Engaging Culture

The American Family Association Versus Gap: Why Boycotts are So Often a Bad Idea

The American Family Association has embarrassed themselves again over another boycott – this one against Gap.  The Mississippi-based ministry last week issued a boycott against Gap Inc. — the retailing giant whose brands include Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic.  They’ve called for a “two-month boycott over the company’s failure to use the word ‘Christmas’ in its advertising to Christmas shoppers.”  As the ministry says, Gap “does not use the word ‘Christmas’ to avoid offending those who don’t embrace its meaning,” writes Buddy Smith, executive assistant to the president of the AFA.  “I interpret Gap’s decision as a warning sign to Christians to get out there and tell people about Jesus Christ,” writes Smith.

Let’s discuss some issues here:
1.  When are secular corporations supposed to follow Biblical teachings?
  Sure it would be nice, but we’re kidding ourselves into thinking they’re only interested in marketing to the Christian audience.  Maybe we should worry more about getting our own house in order.

2.  Talk about a distraction.  When it comes to engaging the culture, we have a lot bigger fish to fry.  This culture is literally going to hell in a hand basket, and I seriously doubt saying “Happy Holidays” will trigger the apocalypse.  Let’s focus on more important issues.

3.  From my perspective this is really about fundraising.  Regardless of the impact (or lack thereof) in the culture, it will certainly raise money from hard core supporters of AFA.

4.  Finally – I’m curious if a single person has ever been led to Christ through a boycott.  Let’s consider how missionaries work for a moment.  Do they travel to another country, surround a tribe, criticize them, and then start a boycott?  No matter how difficult, they reach out to that culture, develop a relationship, win their trust, love them, and then share the gospel.  The only problem with that approach is that it’s not very good for fundraising (which may take us back to the real heart of the matter).

I’m sure The American Family Association is run by good people trying to make a difference in the culture.  But if we don’t take a hard look at strategies that backfire – like this one certainly has – then we’ll never really impact the culture in a significant way.

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  1. The sad thing with the Last Temptation boycott is it added publicity and drove people to see the film, which, if you’ve ever seen it, is horribly boring storytelling.  If Christians had just ignored it, it would have disappeared into the ether pretty quickly. 

    Not to mention, the premise of the film was not all that controversial.  It appears that some Christians felt that Jesus was too human and could not have resisted, equating Christ being tempted with Christ sinning.  The two are not the same thing.

  2. Right on Phil.  Their boycott makes me want to shop at the Gap this season and wish the store clerks I come into contact with a “Merry Christmas”.  If we would just all say Merry Christmas, that would get the message get the message out more than a boycott.  If you still choose to write the Gap, what would be better is to explain in a kind rational manner  as to why Merry Christmas is not offensive rather than just boycotting the company.   The fact is that over 90 percent of this country celebrates Christmas.

    Also, some of the greatest Christmas standards were written by Jewish composers:  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” composed by Johnny Marks, “White Christmas” composed by Irving Berlin and the awesome instrumental version of “Sleigh Ride” conducted by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra.  Finally, the tune for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was composed by Felix Mendelssohn.

  3. Unfortunately, in Christian circles we do have battles in our culture.  The key is to pick our battles wisely.  I feel that that the term “Christmas” not only embraces the second most cherished holiday of our faith (for those who don’t know the first is Easter and no gifts are actually involved – if you don’t count the Easter Bunny) but also the best of our American culture.  The term “Christmas” more than any other term sends most Americans into the warm and fuzzies.  Culturally, it sets off the pictures of family, goodwill, charity, love and lots and lots of presents, regardless of how seriously the person is about thier religion.  If a marketer doesn’t want cash in on that there just plain stupid.  Someone needs to let them in on a secret – Santa doesn’t come on “Holiday” he comes on “Christmas.”  That’s not religious – that’s a fact (thank you Virginia).  If they want to coddle to a small group of people who may be offended by a word that has encompassed the best that our culture has to offer then that is there perogative.  So, in the battles of our culture – the boycott on the gap is about as relevant as the gap itself. 

