All American Corporations Go to Heaven

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. hobby-lobby1In 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.


Nightmare and Prayer

Today has been strange. As is so often the case, a strange day is a product of an even stranger night, but the particular quality of my current displacement and discomfort (psychic, geographic, and philosophical) is difficult to connect directly to the last night's nocturnal adventure. So let's ease into the weird by beginning from the present and moving backwards.

I'm sitting in the elegant but unusually dark lobby of a large hotel on the banks of the Willamette River, on an island in that river, in fact. Outside the rain that has been falling all day seems to have lost some of its passion and settled into a bored, blue-collar drizzle against the massive windows that surround the room. The large, oddly breast-shaped chandeliers are on but can't compete with the flat grayness that stretches all the way down each window to a fog on the surface of the river.

I'm waiting for my room to be ready. I'm here for the annual Representative Assembly of the state chapter of my union, the Oregon Education Association. I serve on a committee that was tasked to write a plan to educate the public about the importance of public school teachers in order to inoculate Oregon against the virulent anti-teacher fever that has been afflicting other states recently, and to prepare our own members should Oregon come down with the disease. I've never attended the RA before, nor have I participated in presenting a document of this kind on the floor of a large, formal assembly in this way, so I'm out of my element.

And I'm also not in my room because it's still not ready. I knew I would show up too early for the room. Most folks are coming in this evening because they have to teach a full day today, but our district had to cut days out of the school year because of budgetary concerns. I'm here early to stand up for teachers because schools are already embattled enough that my services as a teacher were not required today. That is the opposite of irony.

Because I knew there would be no school today, and because I hate to miss work for doctor's appointments, I scheduled my annual skin check at the dermatologist for this morning. I'm genetically predisposed to a particularly aggressive kind of skin cancer, so I go in annually to have an expert measure my moles to make sure they aren't growing or changing color. I strip down to my boxers and he takes pictures of my legs, back, and chest. Then he measures each mole in millimeters with a ruler, notes the sizes in my chart, and, assuming he doesn't feel the need to remove another with a miniature apple corer, sends me on my way. It's something I have to do just frequently enough that it never feels normal.

After the appointment I drove up here to the hotel. I was pretty sure I knew how to find it, but I wanted to try out the GPS function on my new phone. While I listened to a book on tape, a woman's urgent voice interrupted to tell me that she kept losing touch with the satellite. She didn't tell me that they patched up their relationship, but she continued giving me directions, so I assumed that her troubled marriage wouldn't prevent me from reaching my destination. Then I found myself on a bridge entering the state of Washington. It seemed entirely implausible that the Oregon Education Association would have its largest meeting if the year out-of-state, so I turned around. The woman on my phone must have felt terrible about letting her personal issues get in the way of doing her job, because once she started giving me directions again she hyper-focused in the neighborhood in Vancouver, Washington where I'd decided to turn around. When I was back in Oregon and in the parking lot of the hotel, she was still trying to tell me how to make the proper U-turn to find the freeway. I really hope she works things out with the satellite before I need her help again, because she's lost without him.

Too early to check in, I got some lunch at Taco Bell. Still too early, I went back to my car and took a nap in the driver’s seat. I am a very good napper. The ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime is my most impressive talent. Thanks to the assistance of the Taco Bell lunch, I had a strange dream that may become the seed of a small town murder mystery novel someday.

When I woke up I was completely disoriented. With my stocking cap pulled down over my eyes, my clues about my whereabouts consisted of my strange position in the reclined driver's seat, the heat of my winter coat and the comparative cold around my belly button where it had ridden up, and the plinking of large drops of water falling from the pine trees onto the roof of my car.

I reached back into my memory for some sense of my location, and this is what I found: I was not in the same place I was when I woke up from the nightmare last night, but I was equally unsure where I was.

I rarely have dreams. Or, to be more precise, I probably dream just as much as anyone else but rarely have dreams worthy of remembering, and almost never have dreams vivid enough to wake me up. Even the plot if today's cop drama is evaporating... Yes, there it goes, another genre I'll probably never try my hand at now. Last night's dream was, in every way I can think of, exceptional.

