Church Worldwide: Guardians of ‘Christmas Cred’ Reap Publicity, Donations

December is fundraising season, the time when nonprofits hit the airwaves, Internet, social media, and good old snail mail with their most distinctive give-to-us pitches.

And for a few groups, those pitches are all about campaigns to enforce the words and images of “Christmas” in the public square. They seek to steer consumers toward retailers and brands that blare “Christmas”—emphasis on “Christ”—in advertising words and images.

But these Christmas credibility campaigns, such as the Starbucks red-cup-no-“Christmas” flap, don’t move consumers, experts say. They sometimes jar corporations to tweak ads to protect their brand image. But they might score big on media attention, which can translate into donor dollars even if there’s not a measurable dollar’s worth of difference in national consumer behavior.

“Consumers are extreme examples of habit-forming people. We like what we like. And we rationalize that our one purchase is not going to have a huge effect. Even if we say we support a boycott, when push comes to shove, we do what we always did in the past,” said sociologist Brayden King, professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The more subtle measures of success for such campaigns, such as the American Family Association’s annual “Naughty or Nice” list, is the ability to sometimes shift corporations that want to avoid negative media attention, said King.

For eight years, the AFA has highlighted “Christmas-friendly” companies and cast a Scrooge shadow on those that don’t measure up. Even if a chain store carries what are clearly Christmas items, if these are not labeled, promoted and advertised under the C-word, the company is dinged for banning Christmas—i.e., banning Christ from the public square, in AFA’s view.

“It’s about the birth of Christ, not just another holiday,” said Buddy Smith, senior vice president of AFA. That matters to “Christians who follow the Bible on biblical stewardship and hold ourselves accountable for how we spend our money.”

Smith sees success: the Naughty list this year is the shortest ever. Meanwhile, he said, “Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Lowe’s, which had gone completely politically correct in not using ‘Christmas,’” have moved to the Nice list in recent years.

Plus, the list has indeed boosted donations to AFA, said Smith. “Why not? People are very benevolent during the Christmas season, when God gave his only son. We get lots of donations from our support base at the end of the year, and we count on it.

“Like any nonprofit, we have employees to pay and electric bills. And if people are going to give us money, they want to know if our voice is making a difference,” said Smith.

“It’s the publicity that counts. Every organization wants to show supporters it is doing something on the issue they care about,” said James Jasper, sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements.

Chris Stone, founder and CEO of Faith-Driven Consumer, also takes an interest in promoting evangelical views with a list of Christmasy companies at ChristmasBUYcott.com, rather than a boycott of those that promote secular seasonal joy.

“Christians and faith-driven consumers are not the same. Only 25 percent of practicing Christians (evangelicals) are faith-driven consumers,” said Stone, who sets their number at 41 million whom he calls “biblically orthodox.”

This group, he says, is driven by their Christian faith in deciding “where they buy, what they buy, and what entertainment they consume.” (The numbers are based on in-house polling by Faith-Driven Consumer.)

He’s launched a new, year-round campaign for this subset of Christians—a comprehensive 100-point Faith Equality Index assessing companies’ treatment of these “biblically orthodox Christians.”

In this index, high points (and maybe a boost of consumer Christmastime attention) go to companies that hire, promote, and accommodate the devout. So a retailer’s Christmas-friendly ads are only worth 5 points while the big points go for overall “engagement, public policy, philanthropy, operations and human resources” that align with conservative evangelical views.

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