  4. I’m searching my Bible for the times when Jesus took the approach of “punishing” those who didn’t do things his way. Still searching…

  5. A boycott should be reserved for businesses that are actually producing things that are hostile to Christian values, not a silly issue like whether of not the business recognizes Christmas in its advertising. Do they recognize Ramadan? Chanukah? Mao’s birthday?

    Do we want Christmas associated with the Gap? with commerce in general? When a business sends me a Christmas card, and a corporation wishes me a Merry Christmas, what does it really mean? I not sure it wouldn’t be a good example of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Wouldn’t it? Isn’t it?

    This boycott is another example of the tortured, inward vision of so many Christian organizations: let’s do something to make ourselves feel better about us, and find an external scape-goat for our own failure to make our ideas and values convincing and attractive to society. It just reinforces the popular image of Christians being people who are against everything and opposed to everyone.

    The Gap is not our biggest problem. Personally, I keep trying to boycott See’s Chocolates, but… well, the spirit is willing…


    My thoughts are simple. While AFA is trying to “make a difference”, christians are once again labeled as the people who are against everything and support nothing. Wonder what Jesus would of done if he had to boycott everything He didn’t “agree with”? Ministry would be non-existent. We have all read the scriptures enough to know that Jesus didn’t run from confrontation…He ran to it. He walked with heathens, and talked with sinners. We have enough things in this culture that does require a stand based on beliefs…I don’t see why we should try to make up another one that “might fit the mold”. There is no better time than Christmas to witness and share Christ. People are open beyond their natural routine of structure. I think AFA just needed another thing to boycott due to their lack of true impact on society. Empty wagons always make the loudest noise.


  7. Walmart put Christmas back in their marketing because it made them more money.  But they had to figure it out themselves.

    Gap is going to do what makes them more money, and AFA knows that.  This is fund raising.  Nothing more, nothing less.



  8. Phil,

    Yeah, it’s a complicated thing. On one hand, it’s great that someone is making an effort out there and expending their own energy and resources with the intent to defend Christ. In a vacuum, that’s a noble thing. However, I think it’s along the lines of Christians getting ticked at unbelievers for acting like…well…unbelievers.

    The Gap and it’s related companies are for-profit businesses and were not created with a Christian, evangelical end-game in mind. It’s like when large groups do the latest ban on the Disney parks, here in Florida. It’s kookoo talk. It doesn’t net anything for the kingdom of God, and folks from churches still go to the mouse house. It does, however, serve to harden sceptics of the faith from hearing about how Christ can turn them into a more loving individual – which of course, should be a part of sanctification.

    To quote from a non-believer – Woody Allen – in one of his older movies, his character has subconsciously created an imaginary character to help him cope with his life and the deep, existential issues facing him. At one point, Woody tells his imaginary character that he feels like he isn’t doing anything meaningful with his life as a filmmaker and that maybe he should become a missionary or something (he actually says “missionary”). The imaginary character retorts with the following: “Ehhh…you’re not really the missionary type. You want to make the world a better place? Tell better jokes.”

    What I glean from Woody here is that instead of attempting to do something grandiose like halt all profits for Gap via a para-faith organized ban during Christmas, to doing something relational like telling jokes to your co-worker and just being a genuine, caring person who is flawed but driven by the Holy Spirit to share the truth of Jesus with our neighbors, co-workers, etc. Whatsay we ban apathy and a lack of sharing our faith with those around us and then when we’ve accomplished that, we can talk about banning Walmart or maybe Red Bull…?

  9. Are these AFA people crazy?  “Gap” rolls out the Red campain raising massive amounts of money for the worlds poor, and we want to disown a company because they don’t use the word “Christmas.”  Is our Faith/Message so weak that it depends on commerical companies to raise the God question in the public space?

