Josh Feurenstein doesn't mind acting crazy to make a point. In early November, the Arizona-based Christian vlogger walked into a Starbucks, ordered a drink, and told the barista his name was "Merry Christmas." Feurenstein then posted a video of himself on Facebook, triumphantly holding his cup, and saying: "Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ—and Christmas!—off their brand new cups??? That's why they're just plain red."
"In fact do you realize that Starbucks isn't allowed to say 'Merry Christmas'?" he continued, as if Starbucks is just one guy. "Well guess what, Starbucks, I tricked you!" He then flipped his cup around, revealing a Starbucks cup that did, in fact, say 'Merry Christmas,' and then—twist!—gleefully pulled out his gun. The video went viral, with 16 million views to date.
Within two weeks, the Christian consumer advocacy group Faith Driven Consumer (FDC) seized upon the mini-controversy as a chance to promote its latest product, the Faith Equality Index, which rates companies based on their "faith-friendliness." In early November, the organization issued a press release announcing that Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme were more faith-friendly than Starbucks, and that consumers ought to buy coffee there instead—a protest tactic commonly referred to as a "buycott."
What, exactly, does faith-friendliness mean? In this context, it means putting up Christmas decorations, being against abortion and gay marriage, and donating money to Christian-facing organizations.
Of course, FDC isn't the first Christian group to make this argument. The so-called "War on Christmas" has become something of an annual tradition for social conservatives. The American Family Association, a fundamentalist Christian group known primarily for boycotting companies that embrace LGBT-friendly policies, maintains a "Naughty or Nice list"; the lateReverend Jerry Falwell and his "Friend or Foe" Christmas campaign once threatened to sue the city of Boston for using the term "holiday tree."
Before FDC debuted the Faith Equality Index in October of this year, Faith Driven Consumer concentrated on individual campaigns. The organization, founded by Christian marketing professional Chris Stone, is centered around the idea that conservative Christians—essentially, a vaguely defined group of people whose purchasing habits Stone believes are, or at least should be, defined by their conservative religious values—are a cultural minority.
"It makes good business sense for brands to welcome this demographic into their rainbow of diversity alongside groups they already engage with, such as racial minorities and the LGBT community," FDC wrote in a press release last year, claiming that faith-driven consumers make up 17 percent of the US consumer market.
Stone told me that the FEI was inspired by the existence of the "diversity market," or initiatives to mobilize the purchasing power of minority groups. These include the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, the Hispanic Corporate Inclusion Index, and the Black Enterprise's yearly rankings of the best companies for diversity.
Of course, there are a number of holes in Stone's assessment of the faith-driven consumer—namely that it's hard to view Christians as a minority seeing as that, historically, Christians have shaped the very fabric of American culture and have generally had a leg up, both culturally and economically, over everyone else. And data from the Pew Research Center released earlier this year found that nearly 71 percent of Americans still self-identify as Christian.
John Hawthorne, a professor of sociology at Spring Arbor University, a Christian college, and an expert on statistics and Christian culture, told me that he felt, "The problem isn't with [FDC's] data, it's with the generalizations that FDC makes with them." Namely, Hawthorne explained, he takes issue the organization's conclusion that faith-driven consumers see expressing anti-gay sentiment as an extension of their religious freedom.
One of FDC's biggest successes has been #IStandWithPhil, a 2013 petition and social media campaign that showed support for Phil Robertson, star of Duck Dynasty, after he was removed from his family's A&E show following homophobic remarks Robertson made in a GQ profile.
FDC organized a petition that garnered over 250,000 signatures, threatening a boycott of the network if they did not allow Robertson back on the show. The petition argued that while Americans had the right to be not homophobic, as a Christian, Robertson also had a right to be super homophobic and express those views in a public forum, which "effectively censors a legitimate viewpoint held by the majority of Americans."
The tactic, and others like it, worked: A&E allowed Robertson back on the show.
Since then, FDC has run multiple social media campaigns in support of various Christian conservative causes, including the rehiring of Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran following his distribution of his self-penned religious book to his employees, and the support for craft retail seller Hobby Lobby in its Supreme Court case. These instances, and others, are all meant to remind companies of the power of the conservative Christian dollar, by dangling the threat of withholding that dollar.
Skeptics of FDC note that they're not sure if the FEI rating system is helpful, and pointed out that Stone also serves as CEO of The Stone Agency, a branding agency that according to Stone's LinkedIn profile, "focuses on communications engagement, brand integration, public affairs and the rapidly emerging and economically powerful submarket known as Faith Driven Consumers." In that light, it seems possible that the Faith Equality Index is simply a tool meant to push companies to seek faith-driven branding in order to serve a demographic that Stone also happens to be a self-proclaimed expert on. When I asked Stone about this, he claimed that while Faith Driven Consumer and Stone Agency are under the same parent company, they serve different clientele.
While the idea behind the Faith Equality Index seems legitimate, in theory—in why wouldn't religious, conservative consumers want to at least know which businesses share their values?—it's not clear whether these consumers actually act on that knowledge. Hawthorne notes that while 17 percent of consumers may claim that their faith impacts their shopping habits, this does not necessarily mean that they are actively making those choices in the marketplace. There is a significant amount of psychological research out there that notes a disconnect between one's thoughts and their purchasing actions.
For now, it remains to be seen if the Faith Equality Index will have any impact on consumer spending habits—or on the War on Christmas. "What my instinct tells me," said Hawthorne "is that this is just people saying they'll think about doing things, not whether they'll actually go through with doing those things."
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