Business as Culture Making: Starbucks Comes Together


Hope you all had a merry Christmas and are getting a good start to the New Year! The Forster household travelled to Virginia to visit relatives over the break, as part of a critical new Juvenile Viral Infection Exchange Program. We were all sick with our kids’ diseases when we arrived, and by the time we left the kids’ playing together ensured we went home with new and totally different viruses. This helps cultivate biodiversity by moving the infections across state lines more efficiently. We’re doing our part!

Let’s pick up the discussion of religious institutions and modern society. Starbucks isn’t a religious institution, but it did something over the break that illustrates the basic point: it asked employees in its Washington, DC area stores to write “Come Together” on drink cups during the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Starbucks come together 2

One of my favorite bloggers, Mickey Kaus, was made uncomfortable by this – he calls it “corporate smarm.” His objections illustrate the problem that we’re dealing with in our discussion of religious institutions: in modern society, we are developing the expectation that “normal” institutions don’t stand for moral values or a cultural agenda. If an institution does represent such values, it is abnormal in some way – not necessarily wrong, just an exception to the rules – and one that must be kept sequestered from the normal, ordinary process of business.

Kaus asks, provocatively, “Is Starbucks a Cult?”

Did Schultz take a poll of his employees–sorry, “partners,” he calls them–before ordering pressuring asking them to join in this lobbying effort? What  if he were, say, the CEO of Chick-fil-A and he “asked” his “partners” to  write “Preserve the Family” on the outside of cups and containers?

You see how even the simplest affirmation of a moral value leads directly to fear of religion? The claim that Christians must embody their faith in institutions is profoundly disturbing to the dominant mindset, embodied here by Kaus.

What makes this especially noteworthy is that Kaus is better than most. He recognizes that businesses are not all going to conform to the model of his expectations, and wants – in principle – to have a “live and let live” model. But he expects those institutions to be special exceptions. He thinks there’s something wrong if “ordinary” institutions start taking on moral missions:

There’s a good vegan restaurant chain in L.A. that’s run by what seems  to be a cult of sorts–they offer little uplifting messages, and the dishes have  names like “I Am Awesome.” Presumably their cooks and servers knew  what they were getting into. Similarly, Schultz notes that

our[**] friends at AOL and Patch who are joining  us in activating their hyper-local network of websites to share the “Come  Together” message

which is also fine, because if you go to work for a HuffPo outfit  like AOL or Patch, that’s the sort of thing you’d expect. But Starbucks?  Maybe Schultz’s baristas came for the (admirable) health benefits, not because  they wanted to join him in some mushy Tom Brokawish corporate budget crusade.

You see the attitude about work that’s embodied here? People take a job because it pays the bills, not because they’re making the world a better place by doing their work. That’s exactly the cultural signal that’s destroying the working class by dehumanizing work as an activity.

Kaus demonstrates the seamless connection between a dehumanizing view of work and the militant secularization that threatens to destroy religious liberty. The most basic reason why businesses like Chick-Fil-A should be free to affirm marriage and Hobby Lobby should be free not to pay for employees’ contraceptives is because economic work is human action, and all human action is moral and cultural. Therefore businesses are moral and cultural institutions whether we like it or not.

Given that business is and must be culture making, we should set businesses free to be culture makers rather than try to force them to conform to an impossible model of moral and cultural neutrality. That means you can’t make the businesses’ moral/cultural identity hostage to any one employee who objects to something. A commenter here on HT illustrated the problem quite well by making the statement that things like the HHS mandate should be OK because it just means “employees who don’t believe are not forced to adhere to the same strictures” as the business owners. On this view, the only rights that matter are those of the owners (considered in some kind of highly restricted personal capacity) and those of the employees. The right of the business itself to be what it is – a moral and cultural institution – is simply not on the radar.

