“One of the greatest tragedies in mankind’s entire history may be that morality was hijacked by religion.” ― Arthur C. Clarke
A Sociologist’s Thoughts on the “Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court Decision
Introductory college courses on religion typically begin with a unit called “what is religion?” We tell our students right off the bat that there is no natural, universal or inherently true definition of religion. We discuss how some people consider Buddhism to be a religion because Buddhist rituals and symbols “look religious,” but others might say Buddhism is not a religion because there is no formalized notion of god. Some people consider Judaism to be a religion because of the presence of a sacred text and a tradition of attributing rules of behavior to God, but others might say that Judaism is an ethnicity. (Of course, anyone who watches the Daily Show realizes that Jon Stewart is Jewish in the sense that his parents were Jewish and he uses Yiddish slang in his sketches, but he makes it perfectly clear that he does not “believe” in the Bible or observe the laws.)
In contemporary American English we generally use the word “religion” to describe institutions characterized by an organized body of people who posit some sort of God, attribute to that God some sort of moral potency, and conduct rituals that are perceived as having the gravitas of tradition. In other words, we use “religion” in terms that more or less resemble western Christianity.
From the earliest days of European settlement in the Americas there have been heated and often bloody disputes over what counts as religion. European missionaries did not recognize Native American beliefs and practices as “religious.” Rather, they considered them “heathen” which justified forcible conversion and even murder. The beliefs and practices of many 19th and 20th century immigrants were labeled “superstition” which justified national campaigns to re-educate those primitives who insisted on holding onto their old wives’ tales. And in 1993, when the Branch Davidians “cult” in Waco Texas was stormed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the death toll included twenty-five children.
These verbal gymnastics cut both ways. Over the past few decades there have been a number of court cases challenging government support of Alcoholics Anonymous. To sociologists, AA looks and acts like what we in America generally consider to be a religion. It grew out of a Christian movement in the beginning of the twentieth century; it has prayers (the Serenity Prayer), scripture (The Big Book), rituals, and a belief system that posits a Higher Power. Interestingly, the rulings – while complex and not totally consistent – have leaned towards declaring that AA is not “religion” but rather “spirituality,” a category even less definable than religion. Is a long walk in the woods spiritual? Many Americans would say yes. But what if you’re walking in the woods because your car broke down? Is that still “spirituality”? What if you pray to the tree god in the woods? Is that now “religion” or “heathenism”? Would it be protected by the First Amendment? And what if the tree god answers you – is that spirituality or schizophrenia? There is no right answer, of course. But how you answer these questions likely reflects your cultural milieu.
That Pesky Establishment Clause
Given that there is no “true” definition of religion, we tell our students, the questions for sociologists are: Who determines what gets to ‘count’ as religion? And, whose determinations carry weight for other people? The answers to these questions, we tell our students, have more to do with political power than with theological purity. In the United States today the IRS has authority to classify organizations as “religious” for the purpose of tax exempt status and psychiatrists have license to determine if an individual is “religious” or mentally ill for purposes of standing trial. But ultimately, in the United States that power rests in the hands of the courts.
“I have as much authority as the Pope. I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” — George Carlin
Justice Alito, of course, is smart enough to realize that under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution the Court cannot favor one “religion” over another. A way around that pesky clause, at least in the Hobby Lobby ruling, is to cherry pick the beliefs and practices that one considers to be “religion.” So, in the majority opinion, objections to contraception are “religion” while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are not. Though not spelled out by Justice Alito, the implication is there: Mainstream Christians object to contraception (we’ve been bombarded with pictures of the very attractive, white “All American”-looking Green family) while objections to blood transfusions or vaccinations are associated with fringe groups or cults.
“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” ― George Burns
The Hobby Lobby ruling invoked a second category that is just as confusing – and as culturally determined — as “religion.” According to Justice Alito religious beliefs meriting protection have to be “sincere.”The Court did not, however, specify what sincerity is or how it is measured. If you recant Judaism because the Inquisition threatens to burn you if you do not embrace Christianity, then are your Jewish beliefs less sincere than those of someone who “chose” the flames? If you have spent most of your life as a devout Christian but for a period of time experience a crisis of faith, a long night of the soul, are your beliefs during that time “insincere” and so not protected by the law? And who gets to decide what or who is sincere? Just because someone says something in a sincere voice doesn’t mean that they are not lying (if that were true Bernie Madoff wouldn’t be in prison), and just because someone cannot articulate their beliefs in a manner that others find credible does not mean that they are insincere.
What beliefs were so compelling as to lead these justices to make a ruling that at best is nonsensical and at worst is discriminatory and unconstitutional? In part, their ruling reflects a broad American consensus that religion overall is good for society and healthy for individuals, and so should receive public support. We have a government Office of Faith Based Initiatives, we love studies showing that church goers are healthier than non church goers and that meditation improves cardio-vascular function, and as a country we entrust churches with children’s moral education.
One might have thought that the assumption that religion (and especially “sincere” religion) is inherently good – or at least benign — would have been undermined by the many religion-driven wars, genocides, suicide bombers and terrorist attacks of the past century. We Americans tend to have short memories, but surely 9/11 is still in our communal consciousness! There must, then, be other considerations that were sufficiently persuasive to have blinded Justice Alito and his colleagues to the potentially dangerous consequences of sincere religious beliefs.
The Court answered this question in their statement that the Hobby Lobby ruling is narrow – that it applies only to contraception and not to blood transfusions or vaccinations. On the face of it both blood transfusions and vaccinations should be even more problematic as a requirement for employers to include in health insurance policies. We need only think about the many Biblical verses declaring that the blood is the soul and the life. And in the case of vaccinations we are talking about children before the age of consent. Contraception is special, I believe, because it speaks to women’s autonomy in a way that few other matters do. Indeed, women’s bodies are often the central battleground in contemporary culture wars not only in the majority Christian United States but in Israel and in the Muslim world as well.
“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” ― Jon Stewart
In any war there are few motivations that are as compelling as religion. Invoking the will of God has extraordinary power to inspire people to action: Where human laws are seen as flawed and transient, God’s laws are believed to be perfect and eternal, even transcending death of the mortal body. Religion has the extraordinary power to lead people to martyrdom and to genocide, to endangering their own lives to save children in the slums of Calcutta and to sacrificing children to blood-thirsty gods, to giving away their worldly goods and to appropriating the worldly goods of others. And it has the power to erase from the minds of at least five Supreme Court Justices the thousands of years of human history in which millions of women died in childbirth because they did not have the means to prevent pregnancies that were too closely spaced.
The framers of the Constitution clearly understood the power of religion, and tried to contain it. In the Hobby Lobby decision, SCOTUS unleashed it.
You can read more about recent SCOTUS decisions affecting women’s reproductive rights here: Pregnant Bodies as Public Property