Other Legal Battles, Supreme Court

Jesus and Hobby Lobby

If I had argued the Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court back in March, my opening statement would’ve gone something like this: “This case is about God and money, and how Jesus said that you cannot serve both.”

Or maybe like this: “This case is about Christians and government, and how believers are called by their Master to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s.”

This one’s good, too: “This case is about Jesus and women, and how he elevated their status in a patriarchal society that viewed them as second-class citizens.”

I can probably think of others.

Not sure how the justices would’ve reacted to any of those openers, but the court’s controversial decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby—ruling that a closely held corporation can have deeply held beliefs and deny contraceptive coverage based on those beliefs—made me think about what Jesus would have made of the debacle. Wasn’t this a win for religious liberty after all?

The Supreme Court doesn’t shy away from the subject. Just this past term, in Town of Greece v. Holloway, it sided with a New York town in upholding its practice to open its townhall meetings with prayer—a custom the court ruled consistent with American tradition and not at odds with the First Amendment.

That ruling, widely praised by evangelicals, too made me think of its implications for religious liberty. For many—for me—religion is something deeply personal and sacred, reserved for moments of devotion or the sanctuary. But Town of Greece was a sweeping decision, reaffirming the notion held by some of America as a “Christian nation.”

So, W.W.J.D.?

The biblical record offers some clues. Jesus was big on prayer, but a minimalist about it. The Lord’s prayer is about 70 words long. The Gospels have no record of him praying on government premises. In the face of Pontius Pilate—one of the few times he stepped on government property—he barely mustered a word. He preferred quiet prayer, in the wee hours of the morning, all by himself. In a parable denouncing self-righteousness, he took issue with religious leaders who prayed pompously, within earshot of those they viewed as less-than-holy.

The narratives that have emerged from the Hobby Lobby ruling—religious liberty, the rights of women vis-à-vis faith-based corporations—are also curious in light of what Christ stood for, or didn’t stand for.

Laying aside whether Christ would’ve cheered the outcome of a Roman tribunal—Hobby Lobby is being hailed as a major victory by Christians—Christ had little interest in advancing political agendas or mounting challenges to the imperial regime. When asked whether it was right to pay taxes to the Roman emperor, he minced no words: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (The Pharisees, who depended largely on the charity of their Jewish parishioners for sustenance, were not pleased.)

The profit-growing corporate structure hadn’t been conceived at the time, but that didn’t keep Christ from talking about money. A lot.

A young, rich man had the letdown of his life when Jesus told him that the “one thing” he lacked to inherit the Kingdom was to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. After the episode, Christ famously said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In Christ’s economy, love of God and mammon couldn’t coexist. Years later, the apostle Paul would write to his friend Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”—another popular adage.

But it wasn’t money in the abstract that Jesus took issue with, but the accumulation of it. He’d much rather his followers “store up treasures in heaven” than on earth, where it holds a corruptible power. When merchants and money changers set up shop in the temple, Jesus wouldn’t have any of it; he turned over tables in anger.

And Christ was a feminist par excellence. Perhaps not the kind that would show at pro-choice rallies. But he was unafraid to look women in the eye, have a conversation with them, and remind them of the value that centuries of paternalism took away from them. That included his mother. His friends Mary and Martha. The Samaritan woman at the well. The woman who touched the hem of his robe. The mothers of the many children he healed. He shunned not one of them. He treated them all with dignity. Religious leaders wanted the death penalty for an adulteress “caught” in the act—curiously, her co-defendant was nowhere to be found—but Christ issued no condemnation. Not one stone was cast.

All of this came to mind as Christians rallied around Hobby Lobby and its owners, entrenching themselves deeper in a culture war with government, federal law, and women in need of contraceptive access.

Probably none of these points were raised in the court filings leading up to the Supreme Court’s pronouncement, or would have mattered much to the justices. But they should at least give people of faith reason to pause and ponder. Is this warfare what Christ had in mind when he called them the “salt of the Earth” and the “light of the world”?

Because embracing religious liberty is one thing. Taking Caesar to court over it is quite another.


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