ceased to be  a matter of sustaining one’s material life and the life of one’s neighborhood and has, instead, become a method for self invention (via the brands one associates with) and politicking. It has become easier for us to pick and choose our neighbors based on ideology, personal branding, and even prejudice, rather than to accept our neighbors as fellow members of a community not entirely of our choosing. Thus we have the kind of segregation that is increasingly the norm amongst both the poor and, especially, the social elites which Matthew Loftus summed up ably the other day:

The move to boycott businesses that hold to views I personally disapprove of is part of this broader social movement, but it actually pushes it to an even more distressing level. In a functioning membership, we can recognize that a person is more than the sum of their professional and commercial interests.

I can see that the person may, for instance, work at a business I dislike and yet their employment in that place is not the sum total of who they are. I am, in other words, able to recognize them as a human being rather than an disembodied entity that is, in some abstract way, set against me and everything I believe in.

It is precisely this ability to see that is under threat due to our love affair with boycotts. We no longer see the person in the uniform or the human being behind the company, we do not see our neighbors. Rather, we see individual human beings as little more than avatars for political or religious opinions. And when those opinions prove objectionable, we feel no remorse or regret about separating ourselves from the person in their entirety. We must shun them in every realm of human life, not merely in our personal friendships but in our commercial behaviors as well. (Thus there is a close link between our boycott culture and our shame culture.) Because we no longer see human beings when we look at our neighbors but only avatars for political agendas, we must separate ourselves from anyone who supports an agenda we find distasteful lest we would ourselves somehow become complicit in their support of that agenda.

If Christians will boycott Starbucks, let it be because of the way they do business, not because of the opinions their higher-ups profess. What is at stake in our ability to buy Starbucks with a clean conscience is not simply a few dollars, but our ability to look at the creatures who surround us and see not an amalgamation of opinions and commercial interests, but a human being.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • P Johnston

    Anybody remember the days (was it the 80s?) when conservative groups advocated boycotts over things like “Gay Days” at Disney World? Do you remember the arguments folk on the left (like the Disney management) made about how those boycott threats were objectionable in principle, and how we should learn to agree to disagree and get along with each other? How things have changed…
    But one thing I remember from those old days was that a boycott was a relatively ineffective tool against people who were committed to their chosen path. There is always someone who is willing to do business — and as Chick-Fil-A demonstrated, sometimes people will seek you out if you take a principled stand.
    It will be a hard thing to stand up to (for example) the NFL and be prepared to lose a Super Bowl over this… but the case can be made and won, if leadership truly believes this. What’s the down side? Losing some income they already do without 19 out of 20 years anyway? As you have shown, Mr Meador, an NFL that tries to set itself up as a moral watchdog is vulnerable on just those grounds.
    The key is whether the leaders in Georgia really believe they’ve taken, or if they’re voting for these religious freedom bills as a matter of political expediency.

  • Mike Wagner

    You got my mind…and heart stirred up. Thanks. Your point that this is about “seeing/not seeing” rings true to me. “It is precisely this ability to see that is under threat due to our love affair with boycotts.” Plus, I am biased toward Nebraska grads in general…GBR!

  • It’s interesting that you say boycotts of businesses should only be related to their business practices but that is rarely the case. Walmart is an example, though, for me. Boycotts in the culture wars [sic] have always been about the perceived social and political agendas of companies due to their financial support of organizations (or TV shows) that were deemed to be immoral. They were never about business practices.

    I’m referring to the AFA boycotts that we were often exhorted to engage way back when. In those cases, it was individuals boycotting businesses on the basis of the companies “anti-Christian” activities and not about the opinions of those running the companies. These boycotts were mainly about influencing the behavior of corporations (often by pulling their advertising during objectionable TV shows) in the interests of Christian conservatives. I think it’s fair for corporations (aka ‘unnatural persons’) to boycott but clearly you’re going to see some opportunistic boycotts that are just capitalizing on the current moral zeitgeist (I’d have expected you to put “moral high ground” in quotes). I agreed with the threatened boycotts of Georgia and I’m glad the bill will be vetoed. For me, it’s a matter of conscience but, for corporations, it’s just a PR opportunity.

    Patronizing local businesses is important regardless of the views held by the owner but, if the business promotes its political or social agenda and backs it up with financial contributions to further it, I would have to consider how to respond as a person of good conscience. A business that declares its position on some issue is forcing the decision and I can’t pretend that it’s not relevant, since I would be supporting that agenda with my spending. If I knew that a business owner made contributions to a candidate I opposed, I would likely boycott the business because I don’t think that candidate would do good for the community. It’s not about the business owner’s opinion but their activism to further their agenda.

    I am neighborly with people and businesses whose social and political beliefs differ from mine but, once it involves commerce and conscience, I don’t think you can decry my lack of neighborliness if I decide to boycott some business, based on what I said above. Businesses are free to declare and act on their beliefs (within the bounds of anti-discrimination laws) and I am free to act on mine. As an aside, I wouldn’t support a business (like Starbucks) whose agenda aligns with my own because I don’t like their products.

