Is Bad Theology Partly Responsible for Hobby Lobby's Plight?

I'm not referring to Hobby Lobby's theology, but rather to a common Protestant mistake that's plagued Christian life for generations.

The Internet is aflame with discussions of whether private businesses have sufficient grounds for resisting state efforts to tell them which contraceptives they must provide employees or which customers they must serve. Underlying the entire discussion is the virtually unquestioned notion that for-profit businesses should enjoy less liberty than non-profits. When it came to the abortion-pill mandate, for example, the Obama administration at least went through the motions of providing religious accommodations, but private businesses enjoyed not even this false grace. Regarding same-sex marriage, the law is not (yet) requiring religious participation in homosexual unions. Why the distinction?

I wonder if, oddly enough, the distinction is in part the result of lingering Christian influence in our culture - part of a legacy of an old yet popular theological mistake, the sacred/secular distinction in work and life.

For many generations, Christians have persisted in the belief, for example, that a calling to the pulpit represented a higher call or greater purpose than a calling to the cubicle. In other words, the work of the church (teaching Sunday Schools, serving in soup kitchens, keeping the nursery) has been seen as higher in purpose than the work we do for our living (building a car, keeping a company's books, repairing plumbing). One kind of work is sacred - the Lord's work - the other kind is not.

This distinction is so prevalent that amongst certain Evangelicals, you can sense a barely-restrained eagerness to get out of the secular workforce as soon as possible - to move as quickly as possible into the "Lord's work." This is a partial explanation for the plethora of tiny ministries, the place where many Evangelicals pour the entirety of their entrepreneurial efforts.

I recall speaking to a group of Christian law students at a top law school. At the outset I asked how many wanted to work for a law firm (the lawyer's classic for-profit endeavor). Not a hand went up. I then asked how many wanted to work in "public service" for the government or a nonprofit. Every hand was raised.

I found that profoundly sad and misguided. The odds were only a small fraction of those students would land the job they craved, while many of the rest would go on to live lives dominated by years of frustration and anger - with one eye constantly on the door looking for opportunities that will not come, believing their lives and talents are wasted on the secular when they were born for the sacred.

Is it any wonder then, in a nation long-dominated by the Protestant culture (I'm picking on Protestants because I'm most familiar with Protestant theology), that for-profit work would be seen as something less precious, something less worthy of protection from state interference? After all, Hobby Lobby and other businesses find themselves before the Supreme Court only after decades of regulations that have systematically stripped from business owners a plethora of liberty interests that churches and para-church ministries often take for granted. In many ways, the for-profit business owner can barely even be said to control his or her own business. It's as if the effort to make money is seen as inherently morally suspect, requiring much closer government oversight.

This false sacred/secular distinction is particularly distressing given the real-world effects of free enterprise - with billions lifted out of poverty, life-expectancies extended, and quality of life at a level unrecognizable to individuals who lived even a century ago. Is a soup kitchen a morally superior enterprise to a company that provides its employees with meaningful work and a livelihood?

To be clear, I'm not saying this is a sufficient explanation for the non-profit/for-profit distinctions, but it is perhaps one reason why Americans have acquiesced in the continual encroachments on for-profit liberty.

Bad ideas have consequences.

This column was first published on Patheos at The French Revolution.

David French is Senior Counsel and Director of Digital Advocacy at the American Center for Law and Justice.

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