Trouble may be brewing at Starbucks, where a cup controversy has the Religious Right boiling over.
The omnipresent coffee retailer recently unveiled its seasonal coffee containers, which feature a cleaner design than previous years: They’re simply red with the Starbucks logo. Past cups have included generic winter symbols like snowmen, reindeer, snowflakes and tree ornaments. You’ll notice that these designs from holiday seasons past have something in common: They feature secular symbols exclusively.
For some reason, the Religious Right is ticked off that Starbucks didn’t include religious symbols on its cups this year, even though the Seattle-based corporation has never done so before. The apparent source of this rage against the cups stems from a video posted by a right-wing prevaricator named Joshua Feuerstein, who is a Christian evangelist and self-proclaimed internet personality with more than 1.8 million Facebook followers. (He also likes to perpetuate the tired lie that President Barack Obama is not Christian).
In a video rant that went viral last week, Feuerstein held up one of the new Starbuck’s cups and complained that “Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand-new cups, that’s why they’re just plain red.”
Feuerstein, in what may turn out to be the least effective boycott ever, encouraged his followers to order a drink at Starbucks under the name “Merry Christmas,” so that when their order is ready a Starbucks employee will be “forced” to say that greeting. The horror!
And so begins another battle in the Religious Right’s phony claims of a “war on Christmas.” Feuerstein’s allies took to social media to vent their anger, with thousands of people saying things like, “Starbucks is against our military and apparently against our Lord. I won’t purchase anything Starbucks.” Said a Facebook user: “Starbucks is not a Christian company.”
Never one to miss a chance to make a headline, Donald Trump spoke out about this from the campaign trail, calling on his followers to boycott Starbucks. He also added that if he is elected president “we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again. That I can tell you.”
(Exactly how Trump intends to enforce that is unknown, since it would be unconstitutional for a president to require anyone to say a particular greeting, let alone a religious one).
And of course the Fox News Channel had to get in on the act, since it has long been ground zero for reporting on the “war.” Radio correspondent Todd Starnes slammed Starbucks, writing that the corporation “doesn’t have any idea who the reason for the season is in the first place.” But in a rare embrace of lucidity, even Starnes admitted that this brouhaha is a bit over the top.
“I’ll probably be fielding some angry emails about my take on the Starbucks controversy -- but should we really expect a secular company to embrace Christianity?” he asked.
Even celebrities weighed in. In what will surely go down as ill advised, Rob Lowe tweeted: “Between their program to have baristas lecture me about race and now their removal of ‘Merry Christmas’ I’m officially over @Starbucks #done.”
In response, a Starbucks official clarified that the coffee chain “has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays. We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it.”
If this faux fight over coffee cups is all the Religious Right has left, it has just about spent its ammo in the “war on Christmas.” Even Fox seems lackluster, at best, in this instance.
The key to this whole silly controversy is the fact that nothing really changed at Starbucks this year. After all, the retailer has never put Jesus or a nativity scene on its cups. All the symbols it used in the past were secular. And if the Religious Right were honest, it would admit the 2015 cups give a nod toward Christmas with their red and green color scheme. Plus, Starbucks even has a seasonal coffee called “Christmas Blend.”
This just goes to show that far-right fundamentalists will look for any opportunity to do two things: force their beliefs on others and claim that they are under attack. These religious zealots are trying to shame a major U.S. corporation into promoting Christmas. If that doesn’t happen they can just claim that their beliefs are being “threatened” somehow.
The cup controversy looks like a win-win for the Religious Right, but it doesn’t have to be. If people are willing to point out how absolutely ridiculous it is for anyone to be upset about the design of a disposable coffee cup, the “war on Christmas” will be further marginalized to the point of obscurity.
P.S. I’ve just finished writing a story about the history of the “war on Christmas.” Look for it in the upcoming December issue of Church & State.