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A Sociologist’s Thoughts on the “Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court Decision

"One of the greatest tragedies in mankind’s entire history may be that morality was hijacked by religion.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

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.


Originally posted to Susan Sered on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 07:56 AM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Funny how the Supremes (5+ / 0-)

    got religion where it mainly impacts women.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 08:25:19 AM PDT

  •  Morality requires skepticism. (7+ / 0-)

    The ultimate lie that makes people cling to absurdities is that morality is within the domain of religion, with strict commands given from a higher power.  In fact, it is the beginning of morality to take the burden of thinking about morals onto yourself instead of letting others dictate them to you.

    True morality requires discussion, thought and reflection.  Religions tend to be hostile to all of those, because a seed of doubt and a free market of ideas is dangerous to them.

    •  Some theists don't even recognize morality (8+ / 0-)

      without god.  Morality to them is following gods instructions.  If you do not believe in god, you can't be following his instructions so you can't be moral.  The complete abdication of individual morality and its replacement with group-think and 'just following orders' seems to be the point.

      "Wrong, Do it again!" "If you don't learn to compete, you can't have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don't learn to compete?" "You! Yes, you occupying the bikesheds, stand still laddy!"

      by ban48 on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 09:48:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Love your comment (7+ / 0-)

        "The complete abdication of individual morality and its replacement with group-think...". Religion, in my experience, trains you to defer to an external morality instead of taking responsibility for your life, your thinking, and your decisions. "God wants me to do this," rather than "I think I should do this."

      •  Great comment! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ZedMont, delonix

        I do not need any religion to tell me to try to do right in this world. And that is my sincerely held belief!

        I am amazed by people who need a religion to tell them right and wrong. If you need that you must think you might be evil at heart.

        •  It's a trained suspension of critical thinking.... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          It's a trained suspension of critical thinking. Most often the religion is drilled into children while they still young and easily influenced. By the time they developed sufficient analytical ability to process what they have been told their brain has already assimilated it into their worldview. At that point it is very hard to go back and reevaluate, much easier to just accept it as true and never question it.

          This is why the right is constantly trying to surreptitiously interject god into school in any way, shape, or form. A developed mind is far harder to persuade, especially when you have zero evidence to support your claims. An otherwise educated adult with no knowledge of religion would be highly skeptical of the claims of religion.

          I'm not trying to offend, I could do much better, but I cliam the right to express my sincerely held belief that all religions are false.

        •  Religious people (0+ / 0-)

          believe that OTHER people need religion to be moral. They themselves would be ethical regardless. That's why atheism is so threatening - social anarchy, don't you know.

          'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none go just alike, yet each believes his own. - Alexander Pope

          by liberaldad2 on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 07:39:30 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Brilliant. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pdxteacher, Mirthandirxiii

      Humanists, non-theists, and free thinkers of all sorts may be ostracized -- but they are on the right path.  And "they" may be former superstionalists.

      The great ideas from great people can be destroyed by small ideas from small people (eg, FOX manure), but we should think big anyway.

      Persistence and determination will out.  Let's make it a saner future.

      I aim to live in agreement with Benjamin Franklin's admonition to "Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."

      by delonix on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 01:03:51 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Religion: Easily Weaponized Superstitious Hokum. (9+ / 0-)

    You want my opinion, I think religion is a memetic virus, that commonly appears in two forms. One is the benign form that it takes when it needs to be dormant, when outside pressures appear to get people to stop being shitty to each other are dominant.

    The other version, the malignant version, can arise easily as a mutation of the benign version, and that's the version that hijacks morality, makes people think that those outside of the True Believers are evil and horrible, and deceives people into thinking that vicious, horrible, and evil behavior is good.

    Remember, the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill", has always been considered negotiable throughout history, as George Carlin pointed out...

    •  There is as much (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      bloodthirstiness among the non-religious as there is among the religious.

      All you have to do is read diaries on this site about Israel and Ukraine to realize that fact.

      I would go so far to say that the bloodthirstiness and desire for dominance and enslavement easily precedes any religious mechanism - the religious notions are used simply as justification for the evil that already exists.

      The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

      by dfarrah on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 09:10:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Justification matters (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Justifying an action makes it easier to plan, perform and dismiss later as necessary.

      •  OOps. noun verb agreement is (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        screwed up - should be 'precede'

        The banks have a stranglehold on the political process. Mike Whitney

        by dfarrah on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 09:49:44 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Dominant religions support the power structure (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Paul Rogers, pdxteacher

        That's how they become dominant in a culture:  they help compel obedience to authority and share in the benefits of power.  It has always been thus.

