On my way to board a plane for a recent West Coast visit, I stopped at a Starbucks for a very late lunch. This was just one day after the story broke about the coffee giant’s shocking decision to alter its cups during the holiday season.

Starbucks cups in previous Novembers and Decembers were red but included snowflakes, reindeers and ornaments. Now they are just red, sans any symbols. This has annoyed some Religious Right activists – “war on Christmas,” you see.

Now, some of you may not know this, but these supposedly secular items figure prominently in the traditional Christmas story. Think of it: Technically, the shepherds were watching over flocks of sheep, but reindeer are hoofed animals too so close enough. Ornaments were frequently referred to (I’m pretty sure) as gold, frankincense and myrrh. And of course, despite the views of some dissenting biblical scholars, we know that Jesus was born in the winter – why else would Congress have made Christmas a federal holiday in 1870? – so we might as well assume there were snowflakes wafting through the atmosphere.

I’m being facetious, of course. Still, the plain red cups are making the Religious Right see, well, red. (Although, to my knowledge, no one has accused Starbucks of going communist. Maybe somebody should.)

Here’s what I noticed, though: There are still blends of coffee at each Starbucks, a light brew, one dark version and a “specialty” flavor: “Christmas blend.” That’s right – no “holiday blend,” no solstice, Ramadan or Hanukah blend. So, it looks like Starbucks is just easing into this war on Christmas thing one step at a time.

A lot of groups and columnists had fun with this silly controversy. But a presidential candidate – who shall remain anonymous although his name rhymes with “lump” (as in coal) – gravely informed the nation that if he’s elected, you’re going to hear a lot more people saying “Merry Christmas.” It’s unclear to me how this would happen. Perhaps the creation of a nationwide “Christmas police” staking out the local T.J. Maxx?

The Starbuck flap was not the only case of Religious Right minions attacking a retailer recently. The popular line of dolls called American Girl also came under fire.

The dolls, made by Mattel, have a magazine tie-in called American Girl. This publication ran a story about a young girl in foster care who was adopted by a same-sex couple in Maryland.

You can guess what happened next. One Million Moms, a front group for the American Family Association that does not have one million members and that includes people who are not moms, went ballistic. American Girl, you see, was taking sides in the “culture war.” (And here I thought it was just conveying a heart-warming tale about how a little girl found a loving home.)

It’s an old story. These groups fear anything new or different, and they have so little faith in their own ability to transmit their “values” that they expect faceless corporate giants to do the job for them.

I have to sigh when I hear these tantalizing tales of Religious Right retailer rage, but I also take a minute to remind myself that they are just one element in a much larger theocratic narrative. It’s easy to poke fun at someone who gets angry over the color of a coffee cup. But even as we joke about it, let’s not forget that a lot of what the Religious Right says and does isn’t at all funny.

As the Starbucks and American Girl imbroglios were playing out, I was writing a short speech for an appearance before the Feminist Majority Foundation’s “Women, Money, Power Summit” in Washington, D.C. Days after that event, Eleanor Smeal, president of the group, invited me to blog for their site about a recent forum sponsored by Kevin Swanson, an extreme Colorado pastor, that attracted three Republican presidential candidates.

During the event, Swanson ranted about LGBTQ Americans, saying that the Bible calls for their deaths. Swanson added that if his son married another man, “I’d sit in cow manure, and I’d spread it all over my body. That is what I would do, and I’m not kidding. I’m not laughing.”

The three candidates – U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – weren’t laughing either. And they didn’t challenge any of the hateful poison that poured out of Swanson’s mouth.

During my West Coast swing, I visited an Americans United supporter near San Francisco. On the way there, I passed by a Peet’s Coffee and Tea shop. I couldn’t help but sneak a look at their cups. They feature wintry symbols, but the store sells a “holiday blend.”

What is the Religious Right to do with that? Beats me, but I do know this: Long after this holiday time passes, aggressive Religious Right groups will still be trying to use their narrow and exclusionary dogmas to run our lives. The dolls girls play with and the coffee cups we drink from are just the beginning. They won’t stop there.

That is a strong – and sobering – drink for this holiday season.


The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of American United for Separation of Church and State.