Once upon a time, there was a magic kingdom of family entertainment that was loved by values consumers from sea to shining sea. But an evil leader entered the castle and things went amiss. Mighty were his deeds, though he was small in stature. Then a throng of angry Southern Baptists appeared at the gates waving Bibles. Some even began to have second thoughts about paying the mini-mogul to help them raise their children.
In time the evil one fell, although people inside the gates insisted that all was well. And so it came to pass that the kingdom remained profitable, although its image was tarnished. That's the Rev. Richard Land's story, more or less, and he's sticking to it. The Hollywood establishment says the Southern Baptist Convention's eight-year boycott of the Walt Disney Company did little or no financial damage to the media superpower. Thus, the recent vote to end the boycott was of little consequence.
Disney never repented. Investors yawned. The end.
But the president of the Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has responded to this stark verdict with a question: Does Disney enjoy the same public trust it did eight years ago? He believes the answer is “no.”
“There are lots of entertainment companies and I think they're all pretty much the same,” said Land, who has both a soft Southern drawl and a doctorate from Oxford University. “But for most of our people, Disney used to be different. Disney was supposed to be a cut above the others. We expected better from Disney.
“Today, Disney is the same as everybody else. I think that most of our families now treat Disney no differently than they do other companies out in Hollywood. The boycott helped knock Disney down a notch.”
The June 22 resolution claimed that the boycott “communicated effectively our displeasure concerning products and policies that violate moral righteousness and traditional family values.” In the future, it said, Southern Baptists must “practice continued discernment regarding all entertainment products from all sources.”
Boycott organizers concede that Disney continues to extend employee benefits to homosexual couples and holds “gay day” festivities in its theme parks. However, they say Disney has made subtle efforts to be more gracious to religious believers, such as cutting its ties to Miramax. It also helps that, in December, Disney is teaming with Walden Media to offer a movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one of the most beloved works of Christian fiction ever written.
“We still have concerns about Disney,” stressed Land. “But Disney has done its share of listening. Still, I don't think there was any way that the boycott would have ended without the departure of the princeling of darkness.”
That is Land's nickname for Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Eisner's dramatic exit after a no-confidence vote by disgruntled shareholders was a crucial moment. According to Land, the infighting that haunted the final Eisner years even inspired after-hours calls to Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville. At Disney, executives have offered no public reaction on the end of the boycott.
“I have had enough off-the-record talks with some important people at Disney to know that they thought the boycott was biting them in some places that hurt,” said Land. “But these people inside Disney also convinced me that the cancer in the body was Eisner and that, once he was gone, we would see more signs of improvement.”
But for Southern Baptist leaders, said Land, the critical question is not whether the boycott affected Disney, but whether it affected life inside Christian homes. There is evidence he cited sobering prime-time ratings and box-office statistics that millions of Americans are having second thoughts about the media they consume.
The bottom line is that American families have more media options, from TiVo to Podcasting, from home theaters to interactive video games. The question, said Land, is whether they will make wise choices. Satellites and fiber-optic cables can carry filth as well as faith.
“If Jesus is the Lord of our lives then He is supposed to be the Lord of our entertainment lives, as well. It's easy to forget that,” said Land. “But that's what I hope Southern Baptists took away from the boycott. That's what this was about.”
(Terry Mattingly is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.)