        Religion supports and intensifies civil strife and war, much more than it opposes them.  That is part of its function in society, when it participates in the power structure.  The bloodthirstiness may start at the top, but religious authorities typically encourage it in followers, to gin a nation up for war.

        Sometimes religious motives are primary, but more commonly religion is simply complicit in secular leaders' aggression.   This is the opposite of morality, and often represents its perversion into something deeply immoral.

        I stand with triv33. Shame on her attackers.

        by Dallasdoc on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 10:58:54 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Hmmmmm, maybe so... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        There is as much bloodthirstiness among the non-religious as there is among the religious.
        But you won't find many atheists beheading people who refuse to NOT believe in something.

        Ted Cruz president? Pardon my Vietnamese, but Ngo Pho King Way.

        by ZedMont on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 12:48:18 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  bloodthirstiness and desire for dominance . . . (0+ / 0-)

        is the foundation of much religious belief.  Religion is the exercise of imaginary power by people with minimal power over the completely powerless.  It's a way of pretending that their lives are not entirely under the control of a small coterie of amoral narcissists who own most of the stuff humanity has created over the last 10,000 years.

        Religion doesn't usually do too much harm when its in the hands of kind people, but kind people are, unfortunately, a distinct minority.

    •  Love the name. I miss mister Carlin. His insigh... (0+ / 0-)

      Love the name. I miss mister Carlin. His insights into society and the human condition were often nothing short of genius.

  •  Cue the anti-religious cant. (0+ / 0-)

     What I got from the Alito opinion is that the RFRA mandates that on issues in which government has a compelling interest, it must minimize the impact on religious belief and practice. In the HL case, there existed a hypothetical means to implement government's interest in making birth control available through insurance coverage, but government didn't use it.
      Presumably a religious challenge to vaccinations or blood transfusions would be subject to the same test.
      There is a fundamental split on how the HL decision is viewed. In the view of some, Hobby Lobby was imposing its religious beliefs by declining to fund certain types of birth control.
      Hobby Lobby felt that the HHS was infringing on its religious beliefs by compelling it to fund birth control methods that went contrary to HL's beliefs.
      However, HL declined to provide insurance coverage for birth control, it didn't stop women from buying it or stop provision by 3rd parties. It's stretching the point to say that they're imposing their beliefs on their employees.
       When your definition of your freedom compels someone to participate in activities which violate that person's moral beliefs, you're crossing the line into being an oppressor.

  •  If you are interested in the subject of (4+ / 0-)

    Morality and Religion, I encourage you to listen to Reverend William Barber's speech to the Netroots Nation convention.  

    The full speech is posted on line here:

    If Money is Speech, Speech isn't Free! I wonder what it is about that that Antonin Scalia cannot understand?

    by NM Ray on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 09:45:44 AM PDT

    •  Another Kossacks take on Reverend Barber: (4+ / 0-)
      I have never been so moved by a speech or the passions of any man as I was by Reverend Barber.   He preached morality not religion, right not wrong, good not bad, people not party, and principle not compromise.  He spoke of fusion, history, civil rights, human rights, and reconstruction.    He told us all to watch out for the snake line that lies between the valleys and the mountain tops.  He warned us to stay out of the bottom lands and warm valleys where snakes like to live, and he told us to seek the high ground where the air was cold, clear, and snakes don't live.  The speech and the man were amazing.  Reverend Barber's strength of character and commitment to good stirred feelings in me; and much to my surprise, he made me cry.   I'm not happy about having to admit that I cried, and I don't know why.

      If Money is Speech, Speech isn't Free! I wonder what it is about that that Antonin Scalia cannot understand?

      by NM Ray on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 09:49:06 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  His speech made me cry, too. (0+ / 0-)

      I have not been to church in about 30 years, but I would go to his.

  •  Well said. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Wrong, Do it again!" "If you don't learn to compete, you can't have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don't learn to compete?" "You! Yes, you occupying the bikesheds, stand still laddy!"

    by ban48 on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 09:46:50 AM PDT

  •  Excellent, thought-provoking diary (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I enjoyed reading it.

    I love the title, too, because it really is true: religions are assumed to be representative of morality. Say, "I'm a Christian," and people grant you a margin of respect; say, "I'm an atheist," and they're suspicious. Why do only religious people get to own morality?

  •  I posted your diary on my Facebook page n/t (0+ / 0-)
  •  Republished to Street Prophets. nt (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dallasdoc, pdxteacher
  •  one the one hand (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    we love studies showing that church goers are healthier than non church goers and that meditation improves cardio-vascular function,
    Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies
    Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and antievolution America performs poorly

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