It's a long-honored American tradition to use shopping to throw support behind a cause, but one push to put the "Christ" back in "Christmas shopping" is raising concerns about bigotry.
On Monday, Alan Harper, an Alabama state representative who is Republican, posted a comment on his Facebook page that urges his friends to support Christian-owned gas stations and convenience stores when traveling over the holidays. Spending money at stores "not owned by God fearing Christians," he warned, could have dire consequences. "In large part, these stores are owned by folk that send their profits back to their homeland and then in turn use these funds against our country to create turmoil, fear and in some cases death and destruction," he wrote.
When asked how to tell whether a store owner is Christian, Harper responded, "Look behind the cash register."
Harper's efforts may represent just one face of "faith-based shopping," or when consumers try to buy only from stores that promote their religious views. Faith Driven Consumers, a group that ranks retailers and other companies based on whether they adhere to what it calls Biblical notions of gender and marriage, is urging consumers to do their Christmas shopping at companies that meet its standards. The goal of Faith Driven Consumers is to encourage companies that score low on its index to "respond positively" and increase their adherence to Biblical teachings.
Harper's comments are raising concerns about xenophobia, racism and racial profiling made in the name of supporting Christian businesses.
"It's absolutely misguided at best," said Jeff Lenard, the vice president of strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores. "I'm not aware of anybody who can look at somebody else and determine what their background is. I'd be even more concerned if that were to become a practice, whether you are talking about Christianity or Hindu or Muslim or Jewish or any other religion."
Harper, who didn't immediately return a request for comment, later in the comments recommend that shoppers look for "American owned" signs in the window. Regardless of their owners' backgrounds, convenience stores "serve the local community more than any other business," Lenard said. Running convenience stores are often attractive to Americans of all ethnicities because it's not as expensive as starting a bigger business or franchise, he added.
Harper's comments are creating concern among his constituents and other consumers, with one man writing on his Facebook page, "So, basically, don't shop at places with brown people ... I am now thoroughly disappointed in both my state and my party for electing you. Good grief."
The Faith Driven Consumers index, meanwhile, is aiming to steer consumers away from companies that support marriage equality and other progressive issues. That means that some of the biggest companies in America would be struck from a faith-based consumer's Christmas list: Apple and Microsoft are among those that rank near the bottom.
"Remember that we're called to be missionaries in the marketplace!" the group notes.
Consumers, of course, can and do use their dollars to support causes they believe in. But Harper's request is "based on a series of fallacies that are not grounded in anything," Lenard said, adding that Harper "references Christmas at the end of the note. It hardly seems to be a message that supports the spirit of the holiday."