The Inanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy’

Seeking religious affirmation from corporate branding is ironic, misguided, and culturally damaging.

Justin McCartney / AP

“Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don't know,” Donald Trump said on Monday night at a speech in Springfield, Illinois. “Seriously, I don't care.”

It was a rare moment of trollish apathy for the Donald, considering that he was referring to the kind of peevish campaign that’s right up his alley: a video going around the Internet by a guy named Joshua Feuerstein—he calls himself “an American evangelist, Internet, and social media personality”—raging against “the age of political correctness” and the new seasonal coffee cups at Starbucks.

“Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ, and Christmas, off of their brand-new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red,” he says.

First off, just to be clear, the long-haired, chill-looking person on Starbucks’s cups isn’t Jesus—she’s “a 16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid, or Siren.” And though Starbucks says it “has told a story of the holidays by featuring symbols of the season from vintage ornaments and hand-drawn reindeer to modern vector-illustrated characters” since 1997, there was never a time when someone could sip a latte out of a nativity-scene-decorated cup.

“Do you realize that Starbucks isn’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to customers?” Feuerstein continues.

In an email, a Starbucks spokesperson said that the company’s baristas “are not provided a script or a policy around greeting customers. They are simply encouraged to create a welcoming environment to delight each person who walks through our doors.” So, no, Feuerstein isn’t right—there’s no ban on Christmas greetings at Starbucks. That being said, Starbucks is a global company that serves millions of customers per day at over 23,000 stores in 68 countries, including the United States, which is home to people who celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, other holidays, or nothing at all in December. They can’t, as a matter of protocol, wish everyone a Merry Christmas. For those who really, really need their barista to wish them a Merry Christmas to find their delight, Feuerstein has a solution: Tell her your name is “Merry Christmas,” and then she’ll have to say it when she’s fixed your hot beverage of choice.

“Guess what, Starbucks—I tricked you!” Feuerstein says. Clever, clever.

The video has been viewed 12 million times. There’s a hashtag. (Sadly for Feuerstein, most of those using it are there to say his campaign is dumb.) And the campaign has been covered as “news” by such esteemed publications as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Doing what newspapers do, they dutifully show both “sides” of the “issue,” treating Feuerstein’s post as if it’s a Serious Cultural Thing.

Which, maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it any less inane, ironic, or misguided. Insofar as the Great Starbucks Cup Controversy of 2015 is at all meaningful, it’s a chance to examine the way mass culture gets created and enforced by corporations, and also to look at how damaging trivial pushback against that mass culture can be.

Big business is one of the main aggressors in the War on Christmas. Bill O’Reilly, the War’s patron saint, has long objected to the oh-so-P.C. “Happy Holidays” greeting in stores and on cards, claiming the milquetoast phrase represents a suppression of Christian culture in mainstream American life.

The thing is, he’s got a point. When businesses make the decision to express religiously neutral seasonal greetings, or decorate their stores with non-explicitly Christian holiday symbols, they are making a strategic business decision to try and appeal to a broad and diverse consumer base in the United States, a lot of which is not Christian or religious. That decision is motivated by profit, but it is not culturally meaningless. Advertisements surround us. Almost every interaction in contemporary life involves some sort of monetary transaction, typically with a major corporation, especially around the holidays: Meeting an old friend for coffee involves buying coffee, often at Starbucks; spending the holidays with family involves buying gifts for family, often at Target or Walmart or wherever. With corporations so thoroughly enmeshed with culture, it’s difficult to argue that they don’t play a significant role in mediating culture. So, point for you, War on Christmas folks.

Moreover, Starbucks has purposefully cultivated its shops as “third spaces”—not home or work, but another place to cultivate community. That people would care so much about the design of the company’s holiday cups shows just how successful that effort has been—Starbucks occupies territory worth fighting over.

Coffee-cup outrage is flimsy when paired with real conflicts of conscience faced by American Christians.

There are many, many ways in which the erosion of an American Christian mono-culture has created fascinating, difficult challenges for Christians—see perspectives from the Southern Baptist leaders Russell Moore or Albert Mohler, for example. But coffee cups are not one of them. Rhetorical bluster about coffee cups distracts from the real,  difficult questions of religious liberty and freedom of expression—including workplace hiring and discrimination, wedding-vendor services, or contraception insurance—and diminishes the seriousness of those questions by association. Feuerstein’s challenge to “all great Americans and Christians around this great nation” to “take your own coffee selfie” is a silly social-media campaign. This is a situation all but defined by choices and freedom: the choice to buy coffee from Starbucks, the choice to facetiously trick baristas into saying something that aligns with Christian cultural preferences, even the choice to speak out against the company on social media. Coffee-cup outrage is flimsy when paired with real conflicts of conscience that have led to years-long lawsuits and businesses shutting down and significant public protests—and it is shameful in light of the violent persecution of Christians around the world.

The outrage effort is being led by a self-promoter who says his “charisma and his bold, passionate, and distinctive communication style resonates with the Millennial Generation.” All self-described Millennial whisperers should be immediately suspect, but unfortunately, Feuerstein has still been able to grab a large cultural megaphone.

There is irony in seeking validation of one’s religious identity from corporate America. Religious groups have often been the first to complain about the commodification of Christmas, charging that advertising has obscured the true meaning of the holiday. As just one example, take this open letter reported on by The New York Times in 1991, in which 25 clergymen railed against the “advertising lords” of Madison Avenue. They wrote:

Malls have become the new shrines of worship. Massive and alluring advertising crusades have waged war on the essential meaning of the spiritual life, fostering the belief that the marketplace can fulfill our highest aspirations.

There it is again—“war.” The rhetoric is just as blustery, but in this case, it’s being used in the opposite way, suggesting that the true threat to religious freedom in the United States is the brand-ification of all identities, communities, and measures of meaning and value in one’s life.

And there is truth to that. Businesses never exist purely to promote and defend specific religious ideologies. They exist, first and foremost, to make money, and though some owners may have and express certain values, looking to businesses to enforce the cultural symbolism of your faith is a bad bet. It’s an attitude that “sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth,” as the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore put it in an interview with me earlier this year. It also betrays a lack of imagination—an inability to envision a personal identity that’s not fundamentally shaped by Brands.

Political correctness, as Feuerstein calls it in his video, is a straw-man enemy. Starbucks’s decision to make plain red cups is less an erasure of Christian values than a neutral design choice that also happens to reflect a solid understanding of the company’s diverse audience. And nothing about this design limits individual freedom of expression—as Feuerstein says in the video, “Just to offend you, I made sure to wear my Jesus Christ shirt into your store.” More likely than not, baristas will look at him with a shrug, and think, just like Trump, “Seriously, I don’t care.”

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