Can a Cake Business Personify Christian Values?

Cake baker

Lawrence B. Glickman teaches American history at Cornell University.  In this very interesting piece at Boston Review, he wonders why the Supreme Court continues to treat businesses as people.  And why does the Court continue to favor the rights of businesses over the rights of individual consumers and employees?

Here is a taste:

Is there a meaningful distinction between Jack Phillips, “an expert baker and devout Christian,” as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy described him, and the company he owns, Masterpiece Cakeshop, a limited-liability company? The Supreme Court’s 7–2 ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission suggests not. The New York Times called the decision—which favored Phillips’s right to refuse service for religious reasons—“narrow” because it did not rule on the broader issue of discrimination against gay men and lesbians based on rights protected by the First Amendment. However, in terms of the relationship between capital and labor, the decision was anything but narrow. The Court’s majority opinion, written by Kennedy, is remarkable for its uncanny and unproblematic conflation of Phillips, the baker, and his business, the bakery. By insisting that the key issues in the case are Phillips’s artistic expression and his religious liberty, the Court was silent on the question of how a company can possess these rights. It did so by assuming not only that corporations are people, but that the cakes made by Masterpiece Cakeshop are produced by Phillips alone, when in fact we know that the bakery has other workers.

The Court saw fit to mention Phillips’s employees only once, in a remarkable sentence written by Clarence Thomas (joined by Neil Gorsuch) concurring with the judgement of the majority but making much broader claims about the rights of businesses to handpick their customers. Seeking to show both that Phillips is a sincere Christian and that his bakery reflects Christian values, Thomas wrote, “He is not open on Sunday, he pays his employees a higher-than-average wage, and he loans them money in times of need.” The last two clauses of the sentence are meant to demonstrate that Phillips is a good and generous employer, although one might wonder why well-compensated employees would need loans from their boss in order to make ends meet. But the first part of the sentence is particularly jarring. Presumably, Thomas meant to suggest that Phillips did not open his business on Sunday. But Thomas literally wrote instead that Phillips himself “is not open on Sunday.” Since it is impossible for a person to close or be open on Sunday or any other day of the week, Thomas here marked the extent to which the Court identified Phillips with the bakery.

The significance of this sentence is enormous and not just because, for Thomas and the other justices who sided with the majority, there is no appreciable difference between the baker and his company. (In this, the Court mimicked the language of Phillips himself, who in a 2014 video for the New York Times alternated between using “we” and “I” to describe the work of the bakery.) By extension, this means that the religious views and artistic contribution of the company’s workers are irrelevant. Phillips’s employees are merely props in Thomas’s morality tale—figures who receive the boss’s Christian charity but are otherwise unmentioned and invisible. The decision renders their status as workers for Phillips’s limited-liability company morally and legally immaterial.

I am not a legal scholar, but I find the question of how the Supreme Court defines personhood to be very interesting.  Back in 2014, the American Historical Association asked me to write a response to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case.  I am not suggesting what I wrote back then applies directly to the Masterpiece case, but I will throw it out there anyway.  Here is a taste of my “‘We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident, That All Corporations Are Created Equal“:

Ginsburg’s historical argument is a strong one. Indeed, religious liberty or the Free Exercise Clause has never been directly applied to a for-profit corporation. But this does not mean there is no precedent for considering a for-profit corporation a “person.” As the prominent American historians at Backstory have recently reminded us, the post-Civil War Supreme Court affirmed on multiple occasions that corporations (mostly railroads) are covered under the Fourteenth Amendment. Corporate personhood has a long history.

But can a corporation have religious liberty? I obviously don’t know how Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson—the great early American defenders of religious liberty—would have responded to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but there is little doubt that they would have considered such a proposal to be very strange. For these men, religious liberty was a very personal thing. Religious liberty was meant to protect deeply held spiritual convictions that found their home in the “soul” or “conscience.” Religious liberty was an inherently Protestant concept. It stemmed from the belief that people could read the Bible for themselves and draw their own religious conclusions. It has always been a religious idea applied to individual human beings. Can a for-profit cooperation have a soul? Can it truly practice liberty of conscience?

We might also ask, as political scientist Patrick Deneen has done so brilliantly, whether a big box store such as Hobby Lobby, located in a massive shopping center constructed on a slab of asphalt at the edge of town, can be considered a person. And if it is a person, can it exercise religious liberty? What happens to a traditional and historical understanding of a person—a human being embedded in political, religious, and local communities exercising virtues such as friendship, love, duty, and citizenship—when it is defined in the context of a soulless corporate world with the primary purpose of maximizing profits?

What if College Classes Had Corporate Sponsors?

700club - 1440 - 455 - angle 2 (0;00;06;11)

What if the 700 Club sponsored a university course on Comparative Religion?

