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?

Can the Museum of the Bible Avoid Controversy?

RNS-BIBLE-MUSEUM i

In the past week I have done a few interviews with reporters about the Museum of the Bible, a Washington D.C. museum scheduled to open next month.  I have written about the Museum before and with the opening less than one month away, I expect to write about it again.  A few days after the official opening I will be at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) to speak on a panel devoted to Joel Baden and Candida Moss’s new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.

A recent Washington Post piece on the museum is revealing.  Evangelical historians Mark Noll and Grant Wacker both weigh-in on their experiences with the museum.  So does Steven Friesen, an officer at the SBL.

Here is a taste:

Mark Noll, one of the country’s most prominent experts on American Christian history, served as an adviser. He compared the Museum of the Bible to the Newseum, another huge private museum.

“Obviously the museum is there to make people think better or think kindly about the effects of Scripture in U.S. history,” he said. “But I did think they were trying to be as nonpartisan as they could.”

Some remain skeptical that the museum’s viewpoint will be neutral. Steven Friesen, an officer at the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest association of biblical scholars, said there is debate in the academic community about whether to do research involving the Greens’ collection. He would advise fellow scholars to steer clear.

Friesen hasn’t seen the museum, but he believes from reading the website that its materials subtly promote a singular version of Scripture; indeed, the museum mostly omits discussion about how the Bible was compiled and which religious traditions believe which disputed books belong in the Bible. Museum staffers say the place for discussing issues such as sexuality and abortion, which aren’t mentioned in the exhibits, might be at events hosted at the museum; Friesen thinks those events are meant to draw in influential people to hear the Greens’ opinions on the culture wars.

“My guess is that they’ve worked very hard at covering what they would like to do, trying to hide the agenda that is behind the museum,” he said, defining that agenda as the promotion of their deep faith in the literal truth of the Bible.

The Bible has shaped cultures from Africa to Asia, Muslim to Mormon. But the 20-member leadership of the museum is almost entirely white, male and evangelical.

Grant Wacker, an expert on Christian history, said that he declined an invitation to join the leadership team because he was asked to sign a statement of faith. Wacker said he considers himself an evangelical Christian but that the statement went too far for him.

“It stressed, shall we say, factual accuracy [of the Bible] more than I could endorse,” he said.

Instead, he agreed to be one of the many scholars from diverse religious traditions to weigh in on drafts of some of the museum displays. The leadership team sought input repeatedly during the three-year construction process from experts from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular backgrounds.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Criticism of the Museum of the Bible Unfair?

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Menachem Wecker asks this question in an article published yesterday at Religion News Service.  Read it here.

Such a question arises for several reasons:

First, the Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open this Fall, is the project of the Green family, the founders of the arts-and-crafts chain store Hobby Lobby. While I am sure that many Americans know the name Hobby Lobby for the store’s fine selection of arts-and-crafts supplies, many also cannot separate the store from the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  In this case, the Court concluded that Hobby Lobby, as a “closely held for-profit corporation,” was exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide certain contraceptives for their female employees.

I had mixed feelings about Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  I do think the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement violates the religious liberty of faith-based groups.  I am with the Little Sisters of the Poor on this.  But I was also troubled that the Court concluded that a corporation could have religious liberty. I wondered if a chain store like Hobby Lobby could really be considered, at least in a theological sense, a “person.”  In July 2014, I wrote a piece for Perspectives on History titled “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident, That All Corporations Are Created Equal.”

But what I think doesn’t matter.  The very fact that the Museum of the Bible is associated with Hobby Lobby and the culture war issues raised by the Burwell case means that it cannot escape, at least for a generation or so, the stigma that it is promoting a religious and political agenda.  I know the Museum of the Bible is trying hard to shake this perception, but I wonder if the uphill climb is just too steep.

Second, the Museum of the Bible, and the Green family specifically, is taking heat for buying stolen artifacts.  Hobby Lobby recently agreed to pay $3 million as part of a settlement for this illegal purchase.  This has tarnished the museum’s reputation in some quarters. It doesn’t look good.

The Museum of the Bible will not appeal to everyone, but it will have a niche audience. It will attract millions of Christians who love the Bible.  Many of these future visitors support the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and will not care about the purchase of the stolen artifacts.

Want to hear more?  I will be discussing the Museum of the Bible in November at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Boston.  I will be part of a panel on a forthcoming book by Candida Moss and Joel Baden, Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.  I also wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Hobby Lobby gives a lot of money to the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste of Wecker’s piece:

Steven Fine, professor of Jewish history and founding director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, agrees that regulation of the sale of antiquities “is quite intense.”

