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November 27, 2015 5:10 am

Starbucks, Christmas and Religion in America

avatar by Eli Verschleiser

The Starbucks Christmas cups that were removed. Photo: Starbucks.

The Starbucks Christmas cups that were removed. Photo: Twitter.

Like a jolt of caffeine from a five-dollar macchiato, the controversy surrounding Starbucks’ modification of its holiday season cups was sudden and intense.

Maybe the company was trying to be more inclusive by removing Christmas decorations from the cups, or maybe they just wanted a simpler, cleaner design. In any case, it nicely kicked off this year’s complaints about a war on Christmas, a controversy signifies a growing concern that religion is increasingly so unpopular that it is no longer commercial, unless it’s thoroughly watered down.

I do not dismiss or trivialize those who feel their most important holiday is increasingly secularized, reduced to inclusion with “the holidays.” 

America is increasingly diverse but still overwhelmingly Christian, and Christmas is the only religious holiday observance recognized as a national holiday.

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However, the Pew Research Center’s poll on religion and public life, released in May, found that Unaffiliated is the fastest growing faith (or lack thereof) segment in the US, at 22.8 percent — second to Evangelical Protestants, and just above Catholics. Those identifying as unattached to any particular faith or denomination (which does not necessarily make them atheists) has grown by 6.7 percent since 2007. Catholic affiliation dropped 3.1 percent and mainline Protestantism dropped 3.4 percent in that time. Even Evangelicals shrank slightly, by 0.9 percent.

The coffee cup change would barely be noticed if not for the larger sense that not just Christianity but all religion is under attack in some form.

People who do bigoted, hypocritical, or violent things in the name of religion give license for the atheist movement to openly scorn all religious practice. It gets to the point that HBO’s half-Jewish/half Catholic Bill Maher, who made a documentary about his scorn of faith, not only feels comfortable trashing all religion on his show “Real Time,” but even reached over to one of his guests to obscure her crucifix. And no one cared.

Maybe it’s because we are increasingly obsessed with ourselves and our ephemeral interactions: cultivating our social media presence and our ability to make our lives ever more convenient and superficially meaningful via technology. Who has time for something you can’t see and touch, that provides little instant gratification?

But there’s also the public perception.

Outside of the feel-good Christmas season, when those doing good deeds are likely to be highlighted, religion in the news during the rest of the year is almost always in a negative context: corruption or sexual abuse by a clergy member, intolerant acts or statements by people in the name of religion, and of course, violent terror attacks in the name of fundamentalist.

When religion is displayed in pop culture, more often than not it’s a comedic turn (Seinfeld’s Festivus) or perhaps “torn from the headlines” depictions of religious misdeeds or silliness. This year, Seth Rogen vomiting in a church while wearing a Chanukah sweater may be the most memorable image of the holiday movie season.  

Every faith has its bad apples, as do atheists. But the fact is, no one goes around the world to fight AIDS or Ebola or dig wells or save children, or respond to disasters in the proud name of atheism. Faith-based groups do so routinely. Studies have also shown that faith keeps families together and makes members live longer.

Members of the Jewish faith who observe rituals and customs that are strange to others typically do not face open scorn, per se, in media and pop culture.

Nevertheless, they often find themselves under a media microscope, with articles, books, films, and TV news shows making them objects of curiosity, displayed for gentiles with anthropological commentary.

At the same time, calls for inclusion and recognition of diversity from the Left seem much more inclined toward watering down anything religious in the public sphere, rather than increasing recognition of the symbols of multiple faiths.

That’s why those offended by the generic “Happy Holidays” and the Starbucks cups worry about a slippery slope.

Next thing you know, Christmas is an optional work holiday, In God We Trust comes off the currency, the President is forbidden from using the Bible for his oath of office, and houses of worship lose their tax exempt status, all sacrificed on the altar of the ascendant Unaffiliated tribe.

We’re a long way from that point, but we do need more tolerance of religion and recognition of what it means in a positive way for millions of American individuals and families.

Yielding to pressure, Starbucks may well come up with an appeasing Christmas cup (although they seem to be ignoring pressure to open stores in Israel, which is another story).

But I’d rather see the coffee giant invest in printing up Yuletide, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and other cups to choose from, along with a plain one for the unaffiliated. This would be welcome corporate recognition that diversity does not mean bland secularism and “holidays-ism.”

And it would send a nice message that being proud of identity, faith, and country all meld nicely together, and can be just as American as an overpriced macchiato.

Eli Verschleiser is a financier, real estate developer, and investor in commercial real estate. In his Philanthropy, Mr. Verschleiser is a board member of the American Jewish Congress, Co-Founder of, & President for OurPlace, a non-profit organization that provides support, shelter, and counseling for troubled Jewish youth. Mr. Verschleiser is a frequent commentator on political and social services matters.

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