As universities become more and more corporate, writer Suzanne Fernandez Gray wonders what it might look like if academic courses eventually get corporate sponsors.  Read her very funny piece at McSweeney’s.

Here are a few of my favorites:

A-H 350 TWENTIETH CENTURY ART

Sponsored by Hobby Lobby

Through lectures, readings, discussions and research, this course examines major issues raised in art and criticism from 1900-1999. Students will learn that Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers are definitely just flowers, and that Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is proof of the collapse of American morals and the need for prayer in public schools.

 

JOU 532 ETHICS OF JOURNALISM

Section 001: Sponsored by Fox News Network

Section 002: Sponsored by CNN

An examination of ethics in the media. Students will reason through issues that arise in the practice of journalism like how to cut off the mic when an opposing guest’s argument gets too credible and how to draw fancy charts to make nonsensical points look like facts.

PS 440 THE PRESIDENCY

Sponsored by Koch Industries

This course explores the political genius of the 45th President of the United States through his relationships with foreign leaders like Little Rocket Man, Mad Alex and The Dopey Prince, while also demonstrating the ineptitude of those who hate America, including Cryin’ Chuck, Sneaky Dianne Feinstein and Pocahontas. Part of the class will be devoted to the President’s tweets and how people in the fake news media, including Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd, Psycho Joe Scarborough, Little George Stephanopoulos and Dumb as a Rock Mika can’t pull anything over on the man Sen. Orrin Hatch recently called a better president than Lincoln or Washington.

RS 130 INTRODUCTION TO COMPARATIVE RELIGION

Sponsored by The 700 Club


Comparative study of major world religions of which there is only one: Christianity. Students will explore the merits of the Spanish Inquisition and learn how something similar should be implemented in the U.S. in the interest of national security, only with Evangelicals in charge instead of Catholics. Course fees cover a field trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY where students will be able to see a diorama of dinosaurs aboard an exact replica of Noah’s Ark.

Read them all here.  Enroll now! 🙂

The Author’s Corner with Amanda Porterfield

9780199372652Amanda Porterfield is Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion at Florida State University. This interview is based on her new book, Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation (Oxford University Press, 2018). 

JF: What led you to write Corporate Spirit?

AP: This book began with a question. How did corporations become such a prominent feature of American life? As I listened to complaints about corporations and their legal rights, the prevalence of these institutions in American society seemed to require some explanation. The search for answers took hold of me once I realized that corporate forms of organization dominated American religious as well as commercial life. Where did corporate approaches to social order originate? How did corporate forms of religious and commercial organization develop in relation to one another? How did events in one sphere affect events in the other?

JF: What is the argument of Corporate Spirit?

AP: The book argues that corporate organizations have shaped American economic and religious life, and that a long history of corporate organization precedes American innovations in both business and religion. The book argues that a key element in this checkered history is the management of corporations as if they were persons, with real people belonging to them as members of a body, or corpus.

JF: Why do we need to read Corporate Spirit?

AP: The book explains how corporations organize people into groups that transcend kinship, and how they have often succeeded as effective, though not always salutary, forms of social organization. Building on this organizational focus, the book shows how developments in corporate organization from ancient Rome and medieval Christendom led to corporate institutions in British America that, in turn, laid important groundwork for American political independence. The book goes on to show how rapid growth in commercial and religious organization in the early United States contributed to the development of modern corporations later in the 19th century, and how the Christian idea of corporate personhood took on new, secular life when the 14th Amendment was interpreted to protect the rights of corporations as legal persons. Perhaps most important, the book offers a way to understand recent problems of corporate accountability in light of a long history of complaint about corporate behavior.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AP: I decided to become a historian at the height of the Vietnam War when I was profoundly confused about America, and could not think of a better idea of what to do with myself. The book is the latest result of my effort to understand how the world we live in came to be. This effort led me to become a historian, and brought me to study religion as a revealing window into people and historical change.

JF: What is your next project?

AP: I have begun to explore the role of religion in modern dance and American jazz, and to consider the historical relationship between the emergence of these arts and religious practice. Music and dance have long been avocations for me, and I am eager to better understand their historical development in modern America.

JF: Thanks, Amanda!

Is the Smithsonian American History Museum Too Corporate?

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History

Colette Shade, writing at Current Affairs, thinks so.

Here is a taste of her piece:

The Smithsonian has long carried a special virtuous sheen in the American imagination. It feels like one of our country’s few genuine projects for the common good. It was established out of the bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy British scientist who gave his estate to the young American nation in order to create an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846, it became a trust administered by a special Board of Regents to be approved by the United States Congress. No other museum in the country has such an arrangement. And because its buildings line the National Mall, and admission is free, it has been regarded as something like the American people’s own special repository for knowledge. The Smithsonian helps define how America sees itself, and carries a weighty sense of dignity and neutrality.