He, too, doesn’t think that the Greens’ beliefs are the problem. In fact, he said they should be more open about their religious motivations.

“The question for me is not whether the Greens have a religious position, but to make sure that they are upfront that their faith positions are the subject of this museum,” he said. “For me, it is just an issue of transparency. Remember that even by saying Bible, Jews hear one thing, Protestants hear another, and Catholics a third.”

Whatever the Greens’ motivations, McGrath of Butler and Thumma of Hartford said neither the family’s religious beliefs nor the manner of acquiring the artifacts is likely to have any effect on the museum’s future success.

“People will still flock to a Museum of the Bible, seeking reassurances that their faith is grounded in history,” McGrath said.

“Those for whom the museum is intended won’t care,” Thumma added, “and will indeed interpret the U.S. attorney’s action as anti-evangelical bias, or maybe even ‘fake news.’”

Read the entire piece here.

Is There Time for Candida Moss and Joel Baden to Add a Postscript to Their New Book on Hobby Lobby?

Hobby LobbyBible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby is scheduled for release in the early fall. (I will be part of a panel on the book in November at the annual meeting of American Academy of Religion in Boston).  I’ll bet Moss and Baden want to add a postscript after recent news that Hobby Lobby, the family-owned company behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., will pay $3 million as part of a settlement after they illegally purchased ancient artifacts stolen from Iraq.

This does not bode well for the reputation of the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in November.  I hope the Green family, the evangelical Christians behind the museum, have some good public relations people.  They are going to need them in the next few months.

Here is Emma Green at The Atlantic:

Hobby Lobby purchased thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of modern-day Iraq via the United Arab Emirates and Israel in 2010 and 2011, attorneys for the Eastern District of New York announced on Wednesday. As part of a settlement, the American craft-supply mega-chain will pay $3 million and the U.S. government will seize the illicit artifacts. Technically, the defendants in the civil-forfeiture action are the objects themselves, yielding an incredible case name: The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae.

Under any circumstances, this case would be wild: It involves thousands of ancient artifacts that seem to have been stolen from Iraq, where the pillaging of antiquities has been rampant. The longstanding trade in antiquities of dubious provenance has become an especially sensitive topic in recent years, and a target of increased law-enforcement scrutiny: ISIS has made some untold millions—or billions—by selling ancient goods. While nothing in the case indicates that these objects were associated with any terrorist group, the very nature of smuggled goods means their provenance is muddy.

But the case really matters because of who’s involved. The members of the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain, are committed evangelical Christians who are probably most famous for their participation in a 2014 Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which helped dismantle certain birth-control-coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The Greens are big collectors of ancient antiquities; they’re also the primary visionaries and contributors behind the Museum of the Bible opening in Washington, D.C., this fall. Steve Green is the chairman of the board. The family’s famous name, now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets, is likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention as they prepare to open their museum.

Read the rest here.

The United States of Hobby Lobby

Hobby LobbyIn October 2017, Joel Baden and Candida Moss will publish Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press).  Here is the publisher’s description:

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, based on a “biblical worldview.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes–and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise.

Bible Nation tells the story of the Greens’ rapid acquisition of an unparalleled collection of biblical antiquities; their creation of a closely controlled group of scholars to study and promote their collection; their efforts to place a Bible curriculum in public schools; and their construction of a $500 million Museum of the Bible near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bible Nation reveals how these seemingly disparate initiatives promote a very particular set of beliefs about the Bible–and raise serious ethical questions about the trade in biblical antiquities, the integrity of academic research, and more.

Bible Nation is an important and timely account of how a vast private fortune is being used to promote personal faith in the public sphere–and why it should matter to everyone.

In November I will be part of a review panel on the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  Here is the session:

S20-246 Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
11/20/2017

1:00 PM to 3:00 PM
Theme: The United States of Hobby Lobby

In this session, invited discussants will respond to Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP, 2017).

Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University, Panelist
Malcolm Choat, Macquarie University, Panelist
Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Institution, Panelist
John Fea, Messiah College, Panelist

Looking forward to it.  Of course I wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

The Museum of the Bible opens this Fall.

A Reader Responds to My Post on Russell Moore’s "Wall Street Journal" Piece on Religious Liberty

John Haas is one of the many thoughtful readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but unless you also follow me on Facebook you often don’t get to read his insightful commentary. (John seldom, if ever, posts in the comments section of the blog.  In fact, some of the best commentary on our blog posts appears on my Facebook feed.  Feel free to follow me over there, but if you do be prepared to see pictures of my daughters playing volleyball and basketball).

