Friday, September 6, 2013

It Is Not Just the Politicians

In the last blog post, I described the exploitation of Jesus Christ by politicians to secure electoral advantage.  I wanted to be fair and note that I don't by any means believe only politicians exploit the Son of Man for earthly gain.  I'm a former corporate lawyer and professor of business law.  One of my points of consternation is when Jesus's name is exploited in the marketplace.

Sometimes it is subtle.  Maybe someone uses the ichthys (or "Christian fish") symbol in their marketing.  I did not used to think that was too bad.  But I began to ponder what they were really trying to communicate with such marketing.  I believe it is something along the lines of "I'm a Christian, so buy from me."  In other words, they are trying to gain an advantage in the marketplace through invocation of Jesus.

The advantage chiefly comes through one of two main forms.  On the one hand, it appeals to other Christians to do business within the community: "You're like me, so I'll buy from you."  But that is not appropriate.  Christianity is not a ticket to an elite country club.  The salt of the earth is not supposed to just hang out with other salt.  We're charged to go out into the world. 

Further, the appeal to stick within the community can have bigoted overtones.  Historically, it has been charged that such appeals are anti-Semitic.  As our Lord was Jewish, and as there is a long, violent history of Christian anti-Semitism, we need to be particularly wary of that.  But in the modern era, encouragement to give preferential business treatment to other Christians can be seen as bigotry against entrepreneurs of different faiths--Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc.  We're to be known by our love, not our bigotry and exclusion.

The other way entrepreneurs try to gain an advantage through invocation of the ichthys or other Christian references is to use it as a means to vouch for their business scruples.  In other words, "I'm a Christian, so you can trust me."  In general, my husband is a lot more skeptical and less trusting than I am.  When someone uses symbols or words to express their Christian faith in order to gain someone's trust, alarm bells go off in his brain.  Over the years, I've come to respect this hesitancy of his. 

Some good friends of ours seem to put great emphasis on the Christian label in the way that my husband never would.  That label seems to be one of the reasons they first were drawn to be our friends because at first blush we don't actually have all that much in common.  Though they put a lot of emphasis on the Christian label, I am often puzzled by their faith.  They go to church only very sporadically and never pray before meals, their home doesn't seem to have any evidence of faith, and they often say things that seem to express deeply held secular values in conflict with the Gospel.  Yet, the Christian label means a lot to them.  So much that a while back they entered into a business deal with a man largely based on his representation that he was a Christian.  To them, this meant trustworthiness.  Invoking the label "Christian" was a like a code for "I'm the right kind of person to do business with."  Had my husband been in their shoes, such a representation in that context would have been a huge red flag.  And it turns out, for good reason.  The business deal quickly went bad.  The man had hidden the fact that he was a wanted felon.  There was evidence of illegal drug use, domestic violence and other awful things.  Eventually the man skipped town to evade the police, leaving our friends with a horrible mess to clean up.

Beyond such subtle use of symbols, these days other businesses may use their faith in perhaps more obvious ways.

Chick-fil-A is a high profile example.  The private corporation's CEO, S. Truett Cathy, is a Southern Baptist and that faith has been important in the corporate culture.  Their official statement of corporate purpose includes the goal: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.  To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A."  In line with his faith, Mr. Cathy has made sure that the company's restaurants are closed on Sundays, which is unusual in the American market place.  To be clear, I personally don't believe the decision was made in order to exploit Jesus to gain an advantage in the marketplace.  However, I do believe that an advantage is nonetheless achieved in this way.  I myself know a lot of folks who favor the restaurant for this business decision, as well as other indicia of being a "Christian business."

Another high profile example is Hobby Lobby, whose website describes the business with a lot of religious references:  Of four commitments listed, the first is "[h]onoring the Lord in all we do by operating in a manner consistent with biblical principles."  The website also indicates it is closed on Sundays.  However, the business has gain attention recently because it has sued over regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. "Obamacare").  Specifically, the company objects to required coverage of emergency contraceptives (a.k.a. the "morning after-pill"). 

Personally, I respect very much those who value the sanctity of life, and I deeply admire those who would potentially sacrifice financially to be true to their deepest values.  However, the pragmatic attorney side of me is skeptical about this particular lawsuit. 

The reality is that the "morning after pill" is used in just a small number of cases.  Unlike birth control pills or condoms, most women will never use the "morning after pill" because it only works in limited contexts.  It can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy from happening.  Specifically, the pill prevents ovaries from releasing an egg.  If it does not leave the ovary, an egg cannot be fertilized by sperm.  The "morning after pill" is thus appropriately labeled "contraception," and not "abortion." Unlike the former, the latter removes a fertilized egg from a woman's body.  Although there is disagreement over when human life begins, the earliest definition is fertilization of an egg by a sperm.  No one asserts that an unfertilized egg or a solo sperm is equivalent to a human being.

Further, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, most Christians would not assert that there is a moral imperative to allow an egg to be released from an ovary such that fertilization might occur.  As a former Catholic, I can vouch that even most practicing Catholics disagree with this official teaching.  Indeed, when my husband and I went through the church's marriage preparation classes, the couple teaching the course professed bewilderment over that teaching and indicated they had not followed it in planning their own family.  This was quite telling as the wife taught in the church's parochial school, the couple were active and well-respected in the church, and they were close friends with the pastor.  These were not casual mass attenders, but the lay backbone of the church.

It is important to note that because of its limited utility, the "morning after pill" is typically intended to be used when a woman's primary contraceptive fails (e.g., a condom breaks) or in the case of rape.  Even many people who are opposed to abortion would allow an exception in the case of rape. 

Due to these circumstances, I myself wonder about the sincerity of the Hobby Lobby lawsuit over the Affordable Care Act.  Perhaps I am wrong, but my suspicion is that the company is raising the issue of religious freedom as a ruse to avoid having to provide costly health insurance to its employees.  Indeed, I've known a number of fans of the store who've been sympathetic to the corporation's position because of the invocation of religious freedom.  These same folks would likely not be as sympathetic if the issue were framed in a different way, e.g., eating into corporate profits to provide health care to workers.

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