It’s strange, then, that in certain parts of the Smithsonian, you may feel rather as if you’ve walked into the middle of a corporate sales pitch. When I visited the Smithsonian American History museum in December, for example, a “Mars Chocolate Demonstration” entitled “From Bean To Bar” was set up in a vestibule between exhibits. A half dozen people stood at a long table, showing how different stages in chocolate production worked. I had assumed they were docents until I noticed that most wore shirts embroidered with the Mars logo.

The lead presenter passed around a silicone model of a cacao pod, describing the process of growing the trees, explaining the role of hot chocolate in the American revolution, and telling us that the Aztecs used to consume only the white pulp that grows around the beans in the cacao pods. He informed us that nobody knows how the Aztecs discovered that the beans themselves had value, but offered a theory that they left the discarded beans by the fire, where they burned fragrantly. Then he passed around a bowl of roasted cacao nibs.

Later, I asked him whether he was a historian.

“I make M&Ms for a living,” he told me.

The demonstration was sponsored, I learned, by American Heritage Chocolate, a sub-brand of Mars that is sold exclusively at museums and historical sites. It is hard to critique a candy-making exhibit without seeming like a killjoy. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the Mars promotional demonstration has somewhat limited relevance to the core mission of Museum of American History, or that having chocolatiers speculate about Aztec history is possibly below the expected Smithsonian standard of rigor. Having a chocolate-making demonstration is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and we did get free hot chocolate samples. But one cannot escape the suspicion that Mars, Inc. is using the Smithsonian to advertise chocolate to kids.

Read the rest here.

Hobby Lobby Wrap-Up

I am currently at work on a few hundred words on the Hobby Lobby case for the American Historical Associations Perspectives blog.  It will probably appear in a day or two.  

In the meantime, here are some of interesting takes on yesterday’s Supreme Court decision:
Emma Green at The Atlantic: “The Supreme Court Isn’t Waging a War on Women in Hobby Lobby.
Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Church is “elated.”
John Dilulio at Brookings: “Hobby Lobby: The Real Religious Exemption Fight if yet to Come”
It might be good at this point to return to Patrick Deneen, “Even if Hobby Lobby Wins, We Lose.”  This is the best think I have read on the case, hands down.
Robert George at First Things: “What Hobby Lobby Means
Michelle Goldberg at The Nation:  “Alito’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Opinion is Dangerous and Discriminatory”
David Gans at The New Republic:  “The Roberts Court Thinks Corporations Have More Rights Than You Do”
Jeffrey Toobin at The New Yorker: “The Trap in the Supreme Court’s ‘Narrow’ Decisions
The History Guys at Backstory on corporate personhood.

A Chick-fil-A Primer

Whether you bought a Chick-fil-A sandwich yesterday or decided to boycott the chain, you might find Darren Grem’s post at Religion in American History to be informative.  Grem, who teaches southern U.S. history at the University of Mississippi, is writing a book on evangelical corporate America that features Chick-fil-A and the Cathy family.  His very thorough post is the best thing I have read on this whole controversy. It even includes a Chick-fil-A “cashflow map.”

Here is a taste:

Operators at Chick-fil-A are like independent small business owners, giving a certain cut to the front office in Atlanta but generally recycling whatever they earn each quarter back into their own restaurant.  Few operators own or operate more than one CFA location.  Hence, they retain a certain independence in hiring and firing decisions and even in whether they parrot or object to upper management’s take on business decisions or the current controversy.  (Case in point: The CFA location in Decatur, a relatively diverse community in east Atlanta, tried to come out in front of the story and defuse any public perception that they were discriminatory, at least in terms of in-store service or public service.  It stopped short of gay rights advocacy, though they certainly went farther than Cathy in noting “sexual orientation.”)  Most operators are married men.  None, I would guess, are gay.  Most restaurants shoot for the “kid-friendly” vibe common in other national fast-food chains (play ports, kids’ meals, etc.) without being exclusively a “family” branded place and space like, say, ChuckECheese.  They want teenagers, single adults, and, yes, people of any sexual orientation to come through their doors and buy the chicken.  The bottom line is a bottom line, of sorts.      

…a decision to boycott a local CFA will most likely directly affect that location first and the larger company last, although as YouGov recently reported, just the threat of boycott and public discussion of Cathy’s comments have had an effect.  More specifically, boycotts would generally lead to the cutting down of hours or firing for floor workers first, operational costs second, the larger company third, and the Cathy family last. This is because CFA places most of the risk and cost for running a CFA to the independent owner.  This insulates the broader company from systemic risk; hence, the point of a franchise model they’ve adopted.  The opposite is also true for any “buy-cotts” that Mike Huckabee or other conservative organizations may have planned.  It would probably go first to the operator and floor workers, operations second, and so on.