    Why does it take a negative action to bring about our positive message about Jesus?  Heres another way – for example, Focus on the Family buying the lastest 3 D UltraSound machines and donating these to family planning centers as a way to reduce abortions.  If the mother sees the baby, she’s less likely to go ahead. Never thought I would be bragging on Focus on the Family, but they’re doing good work.

    Sorry, but this report got me wound up.  Take this idea/thought to the end and:  We should only buy from people/companies who sign up to the apostles creed  – look out, turn off the cable tv because it also has porn on it. 

  10. You missed one point Phil – missionaries also learn to speak the language of the tribe they wish to convert. We’ve got to learn to speak the language of our ever changing culture. The AFA hasn’t got a clue.

  11. Boycotts are for the timid and insecure.  I don’t need the affirmation of the GAP or anyone else to believe what Christmas is about and I certainly don’t need the approval of anyone to share my beliefs.  Since when is it a retailer’s job to share my faith?

    Proving your love is better than proving your point.  Let’s get over ourselves and go do some real ministry.

    What’s funny is, if you watch the GAP ad, one of the first things they say is “Go Christmas”.

  12. Hello.  Actually, it seems as though Gap HAS responded to the criticism of not saying “Christmas”…however, I guess one needs to be careful what one asks for.  The following comes from a recent AFA e-mail (it seems as though they are wondering whether or not to continue the boycott, since technically, Gap has met their request):

    “Gap has responded to AFA’s call for a Christmas boycott of their Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic stores with a commercial that takes a cavalier approach towards Christmas.

    The video entitled Ready for Holiday Cheer features a group of people dancing and chanting:

    Two, Four, Six, Eight, now’s the time to liberate
    Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanza, Go Solstice.
    Go classic tree, go plastic tree, go plant a tree, go add a tree,
    You 86 the rules, you do what feels just right.
    Happy do whatever you wanukkah, and to all a cheery night.

    Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, go whatever holiday you wanukkah.”

    – I think too many of us just sit back and let the secularness of the culture overrun traditional symbols and values of Christianity; however, one must ask, is this ad better than just saying “Happy Holidays”?

  13. I completely agree with you. This kind of thinking just reinforces the “angry, judgmental Christian” stereotype and pushes people even further away.

    We need to know what we’re for more than what we’re against. Bickering over petty things [yes, in my view not including “Christmas” in the list of all the other holidays for this GAP commerical is petty] just drowns out what is truly important.

  14. Phil, thanks for discussing this issue.  It seems that boycotts are used today as a great way to leverage people power over financial and other powers.  I think that if done with the right reason and done the right way they can make sense.

    It seems like this group wanted to have the GAP use the word Christmas in their Holiday/Christmas advertising.  You would think they would be celebrating the win and not complaining about the method.  The tone may be much less respectful than the group wanted, but they got the Gap to use the word Christmas in their Christmas/Holiday advertising.  It seems like it might have made sense to then embrace and thank the company and their marketers and enjoy the victory. 

    Constant Complaining is not something that people are drawn to and as another person has already pointed out, not exactly the chosen method of Christ.

  15. AFA is a disaster when it comes to PR and ethics. They purposefully flaunt the rules of marketing and then screech when they dislike others methods. This current silly push is simply typical of their style.

    Personal example…
    ‘Someone’ added me to their newsletter and when I unsubscribed, it kept coming. I unsubscribed a 2nd time. after a few weeks, I eventually had to mark them as a spammer. They still show up in my spam folder.  Not an example of someone who takes care of their message. Much less the most imprtant one.

    No thanks AFA. Why would I respect what you think when you don’t respect how you represent Christ? Why anyone supports them is beyond me.

  16. Why doesn’t the “American Family Association” call themselves the “Christian Family Association”?

    How many “American Family Association” members shopped at the Gap before the boycott?

    How many ” American Family Association” members can fit into a pair of Gap jeans?

