Reopening the Question of China and Hobby Lobby

We’ve been through this once already, but since my friend Jonathan Merritt’s latest piece dredging up the charge of hypocrisy against the Greens because they do business in China has been sent around, so I thought I’d say one or two things about it.

Before that, though, it’s worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with any of the legal arguments that Hobby Lobby has pursued the last few years.  Hypocrites still have their right to religious liberty, after all, and thank the Lord for it. Additionally, I’d note that whatever else I end up saying about this that I think there are real questions to be answered here about how we entangle ourselves in environments where injustice is being done.  It’s obvious that evangelicals need to do a lot more thinking about dirty hands, and Jamie Smith’s recent essay is a great place to start.

But can I gently suggest that Jonathan’s essay is not how such thinking should be done?  The gist of the piece is that China does lots of bad stuff, and Hobby Lobby buys and sells goods there…ergo Hobby Lobby are hypocrites for defending the integrity of their consciences against the intrusiveness of the government. If they aren’t conflicted about their complicity in China, then why do they care about their complicity in the States?

'A Hobby Lobby that looks different!' photo (c) 2014, Nicholas Eckhart - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Now, put that way, Merritt’s piece highlights why everyone should be rooting for Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court.  If the alternative is having their consciences broken by the heels of the government, then the US environment is really no better than China.  Merritt’s critique (ironically) highlights whats at stake here:  do we want a US government that is as demanding and intrusive to individual consciences as he alleges the Chinese government is, or not?  Even if we grant his point about hypocrisy, then our appropriate response should be to exhort the Green’s to revisit their business practices in China while praying they win before the Court. Something tells me that’s not quite the conclusion Jonathan was hoping for.*

But let’s take a look at his….well, I’d call it an argument but I’m not sure it rises to that level.  It gets all of its rhetorical energy on obfuscations and generalizations, which allow for the rhetorical point to go but in the olden days would have been called sophistry.  There’s a lot of handwaving here meant to make you readers feel bad about China, and doing business with China, but not very many specifics about what Hobby Lobby actually does there.  So here are some additional questions that I would want answered before making a moral judgment about Hobby Lobby’s gross hypocrisy:

  • Does Hobby Lobby pay their workers in China the $9.77 a day that Merritt says is the average wage, or more?
  • Where are they buying their products in China, and what does kind of quality of life does what they pay their vendors earn their employees?
  • What kind of due diligence did they do on their vendors to ensure that their vendors are providing the kind of working conditions we would all want to support?
  • Is Hobby Lobby’s China branch leaning on and petitioning the Chinese government to the extent that it is able to ensure better working conditions for laborers?
  • Is the free trade that Hobby Lobby undertaken helpful, harmful, or indifferent for establishing Western leverage with the Chinese with respect to human rights?  To put the question differently, if Hobby Lobby pulled out and trade died, would conditions in China improve or not?  Is interdependence important for social improvement, even if China currently has abusive practices in places? (Thanks to Jonathan Chan for this point, and for this West Wing clip.)
  • Does Jonathan have any evidence at all that allows him to make the rhetorical leap from (a) Hobby Lobby does business in a country where child labor happens to (b) Hobby Lobby supports underage labor?  (See his question “Can you call yourself a “Christian business” when you support underage labor?”
  • Given what we know about Hobby Lobby’s conscientiousness in other facets of their business, is there any reason to think that the Green’s have not been as conscientious with the above questions, other than by prima facie assuming that “doing business” (as a vague abstraction) in China means that they are complicit in everything happening in China?

I could probably keep going, but you get my point.

Jonathan wraps things up with this fun little gotcha:

The most glaring inconsistency between Hobby Lobby’s ethical proclamations and its business decisions concerns the matter of religious liberty. The craft store chain is hailed by conservatives as standing up to Uncle Sam and fighting for religious freedom. Yet Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars worth of bric-a-brac from a nation that denies 1.35 billion citizens freedom of worship.”

There’s lots to be said about China and its rhetorical function in American culture. (Go ahead, name me three positive things about the Chinese people or society without using the internet.) But with respect to religious liberty, Jonathan’s statement that the Chinese government are denying their citizens “freedom of worship” is a simplistic caricature of a massively complicated subject.   China as a society is more religiously open now than it has been in a long time. Among other things, the Chinese government is funding theological research in China. Even when they are tearing down churches, the situation is much more complicated than the American press generally indicates

Is China perfect on religious liberty?  Of course not.  To quote a line that we all know well, it’s complicated. But  one-sided portrayals of the sort that are popular within the US actually matter for US-Chinese relations, as they perpetuate a vague hostility toward China when we should be encouraged about the gains in religious liberty we have seen there the past thirty years while continuing to push for more.