Haas teaches history at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana.  Earlier today he had an insightful response on Facebook to the post I published this morning on Russell Moore’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on religious liberty.  So in an attempt to publish more commentary from readers of this blog, here is Haas’s response:
The article–at least the excerpt–is half fantastic, half balderdash.

He’s quite right about Jefferson’s legitimate appeal to those concerned about religious liberty, and how more thinking is required on our part, especially with regard to the hucksters that try (and succeed) to hoodwink the gullible.

But the Baptists actually faced religious establishments that jailed, beat, fined and oppressed them.

That the Hobby Lobby and Hosanna-Tabor cases would even be mentioned as in the same ball park is absurd.

Hobby Lobby: These drugs are not abortifacients (indeed, Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College provided plans that offered them right up to the time that became politically inconvenient). And an insurance plan is the employee’s compensation–it is most decidedly not an employer paying for anything.

As for the H-T case, it’s a very ambiguous one. Cheryl Perich does not fit any common-sense definition of a “minister,” though she was defined as one by the denominational school where she taught. The court decided to do as it has long done (rightly), and refuse to second-guess a church’s definitions of its officers, even in an obviously hard case such as this. But the fact is, nevertheless, she’s a teacher and an employee too, and it was perfectly right for the EEOC to push for employee-protections in her case–that’s their job. Had the case gone the other way, the effect on religious liberty would have been nil (though it arguably would have set a precedent that might have had some deleterious effects down the road).


Have at it.

The "Person" in American History

After the Hobby Lobby case a lot of folks are talking about personhood.  Can a corporation be a person?  I wrote today at Perspectives on History about my concern over how the Supreme Court in this case, and in a lot of previous cases, have treated for-profit corporations as persons.  Several people have contacted me to thank me for the piece.  Others disagree strongly with my take on the case and have let me know!  Over at my Facebook page there is a small conversation/debate going on about the case. In one of the FB comments I tried to clarify my argument in the Perspectives piece.  Here is an edited version of what I wrote there:

It seems to me that the case was rightly decided based on the broad interpretation of the RFRA and the Dictionary Act. The AHA asked me to reflect historically on this case. With that in mind, I still think Madison, Jefferson, Backus, or Williams would find this decision strange. And why wouldn’t they? They lived in a very different time. The point, again, is change over time. That is what I was trying, as a historian, to show in Perspecitves, the official blog of the American Historical Association.

Having said that, I will admit that I close the piece by wondering how Christians can so enthusiastically support the definition of a person as a corporation. I am surprised more Christians are not bothered by this decision. I used to teach a course at Messiah College called Created and Called for Community. In that class I tried to get my students to think about what it means to be a person in the sense that we are created in the image of God, have dignity and worth, have the capacity to reason and exist in the context of community and life with others. This is my theological understanding of a person. And just like many Christians are bothered by the way the state defines “marriage,” I am bothered by the way the state has tried to define a person.. 

I know not all Christians agree with me, but I think it is important to guard this theological idea of personhood against the kinds of market forces that define a person as little more than a consumer. To me, non-profits serve the public good and thus should be granted religious freedom. For-profit corporations exist to accumulate wealth and garner profits. While I don’t deny that a for-profit corporation can also serve the public good and can provide much needed services, most for-profit corporations are not driven by this kind of mission. I still really like Patrick Deneen’s take on this in his piece in the American Conservative magazine. (I link to it in my AHA piece. It is a must read.). Deneen’s piece shows that may concern here is an inherently conservative one. My thoughts here are also informed by several of the essays in Wilfred McClay’s edited volume: Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

If you want to explore the concept of “the person” more deeply and historically, I highly recommend Figures in the Carpet. Bill McClay has put together a fascinating collection of essays on personhood in American history.  Here is book’s jacket description:

What does it mean to be a human person? This volume is a historical inquiry into that foundational, deceptively simple question. Viewing the human person from various perspectives — law, education, business, media, religion, medicine, community life, gender, art — sixteen historians of American life explore how our understanding of personhood has changed over time and how that changing understanding has significantly affected our ideas about morality and human rights, our conversations about public policy, and our American culture as a whole.

Thoughts on Hobby Lobby: Is a Corporation a Person?

The American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History asked me to write a short piece on the Hobby Lobby decision as part of a historians forum on the landmark Supreme Court case.  The forum also includes short essays by Ruth Bloch, Naomi Lamoreaux, and Alonzo Hamby.  My contribution is titled: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all corporations are created equal.” Here is a snippet.

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?
Read the entire post 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.