Who’s Afraid of Secularism? The Starbucks Red Cup Fiasco, Or On Being Christian In A Pluralist Society

By now, I’ve been seeing more than enough about the “controversy” surrounding the red cups at Starbucks infiltrate my Facebook newsfeed. Whether it is posts supporting the lack of Christ in a supposed Christmas celebration or it is an article calling out those protesters, it’s been posted, reshared, argued over, and left for the rest of us internet denizens to make sense of in the comments section. This is the story of the hour, for the moment: People Getting Angry Over the Lack of Starbucks Red Cup Christmas Decorations.

I don’t agree with the campaign at all, but I’m not going to waste my breath here spouting out all the reasons that it’s morally and ethically repugnant to me as a Christian–many others have already done that. I’m not going to go into the history of Christmas stemming from a pagan holiday, or make an ethical judgment about the actions of my fellow Christians. Rather, I want to discuss something that I find a little more serious, a lot more frightening, and much harder to tackle that’s at the root of this “controversy”: American Christian hegemony.

I think about American Christian hegemony every year starting around this time, when half of my newsfeed is blowing up with “Keep CHRIST in Christmas” posts and stories of being offended by holiday greetings that are “too” politically correct. The self-righteous manufacturing of the so-called “War on Christmas” and the even more all-encompassing “War on Christians” has almost become a default defensive response to any kind of secularization. Looking beyond the obvious points–that America is a pluralist society in which many religions are legally protected and affirmed by our Constitution, and that recognizing that many folks don’t celebrate Christmas is an affirmation of their own tradition as much as anything else–I cannot help but be extremely troubled by my fellow Christians’ dependence on the corporatization of Christmas culture to legitimize their celebration of the holiday.

Starbucks has a great deal of holiday goodies out for sale that are both blatantly pro-Christmas and more neutral on the holiday celebration spectrum. Someone made the point that Starbucks’ coffee cups have never had a truly “Christian” design on them–they would opt instead for abstract designs of swirls and snowflakes. While I’m not going to go into great detail on the politics of the semiotics of Christmas and holiday culture in America, I wonder just how much those designs are seen as markers for Christianity by Christians, and how having access to those signs (Christian in origin or not) gives emotional legitimacy to celebrating Christmas.

Because here’s the thing: Chanukkah, Kwanzaa, and many other holidays celebrated at the same time as Christmas have never had that kind of overarching recognition. Stores have not historically bedecked themselves with menorahs or dreidels rather than Nativity scenes and Douglas firs. Radio stations have not taken to playing Kwanzaa songs 24/7 in anticipation. No other winter holiday is recognized to have so much brouhaha. And when we begin to consider that other people have other beliefs, and would likely want them to be recognized as much as Christianity is, it throws a wrench in the entire Christmas industrial complex.

Turning to secular holiday greetings doesn’t seem to be the issue here; it’s the fact that those greetings, displays, and mannerisms don’t directly reflect Christianity anymore. This is a very big problem. If the Christian identity is so fragile that having nondescript disposable coffee cups is an outrage that’s making national news, what does that say about the state of our faith to begin with? What does that say about our supposed willingness to “love our neighbor”, like Jesus told us to do in the first place?

I am unwilling to cede that all of my fellow Christians are so attached to their privilege that they act like toddlers throwing a temper tantrum when they don’t get their way with disposable coffee cups.  However, this does not mean that Christianity is not in a privileged place in America, and that all of us need to wrestle with what that means for us and our fellow human brothers and sisters–coffee cup supporters and protesters alike. If people want to get angry about coffee cups, fine. If people want to get angry about people getting angry about coffee cups, fine. But if you expect me to care about corporate branding as an extension of my faith and values over caring for others, count me out–I’m not playing this game anymore. I prefer tea, anyway.

Image courtesy of Patheos.

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