Yesterday, Starbucks revealed a product which they hope will foster community in an increasingly fractured world. No, it’s not liquid MDMA, flavored with gingerbread and topped whipped cream (although come to think of it…). The product is a cup. 13 cups, to be more precise. These cups had been hotly rumored ever since the chain’s green cup was released a week ago. Some people loved the green, others hated it, but one thing became epically clear: As a nation, we really give a f*ck about the kinds of cups our corporate coffee overlords use to signify Christmastime.
Both the crowdsourced red cups and the artist-drawn green cup were direct responses to the media-driven cup firestorm of 2015. Remember it? There was faux panic, a lot of pageantry, and at least a few real live people who thought that their religion was being attacked. All because Starbucks — a multinational, multi-billion dollar corporation whose sole intent is to make money off drinks which are more sugar than bean water — didn’t slap Jesus Christ on their beverage receptacles. (Or, you know, at least Santa).
But how did the whole “red cup” debacle actually happen? How does a story like that take hold of the national consciousness? And was anyone really outraged in the first place?
The whole saga seems to have been driven by two major forces:
I. As Vox points out, for some people the holiday cup from Starbucks doesn’t just represent another empty piece of merchandising, it represents the fact that Christian values are being upheld during one of the most treasured of all holidays. When you take that away, even if what’s being taken away is a snowflake or a reindeer (clearly important biblical figures), it implies that a group’s fundamental beliefs are somehow being desecrated. And that’s been known to get people scared.
These people see a lack of prominent Christian symbology on a paper cup as an attack on the Christian values that built our nation. So for a certain breed of evangelicals, it was a Big Deal (and played into a long-simmering martyr syndrome).
II. Like any movement, this java-based rebellion needed a charismatic leader to speak to the people about the slings and arrows they were suffering. In this case, the mantle was taken up by Joshua Feuerstein — a former pastor and internet celebrity (?) with a checkered past. It’s endless fun to unpack Feuerstein’s career, but the quick highlights include harassing a bakery that wouldn’t fill a troll request for an anti-gay cake, taking money from his followers without accounting for it, and suggesting we solve all the things we don’t like with guns. According to The Daily Kos — and an entire website created just to expose the pastor’s scheming ways — Feuerstein is a rich guy with a persecution complex, who gets off on crying discrimination (anti-religious, anti-heterosexual, anti-white, etc.) when he doesn’t get his way.
Based on the man’s YouTube page, he is discriminated against pretty often. But no braying was louder than the ugly-crying he did in 2015, when he made his most popular video to date. On November 5th, 2015, Feuerstein went viral after he could not bear the injustice of both an ombre red cup and not being wished a “Merry Christmas” as he completed his purchase at Starbucks. Feuerstein took this to mean that chain’s employees could not even mention the name of the holiday (not true, Starbucks even sells a Christmas blend right in their stores) and had no choice but to don a backwards baseball cap and make a video claiming that he’d “tricked” the store by telling them that his name was “Merry Christmas” and forcing them into showing fealty to him and his lord.
Meanwhile in reality: Some bored barista just thought “Ugh, this dude” and called him “Merry Christmas” to get the transaction over with. Because when a loud dude in a Jesus shirt walks in and demands you wish them the holliest jolliest Christmas while also packing a weapon (yep, he proudly brought his gun into Starbucks!) you kind of just do what he says and hope for the best.
Did you watch the video? 17 million people did (no one could get through more than one viewing, so that’s 17M unique users). It went on to get shared more than 500,000 times. But here’s where it gets tricky: There’s no clear answer as to whether the people watching and sharing were actually agreeing with or brutally mocking Feuerstein. A quick look at the shares suggests that at least a good portion of the viewers disseminating the video were just passing on a quick laugh.
“Look how freaked out this dude gets!” “Did you ever wonder what happened to Fred Durst?”
(Uproxx contacted Feuerstein for comment, but he didn’t respond).
A brief search of the #MerryChristmasStarbucks hashtag that Feuerstein asked his supporters to employ turns up jokes, one request for money to make a sexy Starbucks video (?), and several perplexed people wondering why in the hell Mike Huckabee was so happy to get an endorsement from a guy who took commercial holidays way too seriously.
In fact, the only serious tweet we could turn up came from Nate Lake — a writer, Christian, and Starbucks employee, who shared that he’d amassed more than 300,000 views on his post about why Feuerstein’s campaign was everything wrong with modern Christianity.
From Lake’s piece (which is absolutely worth the read):
American Christianity has adopted the unfair, improper, and potentially hurtful position that non-Christians should somehow live by Christian moral standards before Christians show love to them. “If we fix their behavior, we’ll show ’em,” we think. Did we forget the words of Romans 5:8, that God presently and continuously demonstrates his love to us because “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us?”
And here’s where he puts Feuerstein’s outrage into some clear perspective when the persecution of Christians is being discussed:
…Boko Haram has killed 3,500 people in terrorist attacks in Africa this year, many of which have targeted Christians. Up to 340,000 people have been killed in the crisis ravaging Syria over the last four years. ISIS continues to target both Christians and Muslims as it terrorizes the Middle East. Don’t forget, about 30 million people are currently stuck in the horrors of modern slavery. Let’s also add the racial injustice that’s drowning America in turmoil.
James 1:27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
But hey, have you seen those new Christ-less Starbucks cups?
Before those playing along at home even had time recognize that not one legitimate religious leader agreed with Feuerstein, the “internet outrage machine,” — fueled by hunger for fresh stories every minute of the day — got ahold of the story. Suddenly, Feuerstein wasn’t just some dude with a gun yelling at a camera in a parking lot, he was a viral star. Media outlets began jockeying for position to cover the rant from every angle possible, mocking Feuerstein, but also generalizing his position as representative of mainstream Christianity.
