Why We Need To Get ‘Community’ Right
Religion & Liberty Online

Why We Need To Get ‘Community’ Right

What is a “community?” What are the boundaries of a community or organization? And – most important – why is community important?

Andy Crouch, writer, musician and Acton University plenary speaker, says we need to ask and answer these questions. He begins his discussion with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods. While the decision was sound, Crouch says it speaks to something beyond the law:

It reminds us that fewer and fewer of our neighbors understand how religious organizations—and all communities smaller than the state—contribute to human flourishing and the common good.

One essential question in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was the extent to which a for-profit corporation can hold to a religious (in this case, Christian) identity. In her dissent, Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited approvingly the idea that for-profit groups “use labor to make a profit, rather than to perpetuate a religious-values-based mission.”

The words rather than are key. In Justice Ginsburg’s view, it seems, corporations cannot serve—or at least the law cannot recognize that they serve—any god other than Mammon. She articulated an equally small view of nonprofits when she wrote that “religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith.”

It seems, says Crouch, that we are meant to put boundaries on each and every organization. A business can make a profit, but not serve its community or its employees. A church can minister to the people that attend services on Sunday, but not the ones who don’t and never will. Crouch says we’re losing an important part of what it means to be human and to live in community.

What is happening is the erosion of corporate identity. We get our word corporate from the Latin word for “body.” It echoes the biblical (and Greco-Roman) comparison of a community to a human body, with many parts working together for some greater good. The widespread alarm that “the Court thinks corporations are people!” is misplaced. As the journalist Megan McArdle observed, we want our society to treat corporations—whether for-profit or not-for-profit—like persons in many respects. Otherwise, “the government would have the right to shut down the presses at The New York Times; search Google’s servers without a warrant whenever they liked; tell churches (usually organized as corporations) what they could believe . . . and otherwise abridge fundamental human rights.”

Many of those fundamental human rights can be exercised only in community, in a form that embodies our shared commitments to one another.

We are a highly individualized society. We want everything to be personalized: our cell phone cases, our music play list, even our sermons. We pick and choose, based on our personal preferences, without taking the community into consideration. Relationships become transactions: you give me this and I’ll give you that. Businesses are there to stock the goods we want, churches are there to tell us what we want to hear.

What is the most deeply Christian response to such a world?

It can only be to commit ourselves even more completely to that countercultural, corporate reality known as the church, in all its imperfect and local expressions, and in its wider global reality.

The church makes a stronger claim on us than the state. According to Jesus, it makes a deeper claim even than the family. And by being stronger and deeper than the family and the state, the church provides a family for those without families, and a people for those discarded and marginalized by society.

Living in a world “post-Hobby Lobby,” Crouch says, means that we must guard our communities, our relationships and our churches from those who want to limit what they do and what they mean. We need to get community right, or everything else will go wrong.

Read “Life Together, Again” at Christianity Today.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.