The news yesterday that the Supreme Court is going to hear the Hobby Lobby case momentarily brought the question of religious liberty back to the forefront of our national consciousness.
There are a variety of aspects to the case, many of which are worth considering. But one that I have been thinking about in recent months is the evolution of corporate social responsibility and how, if at all, its widespread adoption might shape people’s intuitions on this particular case.
At first glance, it seems a bit funny to think that corporations can have practices or beliefs that might be justified on religious grounds, like Hobby Lobby’s now infamous objections to contraception and their subsequent refusal to fund insurance plans that would cover it. The Supreme Court has (notoriously!) decided that corporate personhood entails organizations can spend money in elections like, well, normal persons can.
But it’s not clear why we would object, given that money making corporations have made it very clear that they have ethical positions that are core to their company culture, regardless of the individual beliefs of the people who work there. Look at Amazon, Starbucks, and Google’s support of gay rights, both domestically and around the world: whatever you make of that particular moral question, it seems that if we are willing to countenance corporations acting as corporations in those particular ways, as we clearly do, then denying that corporations can have similarly embedded religious outlooks and practices seems simply arbitrary.
And, indeed, many companies do act according to their religious principles and not only Christian business, either. Many Jewish businesses must be closed on the Sabbath and Sharia banks are not simply in the Middle East (or so my fearsome Googling tells me!).
Of course, this is a point about business that young evangelicals have drunk deeply. The generation that grew up with “worldview training” heard plenty about bridging the “sacred/secular” divide when we were young. Now that we grow old, that mentality has been buttressed by the Kuyperian-influenced outlook of places like Q, where God’s involvement in “every square inch” of our lives and practices is as close to an orthodoxy as you’ll find. But it’s also taken tangible form, as many younger evangelicals have started businesses that are aimed at “doing well by doing good,” integrating the pursuit of profits with the pursuit of justice for the disadvantaged. The religious outlook of the founders is often buried; we like being more coy about how we integrate our Christianity into things, after all, so Bible verses on fry boats ain’t quite our style. But the fundamental principle is the same: Hobby Lobby is a more mature, more explicit model for what many young evangelicals have sought to build.
Of course, this is a case where the religious practices of the business are conflicting with the government’s directives about the sort of health care its employees are obligated to expect. We’ve been through the arguments surrounding it before, so I’m not keen on repeating all of that. I’ll simply point to this excellent paper that lays out the legal case for Hobby Lobby’s defense and open the floor, er, comments for anyone who reads it and disagrees to make the case.
But this case will be a real conflict for young evangelicals, for whom the distribution of birth control sometimes seems like a shibboleth that borders on a right. For many of them, I suspect the wariness toward Hobby Lobby and the conservative case on this question has more to do with commitments to contraception personally and as a social good than any understanding of religious liberty or corporate religious beliefs.