“When I started digging,” Laura Turner, a San Francisco based writer who covered the outrage in a piece syndicated to The Washington Post, told us, “I realized it was basically one guy who had been at the heart of all of it. It wasn’t a movement of churches or parachurch ministries, but from the way the story was covered you would’ve thought that it was hundreds of thousands of people who were upset about Starbucks cups.”
Turner concedes that there was a group of people — a tiny minority — who might have been truly upset. But the real culprit here weren’t religious folks, it was website after website that saw Feuerstein’s video go viral, made the assumption that this was a clear representation of how mainstream Christians actually felt, and then laid the blame for a possible Starbucks boycott (which even Donald Trump got involved in) squarely at the feet of an entire religion, instead of on the shoulders of a rando with an iPhone.
To be fair, there had been some precedent for this approach. Previous outrage about “the war on Christmas” made it easy to assume that the religious right really was up in arms about cups. But this time around, even Christians begged people not to involve themselves in Feuerstein’s shenanigans, lest they alienate people further.
“This, my friends, is complete and utter ignorance,” Nate Lake wrote. “This, my friends, is the reason my fellow students at Colorado State University think I’ll hate them when I tell them I’m a Christian. This, my friends, is why my African-American brothers and sisters are left begging for answers from an evangelical community who turns a blind eye to their suffering. This, my friends, is everything wrong with American Christianity.”
“Things go viral because they lack nuance,” Laura Turner continues. “It gets into this legitimate complaint that people have about Christians, which is that they’re very, very narrow minded, thoughtless, and reactionary. Part of the reason that this did go viral is because Christians have created this environment for ourselves in many ways. Part of the reason it was able to take off the way that it did is it sounded like something that could be plausible.”
Things also go viral due to confirmation bias, which Turner says came from both sides. The media was quick to condemn Christianity, and the minority of Christians who took Feuerstein’s video seriously likely didn’t do any more research to ascertain whether their rights really were being impinged upon. Nor did they think about the fact that Starbucks is a secular company, not a church-run non-profit.
Eventually, Starbucks had to say something — lest their tasteful ombre cups be misunderstood. From their statement, via Vox:
“Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays. We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it. It’s a more open way to usher in the holiday.”
“Creating a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity is one of the core values of Starbucks, and each year during the holidays the company aims to bring customers an experience that inspires the spirit of the season. Starbucks will continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world.”
The video snowballed to such an extent that Dunkin’ Donuts was dragged into the fray when they debuted their own holiday cups. And despite the fact that the company released a statement that the design of their cup — and again, we are talking about cups here — was something they’d conceived before any of the fracas, headlines around the internet questioned whether Dunkin’s festive holiday cup was a direct response to Starbucks’ lack of Christmas iconography. (Spoiler alert: nope.)
By the time everyone realized that this controversy had been built on nothing more than one dude’s bad morning, the story had hit TV news. Pundits talked it out on air. Real Christians leaders tried to distance themselves from the fray. And if we had all stopped for a second, we would have noticed that the the tug-of-war we all imagined between the mainstream media and Christianity was never a contest at all; everyone was on the same side, the side of: “This is dumb.” Even the conservative voices taking Feuerstein seriously were few and far between.
Feuerstein got what he wanted: He ended up on CNN, where he suffered what could politely be described as a minor meltdown while being referred to as an entrepreneurial bigot by his opponent, Pete Dominick, who cited Feuerstein’s history of both trying to “debunk evolution” and his calls to take up arms — another video, another huge weapon — against proponents of same-sex marriage. His performance, unsurprisingly, was roundly mocked and dismissed.
But no one really cared about the truth at that point. Ask anyone you know about the red cup controversy of 2015 and they’ll tell you that it had to do with Christians getting upset over something stupid, not one guy purporting to spread the word of god, while really working to build an audience for himself, his DVDs, and his since-abandoned $50 a month membership service, which he claimed was devoted to stopping desperate souls from committing suicide. People may remember Feuerstein’s video, but it’s a good bet that they remember the “overwhelming outrage” much more clearly, even though there wasn’t even enough serious outrage to make a good “Twitter reacts” post about. (The tweets mocking Feuerstein’s campaign were another matter.)
The made up outrage didn’t stop last November, either. When the green holiday cups were introduced earlier this month, media outlets trying to drum up traffic immediately began posting strong reactions before even checking if they were earnest or, as in the case of a tweet made by an author at Heat Street, they were just jokes calling back to the “outrage” of last year.
Even Stephen Colbert devoted a segment to the supposed uprising:
The real winner here, of course, is Starbucks and corporate America in general, because they’ve once again proven that controversy (and vague threat of boycott) leads to free ad revenue. But make no mistake: we’re the losers — because we all bought into the this debacle, forcing another divide between groups of people. What would make the religious right happy? we all wondered. A picture of Jesus nailed the cross with the caption “I died for your ability to enjoy this Pumpkin Spice Latte?”
Lana Turner laughs at this idea. No person legitimately worried about their religion, she tells us, would be concerned about the fact that a cup wasn’t festive.
“Honestly,” she says, “what difference would it have made if they put Jesus in the manger on the cup? Would that mean that more Christians would go buy their coffee and is it good? Do we want Jesus — a radical political figure who fought against the empire — to be co-opted by one of the largest corporations in America? Is that what’s going to make us happy as Christians? Because if so, we have to reevaluate our shit.”
Contact Mark directly on Twitter.