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Buying ‘Christian’

by Aubrey B. Haines

Aubrey B. Haines is a free-lance writer who lives in Pomona, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 21, 1977, p, 804. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Christianity, rightly understood, seeks to unite people in common community -- not to raise barriers and separate them because of theological differences.

Text:

For years campaigns have occasionally been waged to persuade the public to buy locally or even to buy only American-made products. Now in the religious realm a kind of “born-again” Yellow Page directory is being issued which limits its listings to businesses operated by those who “accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” The project is under attack by a Jewish group that terms it “a throwback to Germany under Hitler,” recalling the “buy Christian” campaigns that started in Germany in the 1930s, and that resulted in a widespread refusal to trade with Jewish merchants in the years preceding the Third Reich’s more brutal acts of anti-Semitism.

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The man behind the “born-again” Yellow Pages says that such Jewish critics are being “paranoid,” and insists that “Christians need to know who their fellow Christians are in the business community in order to do business with them.” Says W. R. Tomson, national director of the Christian Yellow Pages: “We believe that if you need an electric drill, you should purchase it from a Christian hardware dealer. If you need dental care, we can tell you where to find a Christian dentist. The directory says in effect, ‘The persons listed herein are Christian businessmen.’” The unspoken assumption -- a questionable one -- is apparently that the Christian consumer should find such merchants to be more honest, reliable and ethical in their business dealings than other merchants, who may identify themselves as Jewish, as secular humanists, as Christians who reject the “born-again” tag, or whatever.

Milwaukee Journal cartoonist Doug Sanders lampooned those assumptions in a panel that pictured a grimly determined matron forcibly leading her bleary-eyed spouse from “Art’s Bar and Grill,” as he protests, “But honey! Ol’ Art is listed right here in the Milwaukee Born Again Christian Business and Professional Directory!”

National headquarters for Tomson’s firm is in Modesto, California, a thriving city of more than 60,000 in the lush San Joaquin Valley between Sacramento and Fresno. A similar enterprise, the Christian Business Directory, operates out of San Diego.

The Christian Yellow Pages are published in regional editions in more than two dozen U.S. metropolitan areas, including Richmond, Miami, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. The books resemble the Yellow Pages of a telephone directory except for their cover illustration, featuring a large white cross looming above the picture of a city skyline. Tomson claims that about 1 million copies will have been printed before the end of 1977, with 10,000 to 50,000 copies available in each city. A fee is charged each advertiser; the directories are distributed through churches or sold in Christian bookstores.

From his Modesto office Tomson oversees 150 salesmen who solicit advertising. He says that his men approach prospective customers with an outstretched hand and the greeting, “I understand that you are a born-again Christian.” Says Tomson: No degree in theology is heeded to determine a man’s reaction. If he looks at our man quizzically and asks, ‘What are you talking about?’ then we know that he’s not one of us. But if he should reply, ‘You bet’ or ‘Praise the Lord!’ -- then we know that he is. It’s merely a matter of discernment. The Holy Spirit gives us a certain feeling if the man belongs with us.” All business people who wish to advertise must sign a statement that they have “accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Saviour.” Since the advertisers are limited to those who identify themselves as “born-again” Christians, the directory naturally excludes a great many Catholics and Protestants, all Jews and all other non-Christians.

For this reason, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith has filed simultaneous suits in San Francisco and Los Angeles against the Christian Yellow Pages, and in San Diego against the Christian Business Directory. The Jewish organization alleges religious discrimination and unfair business competition, on the basis of several California statutes, including the state’s civil rights act, which prohibits the refusal to engage in a business transaction on the basis of race, creed, religion, color, national origin or sex. In one suit a Roman Catholic real estate agent charges that he was refused advertising space because he would not affirm that he was a “born-again” Christian. Plaintiffs in the other two court actions are Jewish business people who make similar allegations. Robert F. Miller, attorney for the Christian Yellow Pages, insists that the directory is protected by the constitutional guarantees of freedom of press and religion.

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In July the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) adopted a resolution asking members of the denomination not to patronize the directories, declaring that they are “divisive among Christians” and “discriminatory in relation to the Jewish community.” Charles Davidson, the Jacksonville, Florida, pastor who wrote the resolution, said that he was told that as of June, the directories had been published in 57 cities. “The ethics of it,” he said, “run counter to the highest Christian principles of fairness and nondiscrimination in the market place. There is little difference between religious discrimination in a public advertising medium and racial, creedal or sexual discrimination in the voting booth, the sale of housing, or as the basis for employment.”

Davidson suggested that there is an even more disturbing aspect to the enterprises: “For those who may wish to establish a financial and political as well as religious base across the nation, this kind of thing is a useful but subtle and insidious device. He noted that the San Diego operation is linked with the California Christian Campaign Committee, which seeks to elect Christians to public office. Dan Loeffler, president of the firm that publishes the Christian Business Directory, is executive director of CCCC.

Some Christians may insist, as does W. R. Tomson, that the directories do not represent “bias against anyone per se, but rather for born-again Christians,” and that it is good to trade with likeminded believers in a fellowship of mutual spirituality. But Christianity, rightly understood, seeks to unite people in common community -- not to raise barriers and separate them because of theological differences.


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