Update 8/1: An adapted version of this article has been posted at Out of Ur.
During a summer break while in college I interned at a Southern Baptist church in the suburbs of Washington DC. This remains my closest association with the Southern Baptists (aside form a recent article critical – constructively, I hope – of one of their leaders) and it’s one I remember happily. This despite the distinct culture within that denomination that reminded me that I was this church’s visitor. This crystallized as I learned of the congregation’s discussion about whether or not to participate in their denomination’s boycott of the Walt Disney Company. My denominationaly unaffiliated self had been unaware of the possibility of a boycott and the reasons behind it.
That 15 year old memory surfaced the other day while reading about another boycott. This one requires the participants to abstain from Chick-fil-A, the fast food chicken place that is as well known for being closed on Sundays as for the chicken sandwiches beloved by their loyal customers. The company’s president, well known for his Christian faith, recently discussed his views about marriage on a radio show. Wading into the debate about same-sex marriage may not seem prudent from a business perspective, but that’s what Dan Cathy did and now some are suggesting that his restaurants be boycotted.
(I’ve been boycotting Chick-fil-A since 1997, though not for any philosophical or religious reason. My college roommate at the time worked at the Chick-fil-A in Asheville, NC and brought back a bunch of sandwiches at the end of each shift, one of which is still associated with the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had.)
In these two instances there are two ideologically opposite groups calling for boycotts on companies that don’t share their values. I’m sympathetic. Abstaining from certain companies or national regimes for dehumanizing and exploitative practices seems a legitimate option. It’s unclear to me whether any participant in a globalized world can rest easy in his or her ethically-pure purchases, but that doesn’t take away from the conscious decision to do less harm.
What’s more interesting to me is what these two boycotts – Disney and Chick-fil-A – might say about our identities as consumers. Both brands inspire loyalty and evangelistic zeal among the faithful. If you doubt this hang around the next time I half-jokingly explain my goal of never visiting Disney World to someone who has recently returned from the best week of their life at the Magic Kingdom. Or observe the pity when I explain my revulsion to the world-famous chicken sandwich.
Disney is more than a vacation destination; it’s symbolic of our longings, so much so that we willfully entrust our very young children to the brand’s narrative and teachers. And Chick-fil-A doesn’t just want customers but, as the CEO puts it, “raving fans.” Those who have camped overnight in a franchise parking lot or dressed up as the restaurant’s mascot for the chance at a free meal might be who he has in mind.
Much of the time when we shop we’re probably not assuming the store owner shares our particular values and beliefs. This is true of both small businesses and larger corporations: the thought of shared values didn’t cross my mind at the local hot dog joint on Thursday or while buying ice at Walgreens on Sunday morning. There are, however, certain brands that ask for more than our dollars; they’re interested in our identities. They hope we will align ourselves with what they’re selling. This makes great sense for the company but much less so for us. Discovering something about our favorite brands that obviously clashes with who we hope to be creates – to slightly overstate it – an identity crisis.
So we are left to boycott a company we love not because of gross exploitation – again, we don’t think this way about many of the companies we frequent – but because of how closely we’ve become identified with their products and experiences.
Christians are people who don’t construct our identities but, rather, have them secured for us in Jesus. We are who we are because of who God is rather than anything so profane as a corporate marketing strategy. Does this mean Christians of all political leanings shouldn’t boycott? I don’t think so. But living differentiated from the shallow identities of savvy corporations may allow us to think differently about what what we abstain from, and why.