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Baptist Pastor Defends Criticism of Wal-Mart in Prime Time

Conservative media criticized a campaign spearheaded by the Baptist Center for Ethics singling out Wal-Mart in a challenge to set an example as a “Golden Rule” employer this Christmas.

An interviewer on the self-described “fair-and-balanced” network FOX News labeled a Baptist pastor appearing in a television ad questioning Wal-Mart’s corporate policies a “phony” for invoking Jesus’ name and argued the Savior would approve of the retailer’s contribution to America’s economy by reducing inflation and creating jobs.

Joe Phelps, pastor of HighlandBaptistChurch in Louisville, Ky., appeared in an ad that began airing Thursday in 25 states and 43 markets.

In it, the minister criticized practices like breaking child-labor laws, gender discrimination and denying workers’ healthcare benefits. Phelps asked Christmas shoppers: “If these are Wal-Mart’s values, would Jesus shop at Wal-Mart? Should you?”

On the FOX News program “Common Sense,” host Neil Cavuto said he believed Phelps to be “a very good and decent man,” but added, “I think it’s a little disingenuous on your part–no harm or slight intended–to bring Jesus into the mix to make your point.”

“Why is that inappropriate?” the pastor asked.

Cavuto said Wal-Mart helps Americans by keeping prices low and creating jobs. “You ignore that, as if Jesus would focus on only one element,” Cavuto said. “And even to mix him in to the business and commerce of this country, under the guise of religion, pastor I think that is at best phony.”

“Phony?” Phelps replied. “OK. Well I disagree. I think Jesus cares very much about the business practices in this country. Jesus didn’t come to this earth just to save some Platonic soul. Jesus came to this earth to deal with people at the points of their need.”

Phelps is a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics, which on Thursday released a pastoral letter challenging Wal-Mart to set a model as a “Golden Rule” employer. The letter is part of an “America, Pray for Wal-Mart to Change” partnership with WakeUpWalMart.com, which also includes coordinated candlelight vigils in 10 states.

The conservative Web site Cybercast News Service quoted a pro-Wal-Mart spokesperson opposed to the effort.

“Their ad campaign is shameful, particularly in this season of peace and goodwill,” said Donna Lewis-Johnson, spokeswoman for Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group formed to defend the retail chain from union attacks.

“While the union leaders are wasting their members’ dues on an attack campaign, Wal-Mart is benefiting tens of millions of working families through its low prices and quality job opportunities. And once again this year, Wal-Mart is partnering with the Salvation Army in its red kettle drive to raise millions of dollars for worthy causes,” Lewis-Johnson said.

Phelps also appeared Thursday evening on CNN Headline News.

“So what does Jesus have to do with Wal-Mart,” asked anchor Christi Paul. “Why bring religion into this fight? Some people might say that you are exploiting Jesus.”

“I hope not,” Phelps said. “I think just the opposite. We’re trying to be faithful to the message of Jesus. Wal-Mart has its employees saying to customers ‘Merry Christmas.’ Christmas is about the coming of Jesus into the world, of Mary singing the song about the poor getting what they need and the rich being sent away empty. It’s about the message of the angels coming to the working class, the shepherds, to bring good news to all the people. So the message of Jesus is very much the message of justice, and this is an issue of justice.”

After Phelps’ interview on FOX News, Cavuto introduced four commentators to discuss whether it is time for Wal-Mart “to fight back” against negative advertising.

“This is an American success story,” said Charles Payne, CEO of Wall Street Strategies. “Where Wal-Mart pops up at certain places in this country, it’s almost of biblical proportions.”

Biz Radio network host Mike Norman said Phelps “made a lot of good points” but agreed it was “unfair to bring Jesus into the argument.” Norman went on to criticize Wal-Mart’s low wages, earning a rebuke from pundit Meredith Whitney, “Mike is almost as big of a crackpot as the pastor you just had on interviewing.”

Laura Schwartz, identified as a Democratic strategist, said she had no problem with the ad, but questioned whether it would accomplish anything.

“‘Tis the season to invoke religion, and that’s exactly what this group is doing, and all’s fair in love and war, and politics and retail,” she said. “This is a way for them to raise awareness and make a point. Whether people jump on that bandwagon or not, we hear these stories about Wal-Mart every month…. This is just a game of big business and crisis communications.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous related stories:
Baptist Pastoral Letter Calls Wal-Mart to be ‘Golden Rule’ Company
Baptist Pastor Featured in Campaign to Change Wal-Mart

Also see our special resource section on Christians and Wal-Mart.