Disney I: Did the Baptists go far enough?

No one gave it a second thought.

Season after season, church buses and family minivans made pilgrimages down Florida's highways to find their places outside the sanctuary called Disney World. Religious leaders often scheduled their national conventions in Orlando, knowing this would guarantee a much better turnout than gatherings in more mundane locales.

Then it happened. Families and church groups began to mix with legions of homosexuals and bisexuals at the annual Gay Days festivities at the Walt Disney World Resort. Flocks of folks in born-again T-shirts collided with those wearing pink triangles - creating a media storm.

Thus, the Southern Baptists, Focus on the Family, the Catholic League, the Assemblies of God, the Presbyterian Church of America and other groups have urged their constituents to shun Disney products or, in some cases, even those produced by the 200-plus companies in the Disney empire. For a number of reasons, most linked to sex, these cultural conservatives argue that Disney's leaders have betrayed the trust of millions of parents.

Lost in the shouting is a fundamental question: What were all of those church groups and conservative families doing at Disney World in the first place? Isn't the Magic Kingdom itself little more than a shrine symbolizing the omnipresence of TVs and VCRs in modern homes?

"I have questions about the propriety of denominations or parachurch groups calling for a boycott," said media critic Kenneth Myers, author of a essay on boycotts in a book entitled "Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?" "But there is an even larger issue here and we shouldn't lose sight of it. The task of the church is to prepare its members to be of such a moral character that they wouldn't want to support a questionable company, anyway."

As a rule, modern churches grow timid when attempting to instruct people about the nuts-and-bolts issues that shape their lives. This is a classic case. Like it or not, entertainment dominates the daily rituals that shape millions of lives. Thus, the big question isn't whether the Southern Baptists and the anti-Disney coalition have gone too far. Have they gone far enough?

"There is no such thing as morally neutral entertainment," stressed Myers. "So it's a good thing when churches start teaching their people to take seriously questions about what they do with their time and their money. So it's good for churches to be upset about what Disney does or what other media companies do. That's fine. But what now?"

There is nothing new about churches meddling in the affairs of multinational corporations. The left has been doing this for years on issues ranging from recycling to racism. It also is ironic to hear progressives cheering for Disney. For years, many have attacked Disney as an icon of American cultural imperialism - that media tidal wave that is washing away folk cultures around the world. Others site Disney as the perfect example of a corporation that earns its billions by addicting children to a romanticized, commercialized, sentimental, materialistic view of life.

However, it's easier for religious institutions to take stands at the national level than it is for them to convince the faithful to make changes that affect wallets, living rooms, couches and TV remotes. Most people go to church on Sunday morning. The principalities and powers of entertainment are always open for business.

"Disney opponents do not argue that Americans should spend their time praying instead of planting themselves in front of 'Beauty and the Beast.' That battle was lost long ago," wrote Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. "No matter how betrayed traditionalists may feel by Disney's expansion into risqu?rime-time fare, R-rated movies and health benefits for partners of homosexual employees, the legacy of 70 years of Snow White and Bambi still rules: Many fundamentalist religious groups no longer struggle against the core of the Disney achievement -- the idea that entertainment is at least as important a part of life as faith, politics, work or family. ... Disney and religion are now competitors. Both sell a vision of reality."