How Lowe’s Walked Into the Morality War Against Sex, Gays and Muslims

The company loves to tout its commitment to diversity. But it's sheepishly running away from any meaningful discussion of race--and getting bullied by the rightwing fringe that has made Islamophobia a new priority.

By Jamilah King Dec 15, 2011

David Caton was once addicted to pornography. A former corporate accountant, Caton is now the executive director of the Florida Family Association, a conservative evangelical group that’s railed against anything it’s deemed "immoral" since its inception in 1987. He’s written books that oddly document his experiences and recovery, but the crux of Caton’s political work has been to identify and attack the very foundation of what he believes to be the cause of his illness: the deeply depraved moral fabric of America.

Which, in his estimation, means the media.

But Caton has recently added a new enemy to his crosshairs: Muslims. And in an American climate that’s rife with anti-Muslim sentiment, Caton–who’s backed by some of today’s most influential anti-Muslim conservative writers–has managed to bully Lowe’s, a major American retailer, into a widening web of Islamophobic hate. 

For its own part, Lowe’s claims to value diversity. But its decision to pull its advertising from a seemingly innocuous reality TV show suggest that it’s running from any meaningful discussion of race.

This week, Caton and his Florida Family Association made national headlines after it was announced that it had successfully campaigned the big-box home improvement retailer to pull its advertising from TLC’s "All American Muslim," a new show that follows the lives of five Lebanese American families living in Dearborn, Mich. 

"The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish," the association wrote in an email to its supporters.

In a statement released shortly after the decision was made to pull the ads, a Lowe’s spokesperson tried to explain its rationale. "While we continue to advertise on various cable networks, including TLC, there are certain programs that do not meet Lowe’s advertising guidelines, including the show you brought to our attention. Lowe’s will no longer be advertising on the program," the company wrote in a statement.

Since news of Caton’s crusade became public, other notable figures have stepped up in the show’s defense. American actress Mia Farrow and music mogul Russell Simmons have called for a boycott of Lowe’s, with Simmons promising to buy any remaining ad space left by companies that have pulled out. 

Caton’s group claims to have pressured a total of 64 companies into pulling their advertising from the show, but CNN notes that ad time for last Sunday’s episode was sold out.

Several Democrats have also spoken out against the decision made by Lowe’s, including Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who’s Muslim, and Connecticut Rep. Chris Murphy.

"There are two ends of the spectrum," says Zahra Billoo, of lawmakers’s responses to anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. Billoo is the executive director of the San Francisco chapter of CAIR, an Islamic civil liberties group. "We’ve got some really great heroes where things like this won’t be tolerated, and then others who are just very open about their bigotry and their hatred and are willing to capitalize on it."

Billoo points to conservative Long Island Rep. Peter King’s hearings earlier this year on the so-called "radicalization" of American Muslims as an example of the ways in which lawmakers help to feed the country’s anti-Muslim hysteria.

This week’s uproar seems to be a monumental victory for Caton, who has waged a deeply personal and largely solitary war against everything from Playboy to MTV to Nickleodeon. Though his organization claims to have a membership of over 35,000, Caton is the only paid staff person. 

In the Florida Family Association’s own list of nearly 150 "accomplishments" since 2000, the overwhelming majority are actions taken against the porn industry. For instance, in 2002 the group wrote that it "influenced" nearly 2,300 Circle K stores to stop selling pornographic magazines. In 2003, the group boasts that it developed PornCrawler, computer software that allowed users to identify websites that placed unrestricted porn on the Internet.

Alongside its crusade against the porn industry, the Florida Family Foundation has waged a steady war against what it calls "special rights for homosexuals." On its website, the group brags about its effort to influence Florida’s legislature to oppose pro-LGBT bills. In anticipation of last summer’s Gay Day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, FFA spent $7,000 to hire a pilot to fly an airplane banner near the event that read "Warning Gay Day at Disney 6/4." The effort was to warn Central Floridians about the "thousands of homosexuals" going to the park to "celebrate their immoral lifestyles," the group later wrote on its website.

That such a fringe character could have such a large influence doesn’t come as a surprise for Muslim rights advocates.

"In the spectrum of fringe groups, the Florida Family Association seems to be the most visible one in this campaign, but it looks like they’re being backed by some other major tea party, right wing, anti-Muslim groups that have been targeting American Muslims for several years now," said Billoo.

As a company, Lowe’s is proud to tout its commitment to diversity. The 65-year-old company has over 1,700 stores spread mostly throughout the U.S., with a few in Canada and Mexico. On its website, Lowe’s says that its efforts to increase diversity are "inspiring and compelling," and notes that it’s got corporate partnerships with the National Urban League, NAACP, National Council of La Raza, Organization of Chinese Americans, and Japanese American Citizen’s League. Robert L. Johnson, the African-American businessman who founded Black Entertainment Television, is on the company’s board of directors.

Lowe’s has also made it a point to make its presence known in communities of color. In 2006, the company became the exclusive retailer for both plans and materials for small residential shelters built along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, later called "Katrina Cottages." And in a time when black unemployment has hovered consistently at or above 16 percent, in 2010, Lowe’s opened a new store in San Francisco’s largely African American Bayview district. Officials there noted that more than 200 people had been hired to work at the new store, most of them from within the surrounding community.

But these gestures seem insignificant when compared to the company’s public cowering to conservative principles.

"It seems to be that there’s this growing trend of targeting any attempt to mainstream American Muslims," said Billoo. "Any time a major corporation, channel, or company takes a step in the direction of mainstreaming the American Muslim community, the right wing seems to lose it."