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By July 8, 2014 2 Comments

Much has been written and said about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision last week.   And here’s some more!   I doubt I will share anything particularly unique or novel but I write this out of a sense of some internal theological conflict.

After all and on the one hand, we Christians are called to witness to our identity in Christ and one way we do this is by not going along with every trend or whim of the wider society in which we find ourselves.   Christians are supposed to be different.  We are resident aliens, strangers in a world often hostile to our faith and even to our very Lord.  Just because the law of the land might call on you to renounce your faith, you would not do so even upon the possible pain of death.   If the laws of the land discriminate against a group of people (as happened in the era of Jim Crow in especially the American South), then religious people (on religious grounds) protest and resist.  Martin Luther King, Jr., and company may have done so non-violently but the resistance–rooted in biblical and theological beliefs–was real and warranted nonetheless.   It also involved the violation of the law.    The law might be unjust and dumb (people of color could not sit at a Walgreen’s lunch counter, for instance) but it was nonetheless the law such that sitting at the counter anyway was an arrestable offense.  Yet those people were right to do so.

At the same time and on the other hand, there is the matter of recognizing and appreciating the differences between what is properly the sphere of the church and the sphere of the wider society.  Most Reformed types are justly nervous about the Theonomist belief in legislating people into Christian patterns of behavior.  Similarly, we may have strongly held beliefs, but the New Testament generally (and the example of Jesus specifically) indicates that we are not to be hostile screamers who shove those beliefs down the throats of any and all we meet.  The Apostle Peter (as I have blogged about before here on The Twelve) was particularly noteworthy for advocating for civility, for gentleness and respect and politeness even when (or maybe it is especially when) laying out Christian beliefs and in presenting a defense for the hope that is in us.   In Romans 13 Paul also famously recommended the paying of taxes and overall support of the “deacon” of the state, even though he knew full well that in Rome the state in question used that tax money for all kinds of terrible things, not least of which was now and then the active persecution of the church.  But who knows how many other practices and customs were funded by Roman tax money but that were practices good Christian people would find deeply immoral.  Nevertheless, Paul said, pay the tax.

Christians are called to live with a certain amount of unresolved tension, in other words.   This side of Revelation 21, the dwelling of God is not fully on this earth and all of us dual-citizen folks in the meantime need to negotiate a lot of issues that are not pleasant, neat, or comfortable.  We should actually expect this.

But here is another main source of the conflict I feel theologically: in her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered if the door had not been opened for rafts of similar exceptions.   Muslims, she noted, are deeply offended at the eating of anything associated with pigs.  But a great many medications contain gelatin, which is finally a pig product.   What would prevent a Muslim business owner to refuse any insurance coverage that would include pig-based pills or caplets as purchased with insurance money by any of his employees?   And the list goes on: certain faiths are offended by blood transfusions, by vaccinations, by antidepressants.

These are by no means examples of a reductio ad absurdam but are all clearly in the same ballpark as the Hobby Lobby objection to just a few certain medications on faith-based grounds. 

But maybe there is a legal answer to all that and maybe Bader Ginsburg’s colleagues like Justice Alito are all over this.  Fine.  

But here is where this intersects with my own theological conflict: whether or not there is a way to prevent Muslims or Hindus or others from refusing to provide insurance coverage for pig-based gelatin caplets, the fact is that most of the same Christians in this country who have cheered the Hobby Lobby decision would likely roll their eyes and shake their heads over any claim for a faith-based exception for any religion other than the Christian one.   (A similar reaction would come if someone suggested that it’s fine to post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms provided that a list of the Five Pillars of Islam be similarly posted–most Christians who advocate for the former would find the latter to be merely absurd.)

And this, then, is what bothers me: I worry that under the cloak of being resident aliens–of being in the world but not of the world, of resisting an unjust law as a Christian citizen of the kingdom–what is really going on is a desire to privilege the Christian faith in American society.   Christians want their faith and their convictions honored and accommodated despite having something akin to zero interest in seeing a person of any other faith being similarly accommodated.   Probably this does not describe everybody.   But if and where this is true, then this becomes a matter of power and privilege in a society that is supposed to be free and open and religiously neutral.  Then it becomes less about Christ-like humility and witness and more about some other postures that seem less noble and less Christ-like.

Look, if the owners of Hobby Lobby really believe that certain medications take a human life, then on faith-based grounds they are right to seek a way not to participate in providing the means that make that happen.   But if this is really all about Christian witness, humility, and a sincere desire to serve others as Christ served us, then a good many of us Christians in this country need to wonder much more often than it seems we typically do about what it means to make room for others who may not share our beliefs but whose religious sincerity is no less ardent.  (Jesus never said to love and to serve only those who agree with you after all.)

We may have to swallow hard to do so but I don’t doubt that as he sat in a Roman jail cell, Paul also had to grit his teeth a bit in telling the Romans to pay the taxes that helped to operate the very prison in which he found himself.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Nathan Bierma says:

    Agreed. Christians enjoy favorable legal rulings not only because they're religious but because they're the religious majority. The SCOTUS ruling earlier this year on the legislative prayer case in upstate NY made that clear. Back in 1990, Scalia actually warned not "to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land." But in that SCOTUS case the topic was Native American ceremonial use of peyote. So the religious minority got an unfavorable ruling and a constitutional scolding.

    In her dissent on the legislative prayer case in NY this year, Justice Kagan had a great line, praising
    “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

    American Christians who fail to affirm that are indeed part hypocritical and part deaf to the biblical call to suffer marginalization, or worse, at the hands of the state.

  • Me says:

    Another reason for limited Federal intrusion into our lives. No Affordable Care Act, no Hobby Lobby case.

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