Companies, Brands and Social Justice an Interesting Three-Way

David Kiley

Our story this week, by Jay Greene and Mike France, with an assist from me, spotlights a growing problem in this country, and for American businesses. There is a tide of conservative sentiment rolling across red states into blue. And as companies try to walk the tightrope between what their employees demand and what partisan advocacy groups demand, it’s an issue that needs as much daylight as possible in the public square.

From our article: “The American Family Assn. (afa) in Tupelo, Miss., launched a letter-writing campaign against Kraft Foods Inc. on May 9 for supporting the Gay Olympics and is planning a boycott later this month against a yet-to-be identified larger company for courting gay customers. “Eventually corporations are going to learn—some the hard way—that these kinds of issues are divisive [and] that they’d be better served by just getting back to running the business,” says AFA Chairman Donald E. Wildmon, the religious leader who has taken the most aggressive stance against companies that offend conservative values.” And, of course, Microsoft now infamously withdrew support for a gay rights bill in Washington State and then changed its position going forward the vote was cast.

Let's not forget that Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary represented the Coors beer company as a liason to gay and transgender community marketing events. And we know which Presidential ticket the Evangelical right supported. But these groups primarily target companies they see as "family" companies, which have to sell groceries and SUVs to America. They don't much bother with beer and liquor companies.

Here is my problem with Wildmon’s position. Kraft had decided to support the gay Olympics, I imagine, because they want their products consumed by gay people who the company feels would be well-disposed toward Kraft cheese and the like if they supported the event. I have never been able to figure out how Wildmon, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Rev. Jerry Falwell are harmed if a bunch of people, joined in a community by their sexual orientation, have a day of athletic events at which Kraft perhaps has a banner and free food samples.

How are these folks harmed if a same sex couple at Microsoft are allowed to have all the survivorship rights and spousal medical coverage that heterosexual couples enjoy. This is what I have never been able to fathom about the culture wars. My wife likes to occasionally watch a reality show that I find silly. I choose to go read, do a load of laundry or maybe watch a DVD in another room of The Avengers. In other words, she gets to exercise her druthers and I get to have mine, and neither one of us threatens the other if we don’t like the other’s choice. I know those warriors fighting the culture wars think their fight is on a higher plane than the example I have used. But, frankly, I don’t think it is.

We note in our story: “ServiceMaster Co., parent of Terminix and TruGreen ChemLawn, by contrast, declares that a “core objective” is that employees of the Downers Grove (Ill.) company “honor God in all they do.” This reminds me of how right wing blow-hards like Sean Hannity complain that people who object to such overt expressions of religion in the workplace are against religious people and are trying “secularize” America. But let’s consider this. In any company or public school, you may find Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Athiests, Muslims, Hindus, etc. Where I live in N.J., all those people are free to worship and practice their religion at home, in their yard, on the corner, in the park or in a religious institution. There is no curtailment of freedom that I know of in America to freely practice one's religion in such places. Companies like Servicemaster, public schools and town councils fighting for the right to have a crèche at Christmas time or a moment of prayer to start the day are asserting that their religious traditions trump all others in a space—school or office—where people ought not to be judged or separated by religious belief or non-belief. To drive the values of one religious tradition over others in the workplace, school or court, is an act of emphasizing the differences between team members at the same company or school rather than playing up the common values and goals that will bind us together.

Let's face it. It isn't likely that people of different religious traditions are going to find their common ground in one house of worship or another. The secular places we have and should cherish--the courts, the schools and the office--are the places we make our friends and discover the common ground we have.

Companies like Microsoft and Kraft are not taking sides of gays over evangelicals. These companies have expressed, however, their value system that the culture people choose to subscribe to deserves equal footing under the law and in the workplace as long as it’s not harming anyone. And if people are merely bugged by those whose lifestyle they don’t agree with...well, that’s just not good enough to meet the test of being harmed.

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