SCOTUS, Hobby Lobby, and the Problem of Serving Two Masters
The Supreme Court ruled today in a 5-4 decision that the federal government cannot require “closely held corporations” to follow the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employee health plans cover contraceptives, if the use of contraceptives violates company owners’ religious beliefs (source: Slate.) The case was brought by Hobby Lobby, a craft store who claimed that providing certain forms of contraceptives to their employees would violate their, “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Plenty has already been written about the medical and scientific distinctions between contraceptives and abortion, and why taking a pill or inserting an IUD that prevents pregnancy is not the same thing as ending one that’s already began. No one can say with absolute certainty when “life” starts, or what that means, but if we’re talking strictly about the process of fertilization and implementation, and the medical distinction of what abortion does vs. what contraceptives do, this case was never about abortion.
What this was about was “religious freedom.”
Hobby Lobby, and the multitudes of religious conservatives who rallied behind them, claimed that since Hobby Lobby’s owners were Christian, and as Christians they didn’t believe in certain forms of birth control, that the government forcing them to provide this was a form of religious oppression. For this to be true, the court would have to rule that Hobby Lobby – a for-profit corporation – was effectively an “individual” covered under the first Amendment. Hobby Lobby claimed they were, and the SCOTUS today agreed.
In the wake of this decision, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus.
When I first heard that Hobby Lobby was claiming that they were an “individual” that deserved religious liberties, I immediately thought about Matthew 6.
Jesus lays down some hard truths in the book of Matthew, some instructions so difficult that they caused people following him to turn away. One of these hard truths is found in Matthew 6:24 –
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
As individuals, it’s hard enough to follow this teaching – to work diligently to make enough money to pay our bills and be financially responsible – but never making the pursuit of wealth an idol. Money for Christians is never supposed to be thought of as “ours,” but as “God’s”; we’re just supposed to be stewards.
How is a corporation whose main goal is to make a profit supposed to honor this? If your goal is to stay in business and make more money – not money to use for others, like with charity or non-profits, but for yourself and your benefit – how can you claim that God, and not money, is your master? If you’re a businessperson and a Christian you can walk this line, because your job is just a part of who you are, and not essential to your faith. But if you’re essentially saying that the business itself is a person – how does this work? How does this business/person honor both God and money?
Furthermore, if a corporation has religious rights, what does that mean? Does that mean that this corporation is held to the same standards as individual Christians? That corporations are required to love their neighbors as themselves, to seek to lower themselves and lift up others, to confess their sins, to give heartily to God, and to be peacemakers? If so that sounds WONDERFUL. I fully support this. I don’t know if capitalist companies would ever get behind this though. Could you imagine what it would be like, if every “closely-held” Christian company publicly confessed to any sins of greed? If they sought to lift up their competitors instead of themselves? Actually, if enough companies did this I don’t even know how capitalism would work. Maybe that’s because the tenets of business and the tenets of Christianity are generally incompatible -one is about elevating the self, while the other is about putting others first.
But before I get called a communist, there’s another larger point to be made about Hobby Lobby’s claims that their “religious freedoms” were being opposed. The fact that what was being discussed was not a mandate that Hobby Lobby themselves, as Christians, be forced to take contraceptives, but they not be forced to provide them to their employees.
So the crux of the issue comes down to a company not wanting to pay for a medicine that an employee would be prescribed by a doctor, that they themselves would choose to take. There’s no distinction of course that this only applies to Christian employees, who they might feel are held to the same Biblical standards as Hobby Lobby themselves, but all employees. The argument being that, while it’s the employees decision to take the medicine, it would be Hobby Lobby paying for a portion of it.
There’s that whole serving two masters problem again. Now I’m seeing a little better why Jesus isn’t a fan of money, especially in matters of faith.
The dangerous precedent this sets is in saying that Christian companies have a right in how the money their employees spend on healthcare is used. I don’t want to throw the word “Sharia” around, but this is problematic. It puts an elevation on the rights of business over the rights of workers. To use Biblical terms, it hurts the least for the greatest.
It also conflates two things; “religious freedom” and “the right to medical care.” Because birth control = medical care. Pregnancy, while a beautiful, natural thing for some women, is also deadly to others. Either because of physical or psychological risks, financial insecurity, unstable partners, or any number of things that can be deadly for seemingly normal, healthy pregnancies. Women die in childbirth everyday. More in the US than many other countries. So to tell some women that preventing this in effective* ways is not “medical” is wrong.
What is at stake in this case is life, absolutely. Some would say that what’s at stake is the lives of babies who will come into existence if they are able to implant in the uterine wall, and progress without spontaneous abortion/miscarriage. They would say these lives (or potential lives if you don’t believe a fertilized egg is a life) trump the lives of grown, human women. Well, they might not say this, but their actions do. Actions like completely and totally ignoring the right for women to choose for themselves if birth control is best for them. Or actions that say that all pregnancies are a gift, even ones that could lead to permanent, irreversible harm to women.
As a Christian, I believe in life. That’s why I support the Affordable Health Care Act, it’s why I oppose the death penalty, and it’s the whole reason why I believe so strongly in wide-spread affordable access to birth control for women who want it. Both because access to birth control is the proven best way to prevent abortions, and because women’s reproductive health can easily be a life-or-death issue.
Someone on Twitter said that the argument around reproductive health, “wrongly conflates quality of life with protecting the sanctity of life.” This implied that the former didn’t matter as much as the latter. I’d argue that Biblically, this is not true. Jesus wouldn’t have healed the people who came to him if he didn’t care about their quality of life. It’s also hard to rationalize a lack of concern for quality of life with a Bible that spends so many verses on caring for the poor, widows, and orphans. And it’s hard not to see Jesus elevation of the people that had the worst quality of life as intentional. This applies especially to a people group who, in Jesus time, had a terrible quality of life – women.
While on Earth, Jesus fought for women. From the woman he saved from adultery, to the woman at the well, to Mary who he allowed to let down her hair and wash his feet – Jesus treated women with a respect that they were not accustomed to. He valued them. He didn’t treat them as other religious leaders of the day did, as vessels for sin and fleshly corruption – he treated them as children of God.
This is why I don’t believe it’s wrong to care about the quality of life of the women for whom affordable access to birth control is now being threatened. Their lives matter too.
As a married Christian woman who is fully capable of making her own decisions regarding her body and her reproductive health, I don’t see today’s decision as a victory of “religious freedom.” I see it as proof that problems arise when “Christian businesses” try to serve two masters – money (that they see fit to spend as they please) and God. What became evident today is that when Christian businesses try to serve two masters, the person who is hurt most is not God or themselves, but the person they are commanded to love – their neighbors.
That’s the problem – Hobby Lobby saw their female employees who need birth control not as their neighbors, but as their enemies. And this doesn’t seem like something a “Christian” business should do.
*I say “effective” because IUD’s, which the Hobby Lobby family opposes, are the only form of birth control many women with hormonal sensitivities can use. They’re also one of the most affordable, in the long-run.