    But corporate boycotts shouldn’t be conflated with individual ones. Neighborliness is irrelevant to a corporate boycott. People can be neighborly in how they treat local business but a corporate boycott, like the ones threatened in Georgia, would withhold economic cooperation with another corporation/institution to influence its agenda. Corporate boycotts in support of Christian values aren’t profitable these days so corporations won’t be doing any. If they were, you know corporations would be on your side, boycotting!

    Corporations don’t have a conscience, nor actual community interest. All they care about are profits. Hence, the NFL occupying the high ground in the case of the Georgia boycott.

  • antiutopia

    OH GOOD LORD.

    EVERYONE boycotts businesses or states because they find their practices offensive to morality.

    The author is being a bit tone deaf about the history of civil rights, one of the core issues being the rights of businesses to refuse service.

  • I think this post misses the point. The point being that those Christians businessowners who want the right to refuse goods and services to specific occassions, same-sex weddings to be specific, and actually more according to laws being considered in some states, have forgotten the context of their businessownership as well as the past. Those Christian businessowners are vying for the potential for some occassions, and groups in reality, to faces partial or complete deprivation of those services. And this is the case when we consider the fact that in our capitalist economic system, the private sector is the only provider of such goods and services.
    And in reality, it is a specific group that is being targeted since these businessowners seem to have no qualms in providing goods and services to unbiblical heterosexual weddings. So there is something about same-sex weddings that violate the consciences of these businessowners that unbiblical heterosexual weddings do not. That somehow, providing goods and services for a same-sex wedding contaminates one morally in ways that providing goods and services for heterosexual couples do not. So in reality, this is an equality issue and the refusal to provided goods and services that would be provided to other groups is a marginalizing action. But those Christian businessowners are too busy trying to keep their own hands clean to note the effect they are forcing on others.

    Boycotts should be judged on a case by case basis. And because the NFL has plenty of its own skeletons does not mean that any actions they call on for the state of Georgia are wrong. Personally, I am on my own partial boycotte of the NFL. Of course, that boycott started after I bought my last sweatshirt and recorded a show on the NFL network. But it is there.

    • Flexpar

      No person ought to have the right to the labor of another, just as no laborer has the right to compel another to purchase his or her labor. One is slavery the other is tyranny and neither has any place in civil society. The State compelling the labor of another especially when the act violates his or her conscience is exactly the same as state requiring racially segregated facilities of business and municipalities, both infringe on freedom and both create second class citizens. Ironically both are the result of bigotry and the desire to exert the will of one group over another.

      • And yet, shareholders have the right to the rewardsof other people’s labors.

        As for your statement about the state, does it imply that you opposed the Gov’t’s actions aginst Jim Crow?

        • Flexpar

          Shareholders have the right to the fruit of their property, in this case the business, that you equate the two is indeed revealing… Jim crow was state imposed segregation, business did not have the right to allow blacks the same accommodations as whites. These coercive laws that prevent business owners from acting in accordance with their conscience are certainly in the same vain as Jim Crow.

          • Flexor,
            And workers have the right to the fruit of their labors. Right now, we have a system that values wealth over work so that some of the fruit shareholders have are due to the exploitation of workers.

            And you are wrong about Jim Crow. You have both Jim Crow laws and the Jim Crow culture. And if you check, you will find that the laws varied from state to state, but the culture moved some to deny services based on race when they weren’t required to.

          • Flexpar

            No body is arguing that workers don’t have a right to the fruit of what labor they agree to sell in the market. And I am not wrong about Jim Crow at all. The fact is that is that the Jim Crow laws shored up what ever culture you are referring to. The striping of the laws would have allowed the market to strip away much of the discrimination. Whatever remained would have been monuments to real tolerance and freedom by a people who would rather allow distasteful (and largely harmless) activity to continue, verses sacrificing the power of our enumerated rights to a government that was never intend to poses, let alone wield those powers. Then we might have been worthy of the faith our founders had in us to keep our republic. In any light, the government overstepped its authority and we let it. The growing enmity that exists between the races, the genders, and the generations all result in part from the government exercising authority and power that it should not have, and various groups fighting for the control of the Federal government to punish and oppress those who disagree with them.

          • Flexor,
            Regarding workers, they don’t have the freedom you seem to think they have. Especially low-skilled workers are forrced to take what is offered and there is no negotiation. The alternative is to either starve or turn to crime. So I think you have an inflted view of workers’ freedom regarding selling their labor on the market.

            And the market was not the predominant driving force for Jim Crow. IT was the subcultural belief in the superiority of one’s race along with regarding the other race as being a possible contaminant because of their inferioritty.

            We should also note that the intelerance we showed was in the tradition of the numerous intolerances our founding fathers showed.

            Finally, gov’t didn’t overstep regarding same-sex marriage, we were intolerant and gov’t stepped in to protect the equality and rights of the those from the LGBT community.