Who’d have thought that a middle-of-the-road arts and crafts store run by religious nutballs would provide the most formidable challenge yet to Obamacare? Strange as it may seem, this is what’s happening as the U.S. Supreme Court holds hearings in the case Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc..
So what’s sticking in Hobby Lobby’s craw about Obamacare (aka The Greatest Abomination in the history of history)? Superfically, it’s about religion and birth control, but on a deeper level, it’s about power relations in U.S. culture. Mother Jones provides a fantastic breakdown of this bizarre case and details its significance in terms of shaping the future of American health care and employee-employer relations. But this case is also important for bigger reasons. Hobby Lobby’s crusade against providing emergency contraception coverage to female employees demonstrates the waning, yet still formidable power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism.
As Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer writes, Hobby Lobby is a privately held, Oklahoma City-based corporation owned by a trust managed by CEO David Green and his family. The Greens are hardcore Jesus Freaks who run their company in accordance with so-called “biblical principles,” and they’re suing the Obama administration over provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Satan’s Law, if you prefer) that requires employers to cover emergency contraception, known as Plan B, in employee health insurance plans. The Greens believe that emergency contraception is a so-called “abortifacient” — a made-up word that means Plan B causes an abortion — and that mandating emergency contraception coverage therefore violates their pro-life religious beliefs.
No matter that the “Plan B=abortion” notion is pure hogwash — and no matter that other conservative Christians accept that plan B doesn’t=abortion — what matters to the Greens is that they believe that emergency contraception causes abortion, and that this belief should exempt them from full ACA coverage on religious freedom grounds. This would be akin to securing endangered species protection for Bigfoot based on the mere belief that Bigfoot exists, but Hobby Lobby’s case has proved attractive to the right-wing troglodyte majority on the U.S. Supreme Court — I’m looking your way, Scalito.
Much of the controversy over this case, as Mencimer notes, stems from Hobby Lobby’s assertion that “a for-profit corporation can have the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.” This previously asinine notion gained credence thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, a decision that effectively granted corporations “personhood” via full first amendment rights. That’s right: corporations are now people, my friend! And some of these people don’t like the women-folk using birth control because Jesus…or something.
But if you look at the broader assertions that the Greens are making, their Hobby Lobby case is about much more than a spiritual squabble over contraception. No, what we’ve got here is a contest over power — specifically, the power of religiously motivated American Exceptionalism to still hold sway over an increasingly science-dominated American culture.
Let me explain a bit further. As scholar Deborah Madsen writes, American Exceptionalism has been at the center of every major American historical event. It’s also been at the core of debates over what constitutes American cultural identity. Madsen defines American Exceptionalism as the idea that “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself” while simultaneously sustaining “a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny.” This idea dates back to the Puritans who described America as “a city upon a hill” that should serve as a redeeming beacon to a spiritually fallen world.*
Indeed, there’s no separating religious belief from American exceptionalism. The Puritans, as I noted in a piece for Salon, came to North America to establish a new heavenly kingdom on earth. Rebelling colonists fought the American Revolution based, in part, on the belief that Old King George was disrespecting their Creator-endowed inalienable rights. Nineteenth century westward expansion was driven by Manifest Destiny: the idea that Americans were chosen by the Christian God to conquer their land from sea to shining sea. Both sides in the American Civil War claimed to be acting on the will of God. And during the Depression and World War II, Americans were quite literally convinced that they fought in God’s name to save the world from the evils of fascism and communism.
In the twenty-first century, legal fights over “religious liberty” involve the same notions of American Exceptionalism, as conservative religious Americans struggle to maintain their long-established cultural dominance over a society that’s slowly but surely becoming less religious and more secular. Those convinced that a belief in God makes America morally, politically, and culturally exceptional interpret any challenges to religious authority as a challenge to their vision of American identity. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that, scientifically, Plan B contraception doesn’t constitute abortion. For religious authoritarians like David Green of Hobby Lobby, even the mere whiff of a secular challenge to the cultural domination of Christian fundamentalism can’t be tolerated. In Green’s mind, the literal soul of America hangs in the balance.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the American Religious Right happened after World War II and the triumph of the modern scientific age. In his book Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science, historian James Gilbert notes that in the years following the Second World War, scientific secularism rose to its highest level of prominence in American culture, and it hasn’t looked back since. “Not only did science and technology provide the material of progress,” Gilbert writes, “but in their intellectual process, standards, and professions, they offered enticing and convincing ways to discover and organize knowledge.”*
The rise of science to a previously unheard-of level of prominence in American culture proved problematic to religious folks who saw belief in God, not adherence to the scientific method, as the foundation of American exceptionalism. Religious Americans reacted to the rise of scientific secularism in different ways. Some accepted it. Some sought to improve on it. Others, however, dug in their heels and resisted it when they could. The Hobby Lobby folks and other modern Christian Fundamentalists fit squarely in the latter camp. “For reasons of self-preservation and expansion,” Gilbert explains, “American religions have been deeply concerned about the impact of scientific law and discovery,” and the long-running strategy of religious conservatives has been to resist marginalization at every turn.*
Thus, while Science and a secular government may say that emergency contraception doesn’t equal abortion, God says otherwise, and the Almighty’s Hobby Lobby holy warriors will be damned if they don’t put up a worthy spiritual — and legal — fight.
Hobby Lobby is contesting the ACA requirements because a victory in their case would mean a victory over the colluding forces of liberalism and scientific secularism, all of which they see embodied in the power of the secular state to institute universal health coverage. For Green and others, the fight against Obamacare is part of larger fight for the soul of America, nay, the soul of an exceptional America. They see themselves as generals on the front lines of the culture wars fighting to uphold their long-held, God-sanctioned authority in American culture. In their minds, losing the battle over Plan B coverage would constitute a major defeat in the larger war over the right to define the meaning of American Exceptionalism.
So make no mistake: Hobby Lobby doesn’t really care about “religious liberty.” What they do care about is the right to continue to define American Exceptionalism on their own terms and, by extension, the authority to decide the fates of women and employees in the broader socio-economic hierarchy. After all, those groups oughta know their submissive place — the bible says so.
* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2.
* See James Gilbert, Redeeming Culture: American Religion in an Age of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 5, 16.