Is there an irony there, then, for Hobby Lobby?  I don’t think so. They could very well argue that by entangling themselves in a society that is trying to navigate the delicate balance of opening themselves slowly to new ideas (China) they are trying to be instrumental in that society for the slow, messy, often painful advancement of the good and the freedom of its citizens.  Those would be, I’d note, the very same freedoms they are seeking to protect here at home, and for which they have done so at great personal cost. They are not martyrs, and their practices deserve scrutiny.  But if Merritt is going to dismiss them as hypocrites, he ought at least do them the justice of making an argument that’s more than the smoke and mirrors he has given us here.

*Jonathan tells me that I wrongfully assume that he is opposed to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case. I’ve asked for further clarification on whether this means he actually supports Hobby Lobby’s case.

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  • hampsteadheath17

    Can I gently point out a place where you aren’t thinking well? It’s terrific that you write a sentence where you attempt to chide Merritt for not thinking well, & this (a direct quote) is what you produce: “But can I gently suggest that Jonathan’s essay is not how should thinking should be done?”

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Ah, the ol’ “caught in a typo even though the meaning was clear” critique. Devastating! : )

      • jamesfarnold

        I logged in just to fix this typo, only to see it already fixed. It’ll get pushed to the site soon, all. :)

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Dude. Don’t know how you’re going to recover from that.

  • RobJ

    Jonathan makes a huge leap in logic. If he held the individual to the same standard then I would wonder if he has any components the computer he used to write the piece that are sourced from countries that limit religious freedom of Christians. Or, can he say for certain the gas in his car is not sourced from middle-east countries that prohibit or limit Christianity. His purchases of a computer, gas, and any number of things in his home might be contributing to the economies of governments hostile to Christians. In condemning Hobby Lobby he condemn us all.

    • AtalantaBethulia

      The point of Merritt’s article isn’t: You shouldn’t own things from China. Nor is it: You shouldn’t buy things from China. Nor is it: Hobby Lobby shouldn’t source its products from China.

      The point is that IF Hobby Lobby is going to claim to be a Christian Company that runs its company based on Christian principles that pervade the daily operations of the store and the business and IF Hobby Lobby is going to claim a religious exemption from a federal law because it believes certain birth control measures actually cause abortions (which they do not) THEN for them to be consistent, for them to apply their Christian beliefs and Christian principles to ALL aspects of their business including the ethical sourcing of their products (from a country that as a matter of course forces abortion on women as well as has other questionable human rights practices) THEN they MUST consider more ethical sources for their products.

      If this adversely affects their bottom line, then this is the price of living by their Christian principles.

      The POINT is they need to be consistent.

      The reason it doesn’t work to try to turn it around and claim that those of us who are Christians and own goods made in China are wrong is because that’s not the point. That’s a different point. This point is about the inconsistent application of their “principles”: doing what is inconvenient for their employees (requesting an exemption from covering certain forms of birth control) but NOT doing what is inconvenient for them (finding a more ethical source for their products).

      • ClaraB43

        Absolutely. The issue is not simple hypocrisy. The point is that Hobby Lobby is seeking special treatment based on their claim to “religious liberty,” over a very debatable point about health care (their claim that certain BC methods are abortifacients is disputed by experts), yet they treat well-established injustices in Chinese practices as mere “costs of doing business,” if they even give them that much attention.

        The rest of us buy Chinese-made goods and may hate the evils involved in this commerce. But we’re not petitioning the U.S. government for special exemptions from established law for the sake of our consciences about one type of perceived moral evil, while continuing to benefit from doing business with (not just buying the products of, but making almost all of our corporate income by selling products from) a country whose system of commerce is deeply enmeshed in far more widespread and entrenched moral evils of exactly the kind that we claim to want “liberty” to separate ourselves from in the U.S., namely, actual forced abortions and many other practices that are anti-life.

        And what is this about China easing up on Christian churches? Mr. Anderson links to an editorial from 2008, and one that is behind a subscription firewall, at that, so only the first page is available. Google “China cracks down on churches” for recent news, and there’s a lot of it. For example, this:

        http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/04/29/china-cracks-down-on-christianity-demolishing-church-that-symbolized-resistance-to-communists-grip-on-religion/

        and this:

        http://www.realclearreligion.org/2013/03/26/china_cracks_down_on_house_churches_253322.html

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Do you have any evidence for your claim that they haven’t given the practices in China “much attention”? I take it that they could absolutely give them considerable attention and work strenuously to ensure that they only employ workers and buy products from companies with the highest-levels of care for their employees.

