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Starbucks, Boycotts, and (Not) Buying Coffee: The Need for Theological Ethics

March 27th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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Maggie Gallagher and the folks at the National Organization for Marriage are taking on Starbucks for their position on gay marriage, a position that they outline in the video above.

The controversy has brought up the question about whether Christians should join in on the boycotting, er, fun.  This Russell Moore has answered with a resounding nein:  

A boycott is a display of power, particularly of economic power. The boycott shows a corporation (or government or service provider) that the aggrieved party can hurt the company, by depriving it of revenue. The boycott, if it’s successful, eventually causes the powers-that-be to yield, conceding that they need the money of the boycott participants more than they need whatever cause they were supporting. It is a contest of who has more buying power, and thus is of more value to the company.

We lose that argument.

The argument behind a boycott assumes that the “rightness” of a marriage definition is constituted by a majority with power. Isn’t that precisely what we’re arguing against? Our beliefs about marriage aren’t the way they are because we are in a majority. As a matter of fact, we must concede that we are in a tiny minority in contemporary American society, if we define marriage the way the Bible does, as a sexually-exclusive, permanent one-flesh union.

Moreover, is this kind of economic power context really how we’re going to engage our neighbors with a discussion about the meaning and mystery of marriage? Do such measures actually persuade at the level such decisions are actually made: the moral imagination? I doubt it.

I've no interest in starting a theological throwdown with the good Doctor, as he'd get the better of it blindfolded with an arm tied up.  And frankly, that last paragraph above isn't only one that I wish I'd written:  it sounds startlingly close to a line of thought on this issue I have sketched out before.

Moore goes on to suggest that he's "protecting marriage in law and in culture," but also expresses worries about doing so by "lording over others with political majorities."**  Persuasion, he contends, happens by "holding fast to the gospel, by explaining our increasingly odd view of marriage, and by serving the world and our neighbors around us, as our Lord does, with a towel and a foot-bucket."

Moore's case against boycotts is compelling, yet it raises more questions about the practice than it really answers.  While Moore grants he is not opposed to all boycotts by Christians, he has left little to no room for discerning which boycotts we should pursue.  Should Christians have, for instance, boycotted BP for their gross mismanagement of the clean-up efforts on the Gulf Coast?  Or if it turned out that Starbucks was sneaking venti cups of cash into the coffers of Planned Parenthood, would a boycott then be permissible?

What's more, there is a harder question that Moore seems to answer in the final sentence of his piece:  whether Christians should buy Starbucks, even if they do not boycott Starbucks.  

Let us, for a minute, extend to the boycott and those behind it as much Christian charity as we can muster:  it may be the case that they do not think, a la Moore's suggestion, that the "“rightness” of a marriage definition is constituted by a majority with power."  (Why those quotes around "rightness"?  Does Moore wish to dissent from the National Organization for Marriage's definition?)  One might think that the rightness of the definition will endure far longer than the majority will and still wish to "raise awareness" or bring about some sort of social action through the deployment of power.  To pick a recent example you may have heard a thing or two about, the fact that the majority of the world now knows about Joseph Kony has nothing to do with the rightness of acting about it.  The moral truth was there all along, only waiting to be discovered or ignored.

Suppose, then, that the boycott has raised our attention to a particular set of facts that had hitherto been ignored by, well, just about every latte loving evangelical (I include myself, having only last week enjoyed the smooth and silky tastes of the grand whole milk, decaf, white-chocolate mocha with two pumps of the magic).

The conversation must go beyond whether we boycott or continue on undeterred, or even whether we have ourselves been complicit in creating the tasty green monster and the culture that feeds it.  At some point, we must reflect diligently and carefully about whether we are to buy the stuff at all, or whether we will have to go our separate ways.  Starbucks is not only actively contributing funds to the social and legal recognition of a practice that Christians have moral qualms about, but has taken the unusual step of viewing such support as "core" to their company and its values and history.  Which means that even if Christians decided a boycott was the right way, it would be ineffective unless accompanied by repentance.  Its social power was not created ex nihilo, after all.

There is the possibility, then, of not drinking Starbucks while refusing to make much of your stance.   "Beware practicing your righteousness before men," and your unwillingness to support its foe as well.

A bit more, if you can take it:  While Dr. Moore is right that our view on marriage will not be persuasive until we proclaim the real meaning of it in Christ and his church, I would add that "explaining our increasingly odd view" will only get us so far unless we are also willing to quietly and diligently pay the social costs that will doubtlessly come with believing it.  A "word of faithful witness" must be accompanied by deeds of faithful engagement and abstention, of saying both "yes" and "no" to the world through the manner of our lives.  Discerning when and where we should provide these answers is the matter of theological ethics and without significantly stronger doses of it from our pulpits and our leaders, the evangelical message on marriage will remain as impotent as it has been.

In short, Moore's final word that we ought to offer our neighbor a "cup of cold water, or maybe even a grande skinny vanilla latte."  But we also ought to occasionally reflect about where the coffee comes from and think about buying it from somewhere else.

**It is gauche to say "I said it too!" in an article.  It's really gauche to say it twice.  But there you have it.  My only point in so linking is that when it comes to the question of how evangelicals and conservatives ought engage this and other matters, Dr. Moore and I have a lot in common.  Which makes me relieved, even if it might make him concerned.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.