Why the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Ruling is Not a “Victory for Religion”

Yesterday at breakfast, I was greeted by a story on the front page of the Buffalo News with the title “High court ruling on health law seen as victory for religion“.  After a brief comment to a co-diner, which resulted in an acrimonious and over-long non-discussion that had nothing to do with what I really wanted to say, I feel it’s important to say quite a bit about the decision.

But what I have to say has nothing to do with women’s rights, contraception, health insurance, whether corporations (should) have the same rights as flesh-and-blood humans, or any of the other points of discussion that are flying across the internet.

Because those are not, as I see it, the real problem(s).  As a person who is presently less an observant Christian, and more an observer of Christianity, there is a bigger problem.  One so big, nobody is really talking about it.

The problem is the stupidity of calling this a “victory for religion”.

Now, I do need to make a disclosure.  I have reasonably frequent reason to enter craft supply shops, and I sometimes drop a fair amount of money.  Hobby Lobby is one that does not get my business.  Hobby Lobby has recently entered the Western New York area (probably it’s been here a year or thereabouts), where it competes head-to-head with Michael’s, AC Moore, and to a lesser extent with Jo-Ann Fabrics. Although, once I could drive again after my injury last year, I had no reason to add another big-box type craft retailer to my list of possibilities, I did once decide it might be interesting to see if there was anything different about Hobby Lobby.

Indeed, there is.  Hobby Lobby (at least the nearest one to me, in Hamburg, NY) distinguishes itself from other craft supply chains before you even go through the door. It is not open on Sundays. Neither is my local yarn shop, and closing one day a week is completely unproblematic.  Until I read the sign with the hours.  It said “We believe our employees should be able to worship with their families, and so we are closed on Sundays.”  This, to  me, is the craft-shop equivalent of the restricted clubs (dinner clubs, country clubs, golf courses) which did not allow Jews to join or be employed.  It’s apparently meant to make them look like a good employer, and to appeal to customers who share the values of the proprietors.  But Hobby Lobby sent me a strong signal that anyone who did not worship on the Christian holy day, and/or did not do so with a family, was outside their acceptable pool of applicants.

A closely-held, family run operation has the right to do that. It’s your business, you can hire whoever you like, and you can certainly hire only people who you are confident will support and exemplify your beliefs and values, even if those values have nothing to do with whether those people can run a cash register, stock shelves, or point customers to the appropriate section of the store (which is mainly what I care about).  But, as nothing obligates me to shop at Hobby Lobby, and I find this public trumpeting of being a good Christian company to be distasteful.  So, I’m happy to clip Hobby Lobby coupons, which AC Moore accepts, and take them to the competitor.  On Sunday.

But, getting back to my main point.  It is entirely inappropriate to call Monday’s Supreme Court ruling a victory for religion.  Unless your idea of “victory” is very strange indeed.

Richard Malone, the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, had this to say:

“I’m relieved and I’m very encouraged” by the decision.

“We’re talking about living our faith values in the public square, living our faith values in our occupation, in our businesses, and that’s why the decision, I think, is a real win for people’s consciences.”

This is not a “win” for people’s consciences in any broad sense.  It is a “win” for the owners of a for-profit corporation, whose officers and operations are not accountable under civil or ecclesiastical law to any named religious body, to attempt to impose their beliefs on the people who work for them.  It is certainly not a “win” for the consciences of the employees–who, if they uphold Hobby Lobby’s values, would not be using the (very few) forms of post-conception birth control which the health insurance in question does not cover.  If it was a “win” for those people’s consciences, and if Hobby Lobby trusted their employees’ consciences, it would not matter if the methods in question were covered or not. They would not avail themselves of those methods to begin with.  So, at some level, it is a matter of not trusting the workforce to uphold the personal values and beliefs that Hobby Lobby has (successfully) made corporate policy.

(There is some discussion that the Hobby Lobby case will have some effect on the question of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of Roman Catholic nuns who objected to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act requiring the coverage of birth control in mandated health insurance.  But the Little Sisters are a different kind of entity than Hobby Lobby–clearly a religious organization bound by canon law to the teachings and restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church.  If any good is to come of this decision, it will be to help legitimately religious organizations in the free exercise of religion.  One has to wonder why the Little Sisters have had more trouble with this than Hobby Lobby. But that is a sidebar.)

So, one main reason for this not being a “victory for religion” is that it does not uphold the exercise of conscience for all parties concerned–only the owners of the corporation.  It smacks of the kind of moral policing that employers used to believe was not only their responsibility and their right, and dramatized in the wildly successful television series Downton Abbey.

As the infomercials are fond of saying, “But wait, there’s more.”

The second major reason it is silly to use language describing this decision as a “victory for religion” is that there is no victory to be won.  There is no war on religion.  There is ignorance concerning religion, there are some (mainly Christians) who think that their traditional faith values are being undermined by an increasingly secular society.  There may be some truth to this.  It is probably harder to practice a traditional form of Christianity today than it was for my paternal grandparents–there is much less social pressure to do so. There are more things to occupy a person’s time on a Sunday morning, more family activities during the traditional “church hour”, and the blue laws are a distant memory to anyone under age 60 in the United States.  Attendance at Christian services across the theological spectrum have been declining for several decades (the downturn may be flattening out, but a rapid recovery is not anywhere in the near future). Even those who attend church tend to question ecclesiastical and pastoral authority, and adherence to every scrap of doctrinal and moral teaching is declining–“cafeteria Christians” is a  term of abuse and derision directed toward those who dare to think for themselves and decide what is applicable to their life situation. An increasing number of people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But to say there is a “war on religion” in which “victories” may or must be won, is an over-reach at best. Wars are not waged by refusing to engage, ignoring, or even ridiculing the enemy.

To trumpet this ruling as a “victory for religion” is a bit of dramatic language which only further justifies refusal to engage with, or to ignore, religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  The parental role taken by Hobby Lobby towards its employees on religious grounds makes religion look like something with which no mature and sensible adult should have any dealings.  It invites ridicule.  So, it opens the door to the very things which are the supposed tactics of this “war on religion”.

As the vast majority of the un-churched population of the United States has only a very un-nuanced understanding of denominational differences, this is not only a defeat for conservative Christians.  It is likely, in the popular imagination, to be true of all people who profess a devotion to Jesus Christ–and it makes it difficult for sensible Christians to have a credible voice in the public arena.

Christians have won no “victory” in the non-existent “war on religion” with Monday’s Supreme Court decision.  Unless the goal is to perpetuate the myth that such a war exists.

Christianity, throughout its history, has flourished under persecution. The blood of the martyrs being the seed of the church, and all. When Christianity is not flourishing (whether worldwide, or especially in parts of the world where it once had, but is losing, its ascendancy), it is convenient to invent persecution, suffering, and struggle to rally the faithful. So, by making itself look ridiculous, getting called on looking ridiculous, and then playing victim when that happens, the church gets public attention. Not always of the best sort, either. It may gain some, but it will lose many more.

Weird sort of “victory”, if you ask me.

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