    The “American Family Association” posted a list of top retailers and how they recognize Christmas.
    This list should be enough.

    Personally I have heard more complaints about Christmas decorations going up right after Halloween than if the word “Christmas” is used in the decorations.

  17. Phil, you’ve successfully changed my mind.  I’ve always assumed that boycotts were effective, but, I think you nailed it.  some of the comments are even better!  Great job guys!

  18. Phil,

    I couldn’t agree with you more.  I believe we have to tell “the church” the truth about how to LOVE people to Jesus, not try to make them ACT like Christians.  A boycott is the opposite of how Jesus treated people all through the New Testament and how foreign missionaries today even, treat the people they are ministering to and praying for.  We have to remember that people’s actions, words and world views won’t change until their hearts change.  And their hearts won’t change unless the Lord comes in and touches them, through unconditional love – NOT boycotts.  I wish, as Christians, we would remember that, instead of trying to make people live by our world view.  I believe it’s spiritual battle.  If Satan can get Christians mad at the world for not acting like Christians, then we can build chasms between us and the non-believers will be so turned off by anything to do with Christianity that they get even farther from God.  And Satan wins.  We must stop feeding the enemies tactics and start following Jesus’ ways!  I pray for the AFA to stop boycotting and start loving, so that the Holy Spirit can do the work.  I hope that the AFA can see what my husband often reminds me: “There are no vacancies in the Trinity!”

  19. Couldn’t agree more Phil. We wonder why so many people tune out God and anything having to do with “Christianity”. The AFA and other ministries expect people to conform to our way of thinking. However, most organizations do not live a life the inspires transformation. If we are truly going to impact our culture, we must live a life that draws people to Christ. 

    While I believe the AFA is trying to do something good, I also believe that their efforts are misplaced.

  20. Hey Phil,

    Enjoyed you webcast with Brad today.  Good stuff!  Helped me a lot.

    I worked with the AFA in the 80’s with a local church in Grand Rapids, MI.  NEVER LIKED IT!!  The trap is that you’re giving church folks something to do (which they love) – make signs, pickett, organize.  But it never works – it’s activity over impact – the culture is unchanged!

  21. Sorry Phil and others…but I will continue my boycott of these stores because of their discriminatory policies. Ever tried to buy an XXLT shirt in these places? HAH!! Forget it. Don’t get me started on the shoes… Ever seen anything bigger than a 12?? I think not. It would be nice if they’d wish me Merry Christmas, but I’d be happy if I could shop there and buy clothes that fit me.

  22. Phil,
    You are so right!
    In my experience, I don’t think boycotts work AT ALL unless they are on a daily and directly impactful grass roots/local level like the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
    Boycotts (and unfortuneatlely most Christian ones by the way we usually promote them) simply give free publicity to whatever we’rre boycotting and/or rouse those of anti-Christian positions to support it.
    Bill Bright trying to buy all the prints of  “Last Temptation of Christ” in the  ’80’s comes to mind here.  All it did was bring attentinon to the film, which many secular critics disliked overall and which probably would have just disappeared if he had confined his comments to the pulpit or not said anything at all.
    I actually participated in a picketing campaign of a local theater sponsored by my church at the time.  The theater was showing Last Temptation and one of the patrons told me as he exited the theater that  the ONLY reason he even bothered to see it was becasue Chrisitans were making such a  big deal and that he would support ANYTHING that we were against.
    Besides, where’s the stewardship here?  IF you’ve got multiple millions of dollars (I believe the figure offered was $10 million) to buy a print of one single film, why not take that money instead and give it to ten talented Christian directors and make 10 good $1million films that creatively present our message and values?
    Hey, I’m just sayin…
  23. I remember participating in a protest of The Last Temptation of Christ at Universal City Studios Hollywood back in the summer of 1988.  I remember my pledge to boycott MCA, which was what we chanted as we marched down the hill at Universal and onto the local park lawn.  I remember TBN President Paul Crouch talking about how TBN offered the Universal Chair Lew Wasserman $10 million to purchase the film and then destroy it.  Universal refused, but the studios may have made more money had they accepted.  Looking back, if I knew then what I know now, I would not have participated in the protest.  I think Campus Crusade for Christ got it right back in 2006 when the DaVinci Code came out.  Rather than tell people to boycott the movie, they went to different theaters where people were waiting in line to see the picture and passed out pamphlets about the truth of Christianity compared to the DaVinci Code.  They encouraged patrons to see the movie and then read their website and then discuss it online.  That is what I wish we had done with the Last Temptation. 

