08.22.11

Christian Group’s New Gay War

The conservative Charity Giveback Group secured ads from popular companies like Apple and Wells Fargo—until a grassroots effort slammed its antigay stance. Now the firm is fighting back.

On Aug. 9, a man describing himself as an “adviser” to the Charity Giveback Group, or CGBG, a Christian fundraising operation that Mike Huckabee is involved with, left an oddly threatening message on the voicemail of a San Francisco blogger named Roy Steele.

The for-profit company, which had been known as the Christian Values Network until a March name change, operates a sort of online mall, donating a portion of each purchase to religious nonprofits. Among them are conservative organizations like Focus on the Family, The Family Research Council, Promise Keepers, and a number of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. In recent months, thanks to a remarkably successful online boycott campaign, major companies have rushed to disassociate themselves from CGBG. Steele publicized the boycott on his blog, Tie-Dyed Jive in the (415), and sent out a press release promoting it. The voicemail he received in response, if indeed from someone associated with CGBG, would suggest that the company was getting rattled.

“If you are seeking to be added to the coming litigation against Ben Crowther, Joe Mirabella, Change.org, and others who have continued to produce inaccuracies on the dialogue on this matter, we are more than happy to add your name to that list,” said the caller, mentioning two people who’d been involved in petitions against CGBG. He gave Steele 24 hours to demonstrate a “change of heart” by issuing a new, corrective press release. Steele responded by setting the audio to an animation of an angry drag queen and posting it on his blog.

It’s tempting to think that this must be a prank, except CGBG, which agreed to answer some questions via email, refuses to comment on it.

If it’s real, it’s certainly odd to see an outfit with powerful connections, one that continues to partner with major companies like Home Depot, Target, and Circuit City, make such a clumsy attempt to intimate a relatively obscure blogger. Still, it’s easy to see why CGBG is alarmed. It’s not only that major firms like Microsoft, Apple, and Wells Fargo are pulling out at an astonishing rate, threatening the company’s future. CGBG is also coming face to face with something that has long terrified the Christian right: the possibility that the stigma once attached to homosexuality would be transferred to those who oppose it.

The Christian Values Network was founded in 2008 with help from two dubious celebrities: Stephen Baldwin, Alec’s born-again brother, who continues to work with the group; and Michael Lohan, estranged father of Lindsay, who is no longer involved. Huckabee has acted as a spokesman for CGBG, and now “helps with developing new partnerships,” according to the company’s CEO, Jed Trosper. But CGBG didn’t really get off the ground until about a year ago. “It was some friends we had worked with who proposed the idea, and we’ve kind of just been testing it out,” says Tony Perkins, president of the Washington-based Family Research Council.

CGBG acts as an affiliate for associated retailers, taking a commission on every purchase made through its site. The commission is split between the company and a faith-based charity of the user’s choice. Some are humanitarian groups like Habitat for Humanity, but many, including those prominently featured on the company’s website, are decidedly political. Among them is The Family Research Council, which was classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year because of its continual flood of “demonizing propaganda aimed at homosexuals and other sexual minorities.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a long history in the civil-rights movement, and the inclusion of the Family Research Council on a list that included the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam elicited fury on the right. “The [Southern Poverty Law Center], which was once known for combating racial bigotry, is now attacking several groups that uphold Judeo-Christian moral views, including marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” said a full-page ad that ran in Politico and the Washington Examiner, which was signed by dozens of prominent conservatives, including Michele Bachmann, Eric Cantor, and John Boehner.

But while the right dismisses the Southern Poverty Law Center as a part of the radical left, its designations still matter, especially to companies that see tolerance and diversity as important parts of their image. Thus the “hate group” label has proved a potent weapon against CGBG.

There’s plenty of evidence that, from a public-relations standpoint, antigay bigotry has become toxic.

In July, a Seattle man named Stuart Wilber started a Change.org petition urging Microsoft to “Stop raising money for antigay hate groups.” It took only hours for Microsoft to respond by cutting all ties with the company. Wells Fargo and Delta Airlines soon followed. Seeing Wilber’s success, a 20-year-old college student named Ben Crowther started a petition targeting Apple, which eventually withdrew iTunes from the site. Baldwin and CBGB adviser Kevin McCullough, who co-host a radio show together, have attacked Crowther online and on the air, and told him to expect a lawsuit.

Crowther hasn’t started any petitions since then, but others have. Knowing that summer is a crucial season for the travel industry, the international gay-rights group AllOut.org launched a campaign focused on companies in that sector. Soon Westin, Expedia, Hotels.com, and Avis asked to be removed from CGBG. When an activist wrote to Best Buy, the company’s senior director of public relations responded that it was terminating its relationship with CGBG immediately, writing, “You also should know that Best Buy has been—and remains—strongly committed to LGBT workplace equality, and other diversity concerns.”

On Tuesday, CGBG put out a sternly worded press release. “Retailers are being manipulated by a bullying campaign fueled by false information,” said Trosper. “We urge them to review the facts and remain neutral on these issues by maintaining or reestablishing their relationships with all potential customers, regardless of the customers’ beliefs."

The press release pointed out, correctly, that some of the petitions misstated the number of designated hate groups that CGBG supports. Contrary to the petitions’ claims, the Southern Poverty Law Center considers Focus on the Family and Summit Ministries to be antigay groups, but not antigay hate groups—a distinction based on the extent of their antigay vitriol. Some petitions accused CGBG of channeling money to another hate group, Abiding Truth Ministries, whose founder, Scott Lively, claims that Nazism was a homosexual movement and that the modern gay-rights movement is its direct descendant. Trosper says the Abiding Truth Ministries that CGBG supports is an unrelated inner-city mission in Philadelphia.

Perkins says that a campaign is underway to bring companies back to CGBG. “As we talk to CEOs and they actually get the facts, we’re seeing many of these companies reverse their positions,” he says, though he won’t say which ones. “I think it’s a pretty simple mathematical equation. You’ve got a handful on one side and you’ve got a very large block of customers on the other side. I don’t think it’s going to take long for the retailers to figure that out.”

Perhaps. But there’s plenty of evidence that, from a public-relations standpoint, antigay bigotry has become toxic.

Tom’s Shoes learned that lesson this summer after its founder appeared at a Focus on the Family event and then, facing a massive backlash, issued an apology. Naturally, the apology seemed a sign of persecution to Focus on the Family, whose president called it an “unfortunate statement about the culture we live in, when an organization like ours is deemed unfit" over beliefs about marriage. But there wasn’t much the group could do. As it turns out, for all the Christian right’s abhorrence of socialism, it’s not the government that the movement has to fear. It’s the free market.