Southern Baptists, Disney and Media Reality

For the next 12 months, the Rev. Richard Land will try to convince Southern Baptists to reconsider the ties that bind their homes to the Walt Disney Co.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission also will watch for signs that Disney executives are willing to discuss the threat of a boycott by America's largest non-Catholic flock.

It's hard to say which task will be more difficult. Most church leaders don't take entertainment seriously and most media leaders don't take churches seriously. However, media leaders know that millions of churchgoers shell out billions of dollars for their products and use them as video babysitters -- just like everyone else.

"We know we've done pitifully little to help our people deal with the media age," said Land, whose Nashville-based agency is best known for its political activism. "We haven't done enough to help them think seriously about the role that TV and movies and VCRs and everything else play in their lives. We will -- believe me, with this Disney situation we will -- step up our efforts."

"The Disney situation" refers to the media storm after a June 12 Southern Baptist Convention resolution accusing Mickey Mouse and company of various moral sins. It encouraged "Southern Baptists to give serious and prayerful reconsideration to their ... support of Disney products and to boycott The Disney Company and theme parks if they continue this anti-Christian and anti-family trend."

The vote protested a variety of Disney actions, such as granting insurance benefits to partners of homosexual employees, hosting homosexual events at theme parks, the publication of books for homosexual children and the hiring of a convicted child molester to direct the movie "Powder."

Land stressed that the convention resolution did not establish a boycott, but asked his agency to monitor Disney's responses -- to see if a boycott is needed.

The official Disney response stated: "We find it curious that a group that claims to espouse family values would vote to boycott the world's largest producer of wholesome family entertainment. We question any group that demands that we deprive people of health benefits and we know of no tourist destination in the world that denies admission to people as the Baptists are insisting we do."

Disney chairman Michael Eisner was more blunt, telling the Los Angeles Daily News: "We think they're a very small group of the Southern Baptists that took a very extreme position, which we think is foolish." The company's only other known response was a June 13 appeal for support, sent to gay and lesbian Internet sites.

"I would have to say," said Land, "that if Disney's leaders continue to give us the back of their hand ... then I think you'll see us vote next June to this turn into a real boycott."

So the clock is ticking. Southern Baptist leaders have a year to use their own educational publications and media to reach 15.6 million members in nearly 39,000 churches. The goal: to make a case that changes at Disney demand a response that will affect everyday life at the level of wallets, TV remotes and family-room shelves lined with video cassettes. Land said he already has met with leaders at the SBC's powerful Sunday School Board, one of America's largest religious publishers.

But talking about a boycott affects more than Disneyworld and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Disney's kingdom now includes everything from "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" and "Nightline" to "Home Improvement" and "Monday Night Football." Also, gay-rights activists note that dozens of media giants, including all the major studios, have taken steps similar to those at Disney.

Land knows many will continue to ask: Why pick a symbolic fight with Disney?

"Disney has asked to be judged by a different standard," he said. "For years, they've told parents that their company will be family friendly. ... It's going to be hard for them to back the gay-rights cause and then turn around and tell traditional families and church groups that things haven't changed out at the Magic Kingdom."