01 April 2013

More on Corporations and Free Exercise of Religion

I've posted here and here on the corporate use of the First Amendment Free Exercise clause to avoid the Affordable Care Act's requirement that employer-provided health insurance provide employees with coverage that conflicts with certain conscientiously held beliefs (the so-called contraceptive mandate). There's little question that individual employers would have such a claim but whether corporate entities have standing to assert their rights to freely exercise their religion is hotly contested.

Colleague Haskell Murray sent me here to read a piece by Mark Rienzi tilted God and the Profits: Religious Liberty for Money-Makers. The point of his post is to put to rest the canard that religion and profits are incompatible. In other words, profit-making entities do not thereby lose their free-exercise claims. Or, as it occurs to me, as nonprofit entities can be religious or secular, so can for-profit ones.

Rienzi does not address the substance of my questions about the circumstances under which any corporation may lose this right. He was content merely to rebut the position taken by the current Justice Department. In fact, my only concerns are about the two of Rienzi's sentences: "So long as God came first in their lives and businesses, they [Puritans] saw nothing wrong with pursuing financial success. Some Puritans even believed material wealth was a sign of one’s future salvation."

The Puritans never conceived of this relationship between profit and salvation. I realize Max Weber made this assertion in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism but Weber was wrong. He was not a historian and certainly not a theologian. His sociological conclusion has not been substantiated by scholars who know this field.

But even Rienzi's first sentence needs some nuance. The Puritans were deeply conflicted about the relationship between profits and godliness. Some time ago I blogged here about Bernard Bailyn's superb The Barbarous Years. In it Bailyn recounts the struggles of Robert Keayne, a theologically orthodox Puritan who twice was tried by the the General Court in Massachusetts  for making excess profits on commercial transactions. As Bailyn desrbies the experience of commercially successful American Puritans in the middle of the seventeenth century:
The doctrine of the just price ... conflicted head-on with the entrepreneurial instincts fortified by Puritanism's worldly asceticism ... Others too were caught in this cultural contradiction, which extended beyond individual cases of avarice into broad ranges of social behavior where legal restraints proved futile. Price controls had to be imposed, but they failed; wage ceilings had to be mandated, but they were largely ignored; and sumptuary laws, reflecting the Puritans' horror of display, vainglory, and economic waste ... were passed, but they had very little effect.
The tension between profit and righteousness has hovered in the background of almost all expressions of Christianity, at least until the recent decades of the "health-and-wealth" gospel.  Regardless of these quibbles, Rienzi is fundamentally right: the Constitution does not make seeking profit inconsistent with freely exercising  one's religion. And that proposition holds even if "one" is a corporation.

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