          As to your two links, the Christianity Today story I linked above is a *much* more balanced report on the Chinese policy on church buildings.

          My point above is that it is complicated. There isn’t really any question, though, that there are more religious freedoms today in China than over the past thirty years.

          Matt

          • AtalantaBethulia

            re: “Do you have any evidence for your claim that they haven’t given the practices in China “much attention”? I take it that they could absolutely give them considerable attention and work strenuously to ensure that they only employ workers and buy products from companies with the highest-levels of care for their employees.”

            Despite the concerns voiced in the media and the public regarding ethical sourcing of products, nowhere on their website do they address this issue, despite a very thorough and updated website dedicated to the Supreme Court case.

            Other companies who are concerned about ethical sourcing of products provide this information to their customers.

      • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

        My point is that unless there is more evidence answering the questions I have laid about above, then the simple accusation of hypocrisy doesn’t fly. The only condition under which the accusation of hypocrisy works is if *any* purchaser of Chinese goods is equally complicit in every feature of Chinese society Jonathan mentioned. But if that principle is true, then the “we are all guilty” reductio becomes pertinent.

        Matt

      • Momster55

        Many birth control measures are abortifacients. Apparently abortion seems to be a highly recognized and accepted means of abortion to (some) people, though I hope not most. Check out this source: http://www.abort73.com/abortion_facts/which_birth_control_methods_cause_abortion/

        • AtalantaBethulia

          Momster,

          I’m a former healthcare provider and understand how women’s bodies and contraceptives work.

          Abortion terminates a pregnancy.
          None of the four items Hobby Lobby objected to terminate a pregnancy, because a woman isn’t pregnant until the fertilized egg implants in the wall of the uterus. Up to 50% of all fertilized eggs naturally and spontaneously fail to implant in the wall of the uterus and women never know the egg was fertilized.

          There is no way to know if one’s egg is fertilized or not until it implants or until menses occurs.
          These are not miscarriages, just like the others are not abortions, because the woman was never pregnant.

  • jamesfarnold

    “There’s lots to be said about China and its rhetorical function in American culture. (Go ahead, name me three positive things about the Chinese people or society without using the internet.)”

    My instincts were something like: there’s a lot of really interesting and valuable Chinese philosophy, though most of my knowledge of it is somewhat ancient. That’s one thing. The second thought was food.

    Not sure that my thoughts are proof at all that American culture thinks well about Chinese culture. But at least I had *something*.

  • Abby
  • RobD

    While I believe that the Hobby Lobby case presents a legal question that’s worth resolving, I’m not sure that this sort of activism does much to advance the cause of Christ. In other words, I fear that this kind of activism pushes Christianity closer to being viewed as a political cause rather than a faith. Further, I fear that it leads many who profess the name of Christ to confuse participation in the Culture War as a means of grace.

    Indeed, the courts are required to accept the alleged sincerity of the Greens’ religious beliefs. But that hardly means that their beliefs are actually sincere or that those beliefs are consistent with Christian teaching. Maybe it’s the cranky Calvinist in me, but there’s something about the notion of a “Christian business” that causes me to wonder whether one can run such a business without running afoul of the Third Commandment.

    I had much the same thought regarding this week’s case involving an evangelical pro-life group. The group was charged under Ohio law for making false statements about a candidate in an effort to influence the results of an election. The victim of the false attacks later withdrew the complaint, and the charges were dismissed. The group appealed, claiming that the courts should rule on the case so as to clarify the constitutionality of the law in question. The group alleged that they planned to launch false attacks on other politicians in other races, and therefore needed to know whether that conduct was illegal. Honestly, have we confused the Culture War with the Gospel so thoroughly that we now believe that lying is ok, so long as the victim is someone on the other “side” of the battle line?

    Just because it’s not illegal for Christian organizations to spread self-serving lies in the public square, doesn’t mean that they should do it. And in the same way, just because the courts may confer certain rights on “religious for-profit businesses,” doesn’t mean that Christians should run out and start one.

    • AtalantaBethulia

      Indeed.

      Re: “Honestly, have we confused the Culture War with the Gospel so thoroughly that we now believe that lying is ok, so long as the victim is someone on the other “side” of the battle line?”

      It seems evident in the teachings of Jesus that the ends do not justify the means.

    • Momster55

      “This kind of activism” serves two important functions: 1, not taking part in killing unborn children (quite serious I might add) and taking a constitutional stand for religious liberties which is what is being attacked. They want our country! That’s what all this is about. Many people are taking a serious stand not to give them our country. Whose side are you on?