In a statement posted online Saturday, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie said it was a mistake to speak at a recent Focus on the Family event. A recent cover story on Focus by Christianity Today mentioned a potential relationship between the footwear company’s charity work and the evangelical ministry. Both actions sparked controversy involving the five-year-old footwear company, the Christian organization and its critics over Focus’ views of marriage and homosexuality.
The controversy arises at a time when the evangelical organization is attempting to separate, both organizationally and rhethorically, its spiritual and political missions. Focus’ political mission was pronounced under founder James Dobson’s era, but today the group is trying to channel its resources into family ministry, separating its political activism into a separate branch of operations.
But Focus still lives with the legacy of the Dobson era, and sites such as Gothamist, Jezebel and the Village Voice all posted on the brewing TOMS Shoes controversy. Ms. Magazine started an online petition calling for the company to cut ties to Focus.
“Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family’s beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event,” wrote Mycoskie on his blog, Start Something That Matters. “It was an oversight on my part and the company’s part and one we regret. In the last 18 months we have presented at over 70 different engagements and we do our best to make sure we choose our engagements wisely, on this one we chose poorly.”
TOMS Shoes donates canvas slip-ons to poor children for every pair sold and partners with humanitarian organizations worldwide to distribute them. In September, the company gave away its millionth pair.
Mycoskie spoke at a Focus on the Family event on June 30 in California. During the event, Focus president Jim Daly interviewed him for the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based ministry’s more than two million U.S. radio listeners.
Reports buzzing throughout the blogosphere last week confused the relationship between Focus and TOMS Shoes, Gary Schneeberger, Focus on the Family’s vice president of communications told the Washington Post this week.
“At the time we talked to the [Christianity Today] reporter several months ago, we were in the process of looking into becoming an international distributor,” he said, adding that before the June 30 event, “we ended up stepping away.”
He said his organization’s South African affiliate could not meet the company’s volume requirement.
“We stopped talking about it because we couldn’t handle the volume,” he said. “No one had reported that we were a partner. … We’ve never been a partner and, by mutual agreement, we stopped looking into developing a partnership.”
Mycoskie distanced himself from the group, which holds to “biblical beliefs about marriage and family,” but his statement didn’t enumerate his own beliefs or the point to specific parts of Focus’ beliefs that concerned him.
“So there is no misunderstanding created by this mistake, let me clearly state that both TOMS, and I as the founder, are passionate believers in equal human and civil rights for all. That belief is a core value of the company and of which we are most proud,” Mycoskie wrote in the blog.
Daly said he was “saddened” by the criticism that prompted Mycoskie’s reaction.
“This is an unfortunate statement about the culture we live in, when an organization like ours is deemed unfit to help children in need simply because we hold to biblical beliefs about marriage and family,” Daly said in a statement issued Sunday. “It’s also a chilling statement about the future of the culture we live in. We have to wonder: What will someone decide we’re unfit to do next?”
Schneeberger said the controversy surprised him, but he was familiar with some of the groups criticizing Mycoskie because they’ve disagreed in the past with the ministry’s views on marriage.
“We’re disappointed. We’re not shocked because it’s not the first time we’ve been the subject of heated criticisms with folks on this issue,” he said.
“Yes, we believe marriage is a sacred, lifetime union between one man and one woman. Yes, we advocate in the public policy arena for laws that uphold that truth,” Daly explained in a statement. “But the same Bible that tells us God’s design and intent for marriage also tells us all people are created in His image and are worthy of dignity and respect.”
The ministry still hopes to air the shoe company founder’s interview.
“The reason we wanted to have Blake onour radio program was because of his story. He is a professed Christian, his story is of somebody who acted on his faith to help others in need,” Schneeberger said. “That is what we think would be an inspirational story. We wanted to profile him and his story not only to encourage people who listen to our radio program to buy TOMS Shoes and support his mission, but also this idea that maybe they would be inspired in their own faith journey to go and do something to reach others was something we wanted to share.”
It remains unclear whether Focus on the Family will air the program.
“We have not heard from TOMS and Blake since the event,” Schneeberger said, adding that the ministry has not received word on “whether they’ll give us the go ahead to air the program.”