When is a Ban not a Ban? When it’s a Target
Religion & Liberty Online

When is a Ban not a Ban? When it’s a Target

When is a ban not a ban? One answer might be when it is based on moral suasion rather than legal coercion. (I would also accept: When it’s a Target.)

In this piece over at the Federalist, Georgi Boorman takes up the prudence of a petition to get Target to remove smutty material and paraphernalia related to Fifty Shades from its shelves.

Boorman rightly points to the limitations of this kind of cultural posturing. Perhaps this petition illustrates more of a domination mentality than authentic cultural engagement, and Boorman’s right to offer many more hopeful options for engaging the kinds of cultural corruption that this case provides evidence of. I also tend to favor the more direct, personal, and relational methods of engagement to petitions, charters, public statements, and open letters, and there’s a lot of wisdom offered in Boorman’s piece.

“This front of the culture war is about demand, not supply,” she writes. I generally agree, and have come to similar conclusions before. One of my favorite quotes comes from Paul Heyne: “The market is a faithful servant in America today, providing more and more of the good things that we want. That is no reason to cripple it. It is reason, however, to think more carefully about what we want.” This doesn’t mean, however, that the decision by a company to sell or not to sell certain items is not a moral decision.

In this case, such a petition is likely to be limited in all the ways the author of the piece here illustrates. But a voluntary decision by a business not to sell certain products based on customer feedback doesn’t amount to a “ban” in anything but a very limited sense, and to the extent it should be understood as a ban, then it should be understood as exhibiting precisely the kind of moral deliberation that a company ought to manifest.

In this way, such a Change.org petition should be understood as part of civil discourse and moral deliberation and not inherently a direct appeal to government coercion (as many such petitions often turn out to be). The petition isn’t asking some governmental agency to regulate what Target can sell. The target of a petition is Target, not the government. Why isn’t this a valid way for customers to be heard?

And even if the petition was an appeal for government action rather than voluntary boycotting or other forms of moral suasion, it would not mean that such action has nothing to do with “culture.” Law and politics are downstream from culture, sure, but the relationship is dialogical as well. Another way of saying this is that the law has a pedagogical function, even if that function is limited in its efficacy and scope. The law is not the only arena (or tool) of the culture wars, but that does not mean that it is separate from them either.

So law and culture are not hermetically sealed off from one another any more than supply and demand are. It isn’t as if customers are the only moral agents involved in market relationships. If conservatives often “tend to be very good at compartmentalizing, at separating ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ from ‘economics,'” as Boorman writes, we can also fall into the trap of separating “law” from “culture” as well as morality from production, exchange, consumption, and distribution.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.