“Beware the ‘activist’ whose brand would be damaged if things got better.” This little nugget of wisdom was presented on Twitter by the gifted Baptist historian, Thomas Kidd. And it got me thinking about a question that always fascinates me: What’s really going on beneath the surface of things in culture? We tend to accept a lot of things at face value. However, when we look a little more critically, we will often see that reality is more complex than we realize.
We live in a world obsessed with brands. Not only do successful companies strive to build brand loyalty, but in the world of social media, each individual has the capability to build his or her own personal brand. In personal branding, loyalty remains the goal. To build a brand, you must tell a story about the world and your role in it that attracts people to follow you. Personal brands can be lucrative, but even when they’re not, it can be intoxicating to be the person to whom others look for guidance.
Often brands are built when someone identifies something wrong and begins speaking out against it. In the world of news media, think about the wildly successful rise of Fox News as the “fair and balanced” choice for conservatives. Somewhere along the way, Fox executives identified the problem that the major news channels slanted left. Then, they masterfully presented their channel as the alternative brand for true conservatives. How successful was Fox News in building their brand? I grew up in South Alabama, the reddest of red states, and I’m not sure I was even aware of the existence of other news channels until adulthood. To this day, when I want to see the latest headlines, I habitually turn to Fox News, even though I long ago rejected the “fair and balanced” chimera.
But think about how Fox News built their brand. If the other news sources weren’t left leaning, Fox News would not have a reason to exist. Fox News’ success depends upon the problem of other news channels being biased. If no liberal news sources exist, Fox News’ brand doesn’t either. Its continued success depends upon the continued problem of liberal leaning news journalism.
The same thing happens with personal brands. Let’s say you built a personal brand after the George Floyd murder in 2020 as an advocate speaking out against racism and police brutality. In 2020, the world seemed to be losing its bearings, and you stepped in on social media with some insightful and provocative things to say—statements that made you a trusted voice during the chaos. In that moment, and perhaps unintentionally, a brand was birthed. You became an “influencer” on matters of race and police reform. To maintain your brand, you kept thinking deeply about the topic and kept posting your thoughts for the world to see. Maybe you even expanded your brand by forming a new nonprofit and website. Perhaps you started posting more long-form articles that got picked up by larger outlets. Congratulations, you’ve created a successful brand.
But what happens next? Once your brand is built, you must keep pointing out the problem. Even if real change begins to happen in those areas, your brand depends on the continued existence of existential threat. Less racism means no brand. Police reform does not benefit your brand. It pays to keep finding new problems even if the situation begins to improve. Once your cause becomes a brand, the cause no longer drives the agenda; maintaining your brand does.
A similar thing has been happening in the Southern Baptist Convention. For the past few years, a subgroup of Southern Baptists who call themselves the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) have been advocating for change within the convention. They claim that liberalism and woke-ism are rampant within Southern Baptist institutions. Their organization has a giving page on its website so that conservative people (aren’t all Southern Baptists?) who are alarmed over liberalism and woke-ism (again, aren’t we all?) can contribute to the cause of getting the woke liberals out of the convention.
But here’s my question: What if liberalism and woke-ism aren’t rampant in Southern Baptist institutions? Pointing that out would certainly not benefit the CBN. If there’s not rampant liberalism and woke-ism, why is the CBN needed? Without the problem, it has no reason to exist and alarmed Southern Baptists have no reason to contribute money to its website. As it stands the CBN has monetary motivation to keep finding evidence of the problem, regardless of the degree to which the problem really exists.
When it comes to giving away your loyalty, make sure you find a positive cause and not a brand that depends on a problem. Christ never calls us to brand loyalty. He does call us to complete loyalty to himself as Lord. If the brand gets in the way of loving God and loving neighbor, it’s time to ditch the brand.