Hobby Lobby made the "news" yet again when Jonathan Merritt, former SBC wunderkind and now RNS columnist and exceptional commentator, took them to task for calling themselves a "Christian company" while purchasing products from China. It's an old discussion around Oklahoma, where the behemoth is headquartered, and due in large part to the company's influence here, they tend to get a pass on buying products to sell "on sale" that were likely produced by children and/or slave labor, including people of faith who have been imprisoned for their refusal to register their churches.
The piece wasn't news per se; it was a commentary, and to his credit, Merritt asked for a critical response from Russell Moore, executive director of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore took over last year from the serial plagiarist Richard Land, and as is the case with the highest echelons of SBC leadership, Moore is a politician more than a minister. That orientation could not be more clear from his response to Merritt. Before we get to that, though, a few words on Merritt's piece.
Just reading the comments on the RNS piece is enough to induce despair in the most happy go lucky of philosophy professors, and it reveals with a high degree of clarity that conservative fundangelicalism has reached a new low in critical engagement. Setting aside the folks who could not disengage their own biases from Merritt's piece and who gleefully indulged in ad hominem, strawman, bandwagon, and red herring fallacies, we are still left to wonder why Merritt's piece creates such controversy.
Companies are not Christian. Surely the most elementary definition of "christian" makes this clear. If we begin with the notion that a Christian is a person, we are left to marvel that anyone thinks a company possesses the necessary soulishness or imago dei to be saved by grace (or by grace and works, Catholic friends). The designation is unfortunate, and, quite frankly, sloppy. What is likely meant is that a company's owner has the right to create the value system, within the law, that the owner deems most in line with the owner's values, such that a Christian owner can make conditions of employment and human resource-related policies consistent with the owner's religious convictions.
This seems like a good idea initially. After all, the employer assumes the risks of starting and running a business, and this is America, damnit, and so she should be able to run her company the way she sees fit as long as the laws are followed. However, mixing the grammar (and vocabulary) of Christianity with the grammar (and vocabulary) of business is a horrible idea if you mean to be a Christian in any meaningful way. If you mean to be an American or a capitalist first, by all means, mix away.
What is most troubling in this part of the discussion is the idea that a "Christian company" should be treated like a religious charity or church, where non-discrimination laws are waived for very good reason (e.g., a church should not be penalized for refusing to hire a Muslim organist, etc.). A for-profit business should not receive the same protections as a religious charity or organization, primarily because they exist to make a profit, which is to say that they should not be given preferential treatment or protections just because the owner is of a particular religious persuasion. The employees of a for-profit company should be able to reasonably expect that their Constitutional rights will be respected, and that their employer will follow all applicable local, state, and federal laws. No employee should be expected to accept employment with the condition that certain provisions of the Constitution or applicable laws don't apply to them.
Additionally, the idea that companies have certain rights typically afforded to individuals is at the heart of the utterly awful Citizens United decision. That a company receives First Amendment protections related to freedom of speech in terms of political donations almost guarantees that SCOTUS will be consistent and grant that companies have protections related to the other clause: freedom of religion. For reasons that Citizens United makes obvious, this is a dangerous trend for actual individual liberties, and that people of faith are supporting rights related to the second clause while protesting the same rights related to the first only shows the shallow nature of reflection amongst certain tribes of theists. Rarely is self-interest in ethics so obvious.
So, speaking of ethics, we turn to Russell Moore and his response to Merritt. First things first: Merritt is not guilty of a red herring line of questioning. Moore only assumes so because Moore has mixed his categories. Merritt is talking about Christianity; Moore is talking about U.S. economic policy. Again, the leadership of the SBC is primarily political, not ministerial. That Moore cannot address this issue without first insisting that capitalism is the best way to handle the China problem is a key indicator that he means to defend capitalism first, followed by Christianity filtered through the lens of free market capitalism. That America has a long history of enriching tyrants and dictators at the expense of the poor and the marginalized—you know, Jesus' favorite people—is happily ignored by Moore, primarily because he is shaped by Reagan (and contextually, Nixon) more than Jesus. Call that ad hominem if you wish, but I think he condemns himself with his own response far more thoroughly than I do.
At this point, it's easy to skip a huge chunk of his response because much of it is dedicated to talking about the best way to change the politico-economic climate of China rather than addressing Merritt's actual points. Moore treats Merritt like a naive reactionary rather than like a thoughtful commentator who wonders how allegiance to Jesus ought to influence a so-called Christian company's treatment of the poor. Moore's answer: give the manufacturers and politicians more money so they'll treat laborers and peasants more equitably. Did he mean to be a textbook example of the sort of douchebaggery Marx and Engels were writing about?
Finally, Moore helpfully points out that the Christian moral tradition—you know, the singular one that he apparently inherited, not the polyvocal one that actually exists—has always distinguished between direct involvement in sin and "living in a world in which sin exists." Uh, yeah, nice, but that's not the issue, Mr. False Dichotomy. Indirect involvement in sin is a third way here, and Moore ignores it because he's too obtuse to see it or too political to be honest. (Guess which one I believe.) What Moore is saying here is that his experience of the Christian moral tradition ignores all input from the Anabaptists, Catholic social justice practitioners, African American activist/theologians like Dr. King and James Cone, and post-liberal geniuses like Walter Wink. Good to know that the Christian moral tradition is most embodied in Southern, conservative, evangelical crackers.
Finally, for the second time, is Moore aware that Baptists have historically been concerned about individuals created in the image of God? A defense of China and of companies that purchase from Chinese slaves that takes the "long view" is not a defense in the spirit of Jesus, nor is it in the Baptist tradition. Some of those individuals will be dead before (if) policies are changed. They will live and die in squalor, poverty, and slavery, and their souls will know no rest. He is defending a company that makes profits off the very people the prophets said God loves, and he is defending American economic policy that treats systems as more important than people—a sort of theological breaking eggs to make an omelette argument. Exactly which Baptist tradition is Moore speaking in defense of?