Religious Liberty and Business as Culture-Making
Religion & Liberty Online

Religious Liberty and Business as Culture-Making

Offering yet another contribution to a series of recent discussions about the religious liberties of bakers, florists, and photographers, Jonathan Merritt has a piece at The Atlantic warning that the type of protections Christians were fighting for in Arizona “could come back to hurt the faithful.”

“These prophets of doom only acknowledge one side of the slope,” Merritt writes. “They fail to consider how these laws could be used against members of their own communities. If you are able to discriminate against others on the basis of religious conviction, others must be allowed to do the same when you are on the other side of the counter.”

Merritt sets things up with the following hypothetical:

“I’d like to purchase a wedding cake,” the glowing young woman says as she clutches the arm of her soon-to-be husband. “We’re getting married at the Baptist church downtown this coming spring.”

“I’m sorry, madam, but I’m not going to be able to help you,” the clerk replies without expression.

“Why not?” the bewildered bride asks.

“Because you are Christians. I am Unitarian and disapprove of your belief that everyone except those within your religion are damned to eternal hell. Your church’s teachings conflict with my religious beliefs. I’m sorry.”

Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions?

Although a closer hypothetical might involve a Unitarian disapproving of a Baptist’s view of marriage itself, and while there remains that sticky difference between the views and behaviors of individuals (pro-/anti-gay marriage) vs. the particular ends of products and services (an actual gay marriage)the question remains: “Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions?”

Setting aside the legal realities and implications, it’s a rather healthy exercise for parsing out how we view these things at a fundamental level. How do we view the nature and source of our work? How closely should we attend to the outcomes and ends of our property and labor? To what extents do certain circumstances vary? What role should conscience play in discerning between this or that?

But while particular patches of Christianity would certainly answer “no” to Merritt’s question, my guess is that plenty of folks — if not most conservatives and libertarians — would be rather comfortable with it, myself included. If my church requested that Starbucks supply coffee before each church service, and Starbucks responded with a strident refusal due to our “archaic views on marriage,” I would hope that we would respond by taking our business elsewhere, not lobbying the government to twist arms and bust out the billy clubs. When evangelicals cry instead for coercion and manipulation, particularly in name of “mercy!” or “pluralism!”, my eyebrows furrow.

If we hope to have any consistency or coherency in the way we view, elevate, and engage in the transcendent power and potential of business, we should hope for businesses to heed their consciences. If we really believe that businesses are culture-making enterprises, we should expect them to care about more than the “mere dollar,” the “mere service,” or the “mere cake to be baked.” That also means we should expect disagreement, and for Christians who care about mercy beyond government game-making, we should be prepared to respond peacefully and with love and charity, despite our disagreements.

For as hot and hip as it may be to wax philosophical about “faith-work integration,” this is where the rubber meets the road. We won’t always go the extreme lengths being widely discussed here — which are, one should note, a minority of cases — but if we hope to maximize our witness to the Gospel via economic engagement, the necessary freedom will also involve severe risk and competition, material, moral, or otherwise. As we continue to orient our stewardship in such a direction, particularly in a polluted culture such as this, we should expect businesses to more honest about their convictions, not less.

As Greg Forster observed in response to a different situation, there is a “seamless connection between a dehumanizing view of work and the militant secularization that threatens to destroy religious liberty.”

The most basic reason why businesses like Chick-Fil-A should be free to affirm marriage and Hobby Lobby should be free not to pay for employees’ contraceptives is because economic work is human action, and all human action is moral and cultural. Therefore businesses are moral and cultural institutions whether we like it or not.

Given that business is and must be culture making, we should set businesses free to be culture makers rather than try to force them to conform to an impossible model of moral and cultural neutrality. That means you can’t make the businesses’ moral/cultural identity hostage to any one employee who objects to something…The right of the business itself to be what it is – a moral and cultural institution – is simply not on the radar.

As I’ve written previously, diverse and pluralistic markets require diverse sources, and Christians are simply asking that they retain a distinctive voice amid an increasingly diverse economic landscape. This requires charity and tolerance from others, as we’ve clearly seen, and we mustn’t forget that it will require the same from us, regardless of whether this particular battle is won or lost. As Ben Domenech put it: “Decisions made by free people within markets will sort themselves out better than giving courts and government and bureaucrats the power to do the sorting.”

When it comes to business and commerce, we’ve unduly confined and constrained our thinking and culture-making as it is. Let’s not cramp things further via government force.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.