Have you ever had the experience of telling a story to a friend and, only during the act of telling it, you fully realized what it meant or why it was relevant to the topic at hand? When I started writing The Sum of Our Gods, I was at the tail end of the process of losing my own Christian faith, and I was self-aware enough to realize that the story was part of that process. I didn’t fully realize what the story was really about until I revised it. Now, in the light of a news story that is just starting to get the attention it deserves, and after my book is in print and getting into people’s hands, I finally see just how relevant it is. In case you missed it, a private company called Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., has successfully worked its way through the lower courts and will have their case heard by the Supreme Court. Their contention is that, since the Citizens United case established that corporations have at least some of the rights of individual human beings, those rights should extend to allow companies to invoke their religious beliefs in order to get a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act so that the owners don’t have to foot the bill for medical insurance that might be used by some of their employees who want to buy birth control. I’m not making this up. That’s really what they want.
And this case has just been accepted by the Supreme Court. The highest court in the land! This is not some tiny court with a wacky judge who hands out an absurd punishment that makes the local news, or even a state court that gives out a very large settlement in a civil suit which serves as anecdotal evidence for people who argue for tort reform (despite the fact that fear of civil suits and large settlements stands in for weak government regulation and makes almost every product we buy safer for consumers). No, this is the Supreme-fucking-Court! Either way, their ruling will have the force of law for the entire nation and will make precedent that will last until Congress acts (try not to laugh) or a future court overturns it. This is the real deal.
And yet, I’m not hearing any significant public outcry about this case. We live in a country where people complain if greeters at Target say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” (or vice versa), but this isn’t earning the same outrage? That’s madness! And now I see that it’s exactly the kind of absurdity I was trying to point out in my novel.
Luckily, I didn’t know about this case when I wrote the book. The novel is, by and large, light-hearted and fun. Had I known, it may have curdled into an angry diatribe. Why? Because this should piss just about everyone off if they would just stop and think about it for two seconds.
Now, you’re going to hear a lot about women’s rights to make their own decisions about their healthcare choices, and that’s a legitimate argument. You’ll also hear some talk about a slippery slope. Personally, I don’t go in for those as a rule. A slippery slope is a logical fallacy. A decision to move to position X does not necessarily mean a slide to position Y and then Z. People will point out that a company could use this same rationale to try to justify other forms of workplace discrimination. What if the owners of a company are opposed to same-sex relationships on religious grounds? Could they invoke the company’s religion to fire those employees? What if the company’s religion dictates that the planet should be preserved from ecological destruction? Could they fire employees who have gas-guzzling cars? Certainly we could imagine a thousand ways that this kind of proposition could be abused, but we don’t have to worry about positions Y and Z, because X is far enough, and I’m not just talking about the affront to the autonomy of female employees. The very foundation of this argument should have us (all of us, people of faith and those who live with them) howling with rage.
If a company has the rights of an individual, and those rights extend to a religious preference, then we are making a statement as a country that we believe companies can participate in religion as individuals. What does that entail? Does a company get baptized? Does it pray? Does it worship a deity? If so, does the deity recognize it as a single adherent? Ultimately, does the company have a soul that can be sanctified? Will Walmart go to heaven?
If this seems absurd to you, consider how much we allow beliefs like these to have sway over our society. This instance involves a relatively discrete set of circumstances; companies refusing to participate in the ACA. But we don’t have to go down the slippery slope into some dark dystopia to contemplate all the other absurdities that religious belief brings into our lives, whether we hold those beliefs or not. In a few short days I will have a tree inside my house. Why will I be bringing this bit of the outdoors inside? Because the people of one religion danced around a maypole in cold German winters to ask their gods for fertility, and the people of another religion decided to make that symbol their tradition, and my family took it on generations ago, and now it’s mine. It’s fun and beautiful and provides a meaningful connection to my childhood memories, but I’d be a fool if I didn’t acknowledge that it’s also fundamentally silly. So if that bit of ridiculousness can infiltrate so many of our homes every year, why should we think that the idea of companies recognized by the government as single spiritual entities will not become an equally acceptable part of our national dogma?
So here is where we find ourselves: Either a preponderance of Christians find this notion of corporate person-hood compatible with their beliefs about the relationship between God and human beings, or they don’t. I just don’t think there’s a lot of gray area in between. If they do, that has significant theological implications that should be acknowledged. God may sanctify your company. Or He may not. Do all the employees of a Christian company go to heaven? Did Jesus die on the cross to save Citibank and GE? If a company goes bankrupt, was it always predestined to go bankrupt? Should Christian companies obey Jesus’ edict to take all they have and give it to the poor? Perhaps Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., should address that question. My guess is that they would say that they are planning on divesting of every penny as soon as they figure out a way to make sure none of the poor will use that money for abortions.
Or companies are not individuals with religious rights, in which case we live in a country where Christians dominate our political landscape and, when faced with a proposition that would fundamentally undermine their concept of the soul and its relationship to the divine, they yawn. Or worse, they are willing to tolerate that insult to their faith if it gets them a win on a social issue or needles the President’s healthcare plan.
I went pretty easy on Christianity in my novel. Though I’m not a Christian any more, I love a lot of Christians, and I still hold a great deal of respect for them. I knew, going in, that many of these people would be pained even by my gentle ribbing of their faith. I know some of them pray for my soul. I sincerely appreciate their concern, and I’m sorry that my lack of faith hurts them. So I didn’t beat up on their religion.
But now I want to make something very clear to anyone who wants me to ever take their religion seriously: Figure this out first. Does your religion say that Walmart or Bank of America is on equal footing with real, live human beings in the eyes of your god? If so, (and you’ll have to pardon my language, but as a writer I’m bound to use the correct words) fuck that noise. If Saint Peter wants to write my name in his ledger underneath Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., I think I’ll find some other after-life abode, thank you very much. On the other hand, if your particular deity of choice doesn’t treat corporations as if they were people, did you stand idly by while the courts allowed that to be the legal interpretation of the country? Why? Because you couldn’t be bothered? Because preventing women from buying birth control was that important to you? Or did you just feel there was nothing you could do? Your god couldn’t or wouldn’t put a stop to it?
If this goes through, it will only shore up my fervent agnosticism which dictates that the universe is either run by no one in particular or by powers I cannot comprehend. If Christians want to convince me that the universe is orderly and overseen by a deity who loves all individuals, they’d better decide if those individuals include Walmart.