Starbucks cups debate is symbolic of religious conflicts.

Starbucks Cups Are a Sad Stand-In for a Real Debate About Secular and Religious Values

Starbucks Cups Are a Sad Stand-In for a Real Debate About Secular and Religious Values

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 10 2015 1:23 PM

Why Are We All Talking About Starbucks Cups?

The war on Christmas is fake. But conflicts between religious and secular values are real.

2015 Holiday Cups
So much depends upon a red Starbucks cup.

Courtesy of Starbucks

Today in America we are at war, again, over something stupid, again.

We are fighting about Starbucks cups and the fact that this year they are red and without Christmas symbols and thus, in some strange and monomaniacal quarters, represent another skirmish in the war on Christmas.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

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The only people really participating in the war over Starbucks cups are nut jobs and Donald Trump. Trump said at a campaign event Monday night: “No more ‘Merry Christmas’ at Starbucks. No more. … Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.” He added, “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again. That I can tell you.”

As far as tempests in teacups go, at least this one is almost entirely happening online. Out in the real world, it’s hard to imagine that anyone cares at all. Indeed, outside of Trump, and whichever brave candidate opts to mention Starbucks first at Tuesday night’s GOP debate, no rational conservative seems to have taken up the fight. It’s not a real thing, folks. It’s a pixilated fight over a paper cup about an imaginary war on Christmas.

It says a good deal that most people who are talking about Starbucks today are doing so while also asking—as I am—why we are talking about it. And while a good many smart things have indeed been written about the Great Starbucks Outrage of 2015, the truth is that in a week we won’t recall why we were all wasting time over it.

These trivial stories blow up on social media precisely because they are trivial—they become a kind of umbrage placeholder for other grievances and slights. It’s much easier to fight over the red cups at Starbucks than it is to fight over Kim Davis, or Joe Kennedy (the “praying coach”), or the Little Sisters of the Poor, or crisis pregnancy centers in California. These battles really are playing out on the front lines of the religious freedom debate in America, and they are complicated and worthy of real discussion. The so-called war on Christmas isn’t. It’s a faux-outrage-generated, media-driven attention expedition.

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We like to fight about symbols, which is fine, except that like the symbols themselves, the fights quickly become trivial. And because we can’t use Starbucks cups to talk about the Establishment Clause, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or public prayer, or civil rights, we end up creating nothing but gaping distance—and caricatures of the folks on the other side. And in much the same way that snowflakes and reindeer aren’t even real religious symbols, the guy giving his name at Starbucks as “Merry Christmas” is not a real religious thought leader.

When we complain that the presidential debates lack substance, it’s not—contrary to Ted Cruz—because the moderators ask “gotcha” questions, but because they sometimes ask the equivalent of Starbucks cups questions. Other times, they are actually asking hard questions that are then reframed as Starbucks cups questions. There are some fights that warrant no-responses. Carly Fiorina admirably showed us that sometimes the stupid fights (oh, look, it’s Donald Trump again) can be called out as stupid.

Fighting over wholly meaningless symbols is only as valuable as the symbols themselves, and nobody but a handful of crackpots believes that a snowflake and a sled on a paper cup are worth it. Don’t let an imagined fight with a Twitter zealot stand in the way of a real effort to understand the real convictions of your friends.

We really do need to do better when it comes to examining the genuine conflicts that take place ever more frequently in America between religious adherence and secular values. This is where we will likely be deeply divided in the coming months and years. But when there are so many authentic and compelling battles to choose from, let’s try not to get fixated on the extreme ideological polarity of haters versus haters who hate haters. Life is short. Outrage wisely. And also, happy holidays.