Religious Conservatives Rush To Cheer Automaker’s Troubles

For Detroit’s executives and union leaders, plummeting auto sales and stock prices are foreboding harbingers of a faltering industry. But some Christian conservative activists are hailing the bad numbers as a victory.

Three months after launching a boycott against Ford Motor Co. to protest the firm’s ties to gay and lesbian advocacy groups and publications, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association says its effort is having an impact. Late last week, the group — which is leading a 19-member coalition of conservative organizations — released a June 7 e-mail from a Ford executive, acknowledging the boycott and urging dealers “to listen to every customer, correct any misinformation, and ask them to support Ford.”

The release of the e-mail comes as American automotive leaders are grappling with the challenges posed by rising gas prices and foreign competition. This week, at a Las Vegas convention of the United Auto Workers, the union’s president, Ron Gettelfinger, told members they must accept concessions on health care benefits and other contract issues in the face of long-term, structural changes facing the industry.

When contacted by the Forward about the conservative boycott of Ford, several Republicans declined to comment.

In recent years, the religious right has increasingly adopted the strategy, originally pioneered by liberal activists, of attempting to shape public policy by placing direct pressure on corporations — particularly those that have high-profile brand images to protect. The AFA initiated a boycott against The Walt Disney Company in 1996 for allegedly promoting homosexuality in American culture. The campaign ended in 2005.

Christian groups have been sparring with Ford since May 2005, when they first threatened a boycott. After a series of meetings with the company during the past summer and fall, Ford agreed to drop several outreach efforts targeting the gay community, including donations to advocacy groups, sponsorship of gay pride events and the bulk of its advertising in gay-friendly media outlets.

But after meeting with gay advocates last winter, Ford backed away from that agreement; next, on March 13 the AFA and its partners launched a boycott of Ford.

Several major conservative Christian groups, including Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority, are not part of the coalition.

According to Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the AFA, more than 500,000 people have signed the boycott pledge online or through church groups. Sharp asserted that, in recent months, Ford has stepped up its advertising in Christian news outlets.

When contacted by the Forward, spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, and the Republican National Committee declined to comment on the boycott. Also declining to comment were former Republican governor of Michigan John Engler — who is now president of the National Association of Manufacturers — and Spencer Abraham, a former Republic senator from the state.

A Ford spokesperson declined to comment. But in the e-mail that he sent to dealers last week, Al Giombetti, a Ford vice president, acknowledged that the boycott has not gone unnoticed.

“Over the past few weeks, some of you have been put in the position of having to respond to customer questions about why Ford Motor Company advertises in publications with a primarily gay or lesbian readership,” Giombetti wrote. The Ford executive added that he was aware “of the pressure that is being brought to bear by those who don’t agree with some of the advertising or charitable decisions the company has made.”

Tom White, a sales manager at Phil Long Ford in Colorado Springs, Colo. — a city that is home to several prominent conservative Christian groups — said that the boycott has had minimal impact on his dealership.

“It’s a pretty weak boycott,” White told the Forward. “The first half-a-dozen calls we got… we said, ‘Fine, do what you got to do.’ Then we finally started responding back to them, and they came in and [bought] cars or they don’t call us anymore.”

White said the dealership had received about a dozen phone calls and about two-dozen e-mails.

According to research conducted by Phillip Leslie, an assistant professor of strategic management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Larry Chavis, a doctoral student at the university, at least one recent conservative protest — the boycott of French wines launched in early 2003 in response to France’s opposition to the Iraq War — did have a substantial impact.

Their analysis, released in April, showed a 26% drop in French wine sales in the United Sates at the peak of the boycott, with an average 13% drop over the six months of the event.

This story "Religious Conservatives Rush To Cheer Automaker’s Troubles" was written by Jennifer Siegel.

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