Tempest in a coffee cup: What's Starbucks flap all about?

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

In the beginning, there was a paper coffee cup — bright red on top, shading to a darker cranberry below. That much seems beyond doubt.

But the brew-haha of supposed outrage that has spilled from it since the Starbucks coffee chain served up what looked, at first glance, like a seasonal throwaway, is increasingly hard to figure.

A week ago, a self-described evangelist named Joshua Feuerstein, who lives outside Phoenix, posted a video on Facebook criticizing Starbucks for trying to "take Christ and Christmas" out of the holiday by designing cups devoid of seasonal symbols. Ever since, controversy — or, at least, lots and lots of comment — has ricocheted around the Internet, taken as evidence that people were either similarly upset, or upset that others were upset.

Feuerstein's video has garnered millions of views, and has been pronounced by pundits as the latest trope in longstanding complaints by some religious conservatives that American companies, government officials and others are waging a "War on Christmas."

Indeed, thousands of people have sounded off on Twitter and other social networks, many appending the "#MerryChristmasStarbucks" meme that Feuerstein coined for what he urged could be a movement to reassert the holiday's rightful spot in the American marketplace.

But few of the voices who have previously decried the ruination of Christmas have joined Feuerstein's call to action — and some question its public support. Many of those commenting about it online express irritation or bemusement that anyone could be angered by a paper cup, despite scant proof that widespread offense was taken.

"If I were a touch more cynical, and maybe I am, I'd think the one who is winning this war is, maybe, Starbucks," said Steve Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies the social and cultural consequences of the Internet.

The fact that Feuerstein's video was so widely circulated means "somebody must have agreed" with its message, Ed Stetzer, head of Christian consulting firm LifeWay Research, said in an interview. But Stetzer joined other prominent evangelicals in pointing out that they'd seen little evidence of actual indignation on their own social media feeds.

"We have a better story to tell than one of faux outrage," Stetzer wrote in an opinion piece this week for the Christianity Today website. "So let's tell it. It's not the job of your barista to share the Gospel."

The nature of the Internet makes it hard to gauge how much people agree or disagree with him. The speedy spread of messages online is often less a confirmation of shared sentiment than it is that people find something entertaining, or troubling, or merely worth a look. Likes, shares and views don't really "measure public opinion anymore," Jones said.

That's not to downplay the feeling among some Christians that Christmas, and indeed their faith, is under assault. There is a widening rift between evangelicals and those who don't identify with any religion. Culture war fights, especially over marriage, have left many conservative Christians wondering whether their religion will be evicted from the public square, Stetzer said.

"There's a perception among conservative people of faith, predominantly evangelicals and conservative Catholics, that they've lost their home-field advantage," he said.

But are those concerns reflected in the rapid spread of the video criticizing the Starbucks cup?

The Catholic League, a New York-based anti-defamation group that issues regular reports on what the organization calls the "War on Christmas," declined to comment on the supposed controversy. The Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based firm dedicated to defending the religious freedom of Christians, also took a pass.

"My non-Christian friends rolled their virtual eyes at the Christians supposedly outraged by a simple red cup, while my supposedly outraged Christian friends insisted upon how much they were most definitely not upset," Catholic News Agency writer Mary Rezac wrote in a post on the agency's site.

True, Donald Trump thought it was worth mentioning.

"No more Merry Christmas on Starbucks," the Republican candidate for president told a crowd of thousands gathered Monday at a rally in Springfield, Illinois. "Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don't know."

But when New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan took to the air this week on SiriusXM's Catholic Channel, he hardly sounded upset.

"I don't think it's like Starbucks had the Christmas crib on their cups to begin with," Dolan said.

Maybe Feuerstein's diatribe has gotten so much attention because, regardless of what you make of it, it pokes at longstanding sensitivities.

Jousting over the right way to mark Christmas dates back to the Puritans, who banned celebrations in the belief that the holiday's December timing had its roots in pagan worship, with no verification in the Bible. They also objected to a long tradition of celebrating the holiday with drunkenness and debauchery, said Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas," and a retired professor of U.S. social and cultural history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Merchants embraced the holiday in the early 1800s to sell gift items, leading to complaints that such commercialization defiled the true meaning of Christmas.

"There has always been a struggle over this holiday because it has such vexed origins," Nissenbaum said.

Starbucks' cups, holiday drinks and merchandise put it in the legion of companies that have seized on the sales potential of the Christmas season, while preferring to glaze over religiosity in a country that is increasingly pluralistic, said Leigh Schmidt, author of "Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of the American Holidays."

That undoubtedly upsets some people who see Christianity as central to the nation's identity. Wide circulation of the video criticizing the cup might reflect that — or not, said Schmidt, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

"People can say, see, there is some larger conspiracy against religiousness for the country and our public culture," he said. "But I also think there is an almost campy side of this, where people are getting a kick out of going into Starbucks and telling them their name is 'Merry Christmas.'"

After Phil Madeira, a Nashville session musician who has recorded two albums of "hymns for the rest of us," came across the cup video, he felt fairly certain that few fellow Christians agreed with its sentiment. So on Tuesday afternoon he recorded and posted his own video in response. In it, Madeira strums his guitar and sings:

"This Christian don't drink Christian coffee.

Everybody knows ain't no such thing.

Ain't no merchandise

Endorsed by Jesus Christ.

If you think I'm wrong, baby, you don't know the King."

Musing on the cup commotion, Madeira observed, "It's a funny time in which we live because the public forum is gigantic."

By Thursday morning, his video had more than 1,700 views — and, so far, no negative comments.


AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll contributed to this story.