Personhood v. Personification

After I nattered on Facebook in response to the recent Supreme Court ruling that Hobby Lobby has a right to free exercise of  a religion (and can, therefore, deny coverage for certain kinds of birth control to its employees), a friend asked me to put it in a more sharable form.

So here we go–my wisdom on the whole deal, such as it is.

I think the question of birth control, which spins out into a thousand other questions, is mostly irrelevant. Some have pointed out that Hobby Lobby was willing to cover certain kinds of birth control, but not ones that it believed, based on some shaky science, to be abortifacient. Another comment I’ve seen a bunch is that hormonal birth control is used to treat illnesses like PCOS, not just to prevent pregnancy. Still others point out that no one has to work at Hobby Lobby (although, seriously, have you seen the economy lately??). I would argue that none of these points matter at all in the bigger scheme of the case and what it says about life in the US of A.

The part of the ruling that I find deeply offensive is the idea that a corporation could be a religious person. Corporations are entities created exclusively to seek profits. They do not have a conscience. They don’t experience mortality. Can a corporation be baptized? How big of a pool would you need for that, exactly.

As a religious person, the idea that a corporation could have a profound faith in Christ (or in anything) is offensive. It treats as cheap and marketable something that many people have paid for with their lives. What I get angry about in the Hobby Lobby case isn’t just women’s rights (although there is a place for some anger over that, too), but human rights. We must defend what it means to be human, demarcate and adhere to those boundaries with all that we have, or we’re going to get creamed by the increasing power of the corporate money machine (and/or our robot overlords). Here’s what it means to be human: We are born, live, and die. We commit our lives to each other in exchange for intangibles–other people’s lives, other people’s commitments. We may, or may not, have faith in something bigger than ourselves. Whatever we believe about the larger truths of the universe inflect the decisions we make each day. Our financial bottom line is only one of many factors that influence our decisions–and not the most important one, for many of us. We make mistakes. We change direction. We balance nuance, not a balance sheet. We are all, one way or another, underdogs.

If corporations are people–individuals, with the same rights to freedom of expression as actual living humans–then what does it even mean to be a person?

I don’t deny that it is entirely possible that many people in the ownership and management structure of Hobby Lobby have deeply held beliefs that would prevent them from using birth control for their own family planning. The point is that corporations exist to create a separation between private life and business. This has some benefits–if someone sues your business, the business’ assets may be seized, but you keep your house (in most cases. I think. I’m not a lawyer). It also means sacrificing a certain element of control. When you found a corporation, that corporation is subject to the laws that govern everybody. If you run a diner and you have a religious conviction about preventing people of different races from sitting together you are not allowed to act on that conviction in the context of your business. It sounds absurd, but not so long ago, there were preachers insisting from the pulpit that God meant for black people to sit in the back of the bus. Regardless of your own convictions, you can’t have a segregated section for non-white people in your diner because your corporation couldn’t physically and literally sit on the pew next to you and hear that sermon and nod along. It can’t have religious convictions because it is a legal construct. God never breathed life into it. It doesn’t have a soul.

What would Jesus do? Render unto Caesar and get on with his person-to-person ministry.


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