It wasn't a nightmare. Not at first, anyway. Upon waking one never knows how much of a dream was experienced and how much was exposition, but in the dream I understood that I was the director of a play on Broadway. I also knew it was a revival of something so well known, and which had been done so successfully before, that my attempt to bring it to the stage was probably doomed to failure. So instead of putting the play on again in exactly the way the audience would expect, I decided to present an interpretation depicting the dramatization of a production of the play. “Meta” is very “in” after all. So, not only was I the director, but I was an actor playing the director. Just as the play within the play was reaching its climax, the play about the production spiraled into a chaos of bodies crawling around in white, tattered robes flashing in strange lighting that made them look ghostly. I, as an actor playing the director, crouched on my knees watching the play my character was trying to direct, and these ghost figures pulled on my clothes, tugging me in every direction while I tried to shout, “Get away from me! Get away from me!” (I don’t think it’s the best line, but I guess I was not the writer.) Though I have a loud voice, I’d chosen to act like I was so scared I could hardly cry out. The words strained through my throat in a molasses moan.

But I wasn’t afraid. I was enjoying the fact that the audience was eating it up. Instead of another bored re-telling of a story they knew by heart, they were enthralled by the frightening image of a director trying to bring that story to them and being torn apart by the impossibility of the task. It was going really well.

Suddenly I couldn’t feel the hands of the other actors. I couldn’t hear their screams and wails. I couldn’t hear the music coming from the pit. The white lights, not quite a strobe because they flashed inconsistently, now disappeared entirely. In the total darkness I could only feel one hand on my shoulder, and instead of pulling at my clothes it was pushing me gently.

“Ben?” My wife’s voice, barely a whisper, slid through the darkness. “Ben, you were making noise like you were having a scary dream.”

I think I grunted.

“You sounded really scared.”

I knew that I hadn’t been. But now I was. I couldn’t remember what play I’d been responsible for putting on. Was this part of it? If so, I couldn’t remember what to do next. What was my line? What was my blocking? Where was the audience? Where was I?

Now I was terrified. I didn’t respond to my wife but looked around and ticked-off the clues that led me to slowly deduce I was in my bed, in my room, in my house. But that didn’t alleviate my fear. What had the play been? Was I still responsible for it?

I went to the bathroom, drank some water, and tromped down the stairs. There was not time for ninja-style tip-toeing. The screen of my laptop fills the living room with an ethereal light. I was in no mood for that. I flicked on the kitchen light before plopping down to write a description of my dream-turned-nightmare.

That was 3:13 am.

Now I’ve slept in my car and am ready for tonight’s events. But I can’t shake the feeling. The terror has stopped flowing, but, in its stillness, a fuzzy, slimy anxiety has grown along the bottom of my consciousness. Since last night’s performance, I’ve already played so many roles. Some were more genuine than others. I was the father and husband saying goodbye before a short trip. I was the careful driver on a rainy freeway. But some roles required more acting ability than I actually possess. I pretended to be the kind of person who isn’t bothered when a right-wing friend posts demonstrably erroneous jabs on his Facebook page, but succeeded only in stewing about my biting reply all day. I tried to act like the kind of patient who feels completely comfortable when nearly-naked in a doctor’s examination room but only barely managed to swallow my nervous jokes. I smiled and said it was no problem when the first reception desk clerk told me my room wasn’t ready, and that was the truth. I was hungry anyway. I told the second it was no problem even though it meant I’d be taking a nap in my car instead of a bed, then smiled and told the third I didn’t mind after I woke up. By then I was acting, although I would also have been acting if I’d decided to play the role of the guy who vents his frustration at the completely innocent desk clerk. My smiles only grew into overly-amiable shams as the afternoon wore on.

Tonight I’ll play a new role. I’ll stand with the other members of my committee in front of six hundred people and take credit or blame for the report we’ve written. It will be a bit of improv. Then I’ll go to a reception where I’ll pretend to be comfortable among those same six hundred strangers. Depending on the way they receive the report, my props may have higher alcohol contents.

And then I will go to bed in a hotel room. If I was discombobulated while waking from dreams first in my own room, then in my car, I can only assume I’ll be more confused staring at a ceiling I’ve never seen before, surrounded by soft wallpaper and under the gaze of what I predict will be either an inoffensive piece of neutered modern art or a near-sighted expressionist’s landscape of a farm.
But before I sleep, I’ll play one other role. I’ll be the macro-blogger who desperately wants to believe that someone reads ridiculously long posts on their computer screens. I’ll toss up this whole story. And then I’ll say a little digital prayer.

“Hello, you gods of high speed internet and Buddhas of dial-up. It’s me, Ben. If you’re there Yahweh or Quetzalcoatl or Vishnu or Cthulu, could you do me a favor? Please don’t wait until I am asleep to reach over and shake me awake. Be gentle, but let me know what play I’m in. Thanks.”