Starbucks come together 3

Granted, businesses don’t currently do a good job of stewarding their cultural role. In a follow-up post, Kaus lists some of the other recent attempts by major corporations to connect to basic values:

Move On! Before Howard Schultz’s “Come Together” stunt, I’m reminded, there  was CNBC’s “Rise Above” stunt, also  apparently an attempt to push for some sort of fiscal cliff Grand  Bargain. And CNBC’s sister network, MSNBC, has its own “Lean Forward” slogan, of course. Can you Rise Above and Lean Forward and Come Together at the  same time? I’ll look it up in the kama sutra of corporate smarm.

OK, that’s pretty funny. But to a large extent companies are bad at this because we have forced them to try to deny what they are. We’ve spent more than half a century trying to teach businesses to pretend they’re not moral and cultural. We’ve ruthlessly driven out every practice and principle that used to provide some structure and direction for this aspect of corporate life. Of course they do a lousy job of it!

We have a lot of relearning ahead of us. My guess is that Christian business leaders are going to be the key players in figuring out how to re-humanize companies.

12 Thoughts.

  1. Pingback: Defending the Cult of Starbucks » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. This general theory of businesses as cultural and moral institutions may be one of the better arguments I’ve heard against specific policies, such as the contraception mandate.

    The question I have is whether moral businesses such as you desire are possible at a national and global scale as is the operating environment today. I would think that small businesses, should the regulatory environment be favorable, would have it easier in some ways because they don’t have to span cultures. Can a company realistically hold a strong moral or cultural stance AND work in such divergent cultures such as the U.S. and China? For example, could Chick-fil-a work at the same international scale as McDonalds?

    • My experience, which is admittedly unscientific but is more extensive than most, is that it is not only possible but very common for large international companies to maintain a strong moral/cultural grounding when they are privately held and operate with relatively little publicity outside their direct commercial operations (i.e. not McDonald’s or Starbucks). Conversely, as companies become publicly held and/or become cultural symbols of something broader than the work they actually do every day, it becomes more difficult for them to maintain that grounding.

      The tendency to lose the mission when you go public is why it’s so important to maintain a policy and cultural environment that’s friendly to 1) entrepreneurs who challenge big, established firms; and 2) privately held companies. I really don’t know what to do about the other factor, the tendency to lose the mission when you become a cultural symbol – other than to get busy restroing the broader idea of a robust shared moral culture, so that institutions don’t have to become soulless when they become cultural avatars.

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  5. As a former partner, I can say Starbucks kind of is a cult (and I say that as a term of endearment). Just get 5 or 10 partners together who don’t know each other & see what happens. They have an incredibly strong company culture. The vast majority of the partners there love the company & believe in the work they do. Of course there are those who don’t feel that way, but that’s the exception. There are many humanitarian projects the company is involved in. They were one of the first companies to offer medical benefits to domestic partners. There are partners who are devout Christians, Atheists, gay, straight, black, white, young, old, male, female, etc. It is a company which values their incredible diversity & takes full advantage of it. There are as many, if not more females in management than male. They’re certainly far from perfect, but I would follow their example long before a christian example, such as Chick – Fil – A or Hobby Lobby.

    • That final comment is interesting to me; I’d like to hear your reasons. Is it your perception that Chrisitian companies don’t also have major involvement in charitable works, have plenty of employees of many beliefs, races, ages, etc.? Are you concerned you’d be evangelized by superiors? Or is it that you prefer an employer that reflects non-Christian values? I’m not asking to start a debate, I just want to know what it is about Christianity or the way Christians behave that makes us less desirable as business leaders even to someone like yourself who is OK with businesses being “sort of a cult.”

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  7. Starbucks is a cult company, by design and it works quite well. It is not a cult like the 700 Club or the Jim Jones Guyana Compound or David Koresh. But is is a cult in the sense that they have dedicated followers who are willing to pony up, at a premium, for a product that is part thing and part experience. They come for the product and stay for the experience. At some point, they mesh a little bit with the company. When one walks into a Starbucks, it is like walking into the embassy of your home country. There is a feeling of familiarity, comfort, it is an embassy of mindset.

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