    BTW, I ended my boycott of MCA six months later by seeing the Universal Picture film Twins as part of a double feature on a 75 cent night Thursday at the local one screen theater.


  24. tlee… I don’t want to make a presumption about what you meant, but if you meant what you said, you need to look back at things and reconsider.

    Specifically, we don’t battle culture.  We aren’t called to battle culture.  In fact, we are not called to battle anything other than false teachers within our faith.  Look it up.  Rather we are called to ENGAGE culture.

    Again, I don’t want to presume you meant something you didn’t, but the word “battle” should be excised from your vocabulary when speaking of Christians in the world.

  25. Because of the “ineffective” and “embarrassing” boycott GAP has agreed to release a more appropriately Christmas themed commercial due to air next week.


    Why is it when Christians make a decision not to support a business they are labeled as “hateful”? But when liberals do it they are “enlightened”? Jesus never financially supported anything he disagreed with while he was here on earth. Everybody makes choices where to spend their money. In a capitalist society business models change to attract different cliental. When A business chooses not to reach out to Christians they should not expect Christians to walk through their doors. When a business chooses to cater to Christians, they should not expect Muslims to walk through their doors. I don’t see why this is such a big deal. GAP obviously targets a younger crowd with their advertising, does that make senior citizens “hateful” because they are not beating the doors down to spend their money? No they are simply not their targeted demographic. All Christians are saying is that they are choosing to spend their money with companies that target them.

  26. Thank you, Karen…

    Too often we forget that we’re here to LOVE and SAVE the world, not bitch about it or turn everything into an US versus THEM situation.  If we are truly following the Gospel, there is no us versus them.

    We are fond of quoting JOhn 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  But when we engage in boycotts like this, we completely ignore John 3:17 – “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  If we truly want to be little Christs, we need to embrace the whole passage.

    I Peter 3:9 – “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

    II Peter 3:9b sums it up (even though it is speaking of Christ’s return, it is applicable here) “He (The Lord) is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”


  27. And started the tradition of “Let’s Put In Something to Piss Off Those Christians!” as guaranteed free publicity.  Just stick the “Guaranteed to Offend Xians” (not much of a stretch) into the buzz for the project; that pushes the buttons of all the AFAs, FoFs, and Fred Phelpses and off they go.  Maximum buzz, lotsa publicity, and it doesn’t cost you a penny.

    It’s gotten to the point that in lots of SF fandom, “It’s gotta be good — the Christians are denouncing it!”  Not to mention those who’ll buy the product BECAUSE the Christians are against it, out of sheer contrariness if nothing else.

    That publicity-stunt tactic is now so common my writing partner (a burned-out country preacher) got into BIG trouble with his church ladies when he posted a joke entry on LiveJournal years ago, offering himself as “a REAL Reverend to denounce your book/show/movie”.  For a fee, of course.

    I advised him to do it for real — with what they’re paying him to pastor, he needs the money.

  28. Why is it when Christians make a decision not to support a business they are labeled as “hateful”? But when liberals do it they are “enlightened”?

    Because whoever is in power defines what is “hateful (TM)” and what is “enlightened (TM)”.  Inside or outside Christian Bizarro World.

    Don’t ask Political Questions, Comrade.

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