Rev. Jay Leach: My Forthright Dialogue with Lowes Executives
“Lowe’s pulls ads from Muslim show, draws fire.”
This was the headline of a December 11 article appearing in the Charlotte Observer. Some variation of that headline appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and in print media outlets throughout the nation.
The Observer article explained explicitly: “The retail giant stopped advertising on TLC’s ‘All-American Muslim’ after a group called the Florida Family Association complained the show was ‘propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.’”
Like many, I was deeply bothered by this action. Lowe’s claims to make “diversity and inclusion a conscious part of how we run our business.” (see https://careers.lowes.com/diversity.aspx) To capitulate to fear-mongering is antithetical to that claim. So, I was pleased when I began noticing email petitions taking Lowe’s to task for its actions.
On Thursday, December 15, I was contacted by a representative from an organization called “Faith in Public Life” based in Washington, D.C. asking if I would deliver tens of thousands of these signed petitions to the Lowe’s corporate headquarters in nearby Mooresville, N.C. I contacted some other colleagues to ask if, on very short notice during the holiday season, they’d join me. My longtime friend Russ Dean, one of the co-pastors at Park Road Baptist Church, agreed. We talked with the organization and made our plans to go.
On Tuesday, December 20, Russ and I, accompanied by our Director of Religious Education for Children and Youth, Kathleen Carpenter, in her role as the current president of the board of Mecklenburg Ministries, were joined by three other Christian clergy in a board room conversation at Lowe’s. Representing Lowe’s were four high-level executives who thanked us for our visit.
They asked what we wanted to say. I invited them to tell their side of the story first. To my surprise, they began with an unequivocal admission: we have handled this whole thing very poorly. We’ve done a very poor job of communicating; we understand why people are upset; a part of why we agreed to meet with you is in hopes of saying more clearly what transpired and of addressing the damage we’ve done.
They proceeded to explain that they had bought a block of advertising on the cable channel TLC aware that “All American Muslim” could be one of the shows on which their ads might run. We knew about the content of the show, they said, and had no problem with a Lowe’s ad being aired on it.
One Lowe’s commercial ran during an episode of “All American Muslim.” By the next morning, Lowe’s Facebook page had filled with vitriol. Some of it was directed at the company for running its ads on the show. But, other messages spewed invectives back-and-forth between those posting on the page. That morning a Lowe’s team met and, aware of the thousands of strident postings prompted by the advertisement on this particular show—some directed against the company, some simply deriding others—decided to contact TLC and request that their ads not be aired again on “All American Muslim.”
Only after the decision had been made was Lowe’s contacted by the American Family Association. They indicated that they simply sent a form letter explaining the decision they had already made.
Our decision was solely a business decision, they explained. We advertise to attract customers. We didn’t think this was going to help attract customers so we discontinued them. The maelstrom that resulted, they admitted, took them completely by surprise. In trying to explain their decision, they communicated very poorly, only further fueling the backlash.
We then talked for over an hour. I left with several conclusions. First, I don’t now think Lowe’s was motivated by bigotry or acted out of some deeply held Islamaphobic attitude. To reduce it to those highly-charged accusations is neither fair nor accurate.
Second, Lowe’s clearly failed to live up to its own high corporate values. They acted solely out of concern for their bottom line without considering other implications. They had a great opportunity to respond to the backlash by holding up their own statement: “Lowe’s is committed to maintaining an environment of inclusion, fairness, and respect by understanding and valuing the many ways people are different.” They profess to “lead by example.” In this case, they offered no leadership at all. It is not what they did that I find disappointing; it is what they failed to do that troubles me.
Third, the national media was quick to accept a self-serving claim from the Florida Family Association (which is actually little more than a website operated by a deeply divisive individual.) Though there is no evidence that this website motivated Lowe’s action, the national media immediately gave that claim credibility. I am newly chastened to question more deeply, especially when statements are made by those who are hoping to create division and rancor.
Fourth, we engaged in a forthright dialogue, one in which there were clear disagreements. However, we did so civilly, maintaining dignity and respect. I was pleased that Lowe’s accepted my request to join us in speaking to the press afterward. Doing so gave us an opportunity to demonstrate that differences need not result in name-calling, single-minded accusations, or the kind of “us/them” discourse so disappointingly prevalent now.
Did Lowe’s decide to reinstate their advertisements on “All American Muslim?” No. Would doing so have been better and more in keeping with their stated values? I certainly think so. But, for me, the issue was and is larger than that one choice. I find no value in denouncing this whole corporation as bigoted and am disappointed by those who continue to reduce their decision to that simplistic invective. Will Lowe’s keep their commitment to us that they will be more attentive going forward, actually leading by example in “valuing the many ways people are different?” Only time will tell.
Will we embody our own highest values? Our words, our choices, our actions will be integrity’s proof.