Ross Douthat: Liberals should love Hobby Lobby

07/10/2014 5:29 PM

07/10/2014 5:29 PM

For a generation now, liberals have bemoaned the disappearance of the socially conscious corporation, the boardroom devoted to the common good. Once, the story goes, America’s CEOs recognized that they shared interests with workers and customers; once wages and working hours reflected more than just a zeal for profits. But then came Reagan, deregulation, hostile takeovers, and an era of solidarity gave way to the age of Gordon Gekko, from which there’s been no subsequent escape.

There are, however, exceptions: companies that still have a sense of business as a moral calling that can be held up as examples to shame the bottom-liners.

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially – offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

But this isn’t just a point about the company’s particular virtues. The entire conflict between religious liberty and cultural liberalism has created an interesting situation in our politics: The political left is expending a remarkable amount of energy trying to fine, vilify and bring to heel organizations – charities, hospitals, schools and mission-infused businesses – whose commitments they might under other circumstances extol.

So the recent Supreme Court ruling offers a chance, after the hysteria cools and the Taliban hypotheticals grow stale, for liberals to pause and consider the long-term implications of this culture-war campaign.

Historically, support for religious liberty in the United States has rested on pragmatic as well as philosophical foundations. From de Tocqueville’s America to Eisenhower’s, there has been a sense – not universal but widespread – that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.

But in the past, tensions over pluralism’s proper scope usually occurred when a specific faith – Catholicism and Mormonism, notably – unsettled or challenged the mostly Protestant majority. Today, the potential tensions are much broader, because the goals of post-sexual-revolution liberalism are at odds with the official beliefs of almost every traditional religious body, be it Mormon or Muslim, Eastern Orthodox or Orthodox Jewish, Calvinist or Catholic.

If liberals so desire, this division could lead to constant conflict, in which just about every project conservative believers undertake is gradually threatened with regulation enforcing liberal norms. The health coverage offered by religious employers; the activity of religious groups on college campuses; the treatments offered by religious hospitals; the subject matter taught in religious schools – the battlegrounds are legion.

And liberals seem to be preparing the ground for this kind of expansive conflict – by making sharp distinctions (as the White House’s mandate exemptions did) between the liberties of congregations and the liberties of other religious organizations, by implying that religion’s “free exercise” is confined to liturgy and prayer, and by suggesting (as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did in her Hobby Lobby dissent) that religious groups serve only their co-believers, not the common good.

That last idea, bizarre to anyone who’s visited a soup kitchen, could easily be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Insist that for legal purposes there’s no such thing as a religiously motivated business, and you will get fewer religiously motivated business owners – and more chain stores that happily cover Plan B but pay significantly lower wages. Pressure religious hospitals to perform abortions or sex-reassignment surgery (or some eugenic breakthrough down the road), and you’ll eventually get fewer religious hospitals – and probably less charity care and a more zealous focus on the bottom line. Tell religious charities they have legal rights only insofar as they serve their co-religionists, and you’ll see the scope of their endeavors contract.

But this is not a path liberals need to choose – not least because the more authentically American alternative does not require them to abandon their policy goals. (Obamacare’s expansion of contraceptive coverage, for instance, will be almost as sweeping if some religious nonprofits and businesses opt out.)

Rather, it just requires a rediscovery of pluralism’s virtues, and the benefits of allowing different understandings of social justice to be pursued simultaneously, rather than pitted against each other in a battle to the death.

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