Stepping back a moment from the complex legal, social and economic implications of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, I am struck by the decision’s central role in the culture wars of the early 21st century. Think about it: a large swath of conservative Christendom has convinced itself (and its allies in the Republican Party) that the maintenance of religious liberty depends on a for-profit company’s ability to avoid any remote complicity in the supply of contraceptive services that according to an exotic and extra-scriptural theory of human life might risk the further development of a microscopic zygote.
It’s not, of course, at all unprecedented for Christians to become violently exercised over concepts that are alien to unbelievers or different believers, as evidenced by the centuries of conflict over the precise nature of the bread and wine of the Eucharist. But the current collision over allegedly abortifacient contraceptives is one that could barely have been imagined just a generation ago.
As those who have followed the culture wars know, the conservative evangelical elevation of abortion — uncontroverted abortion, not abortion defined as the prevention of implantation of a fertilized ovum in the uterine wall — into a test-of-the-faith matter was engineered beginning in the late 1970s by leaders of what would soon be called the Christian Right, led by the theologian Francis Schaeffer, who viewed the issue as a vehicle for mobilizing his co-religionists against modern notions of sexuality and “moral relativism.” In contrast to the past habit of conservative evangelicals of retreating from cultural and political activism at times of perceived conflict with secular values, the Christian Right not only engaged in hyper-activism, but appeared to subordinate evangelicals’ traditional preoccupation with the salvation of individual souls to this new Crusade.
In the absence of a culture war victory (represented by the elusive goal of a recriminalization of abortion, recently escalated among many conservative evangelicals into a common front with conservative Catholics in opposing contraception generally), however, the Christian Right has pursued a hybrid strategy of aggressive separatism, demanding for believers their own set of righteous laws and institutions. And that’s what brings us to the current litigation.
Many fair-minded people look sympathetically at the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases as people who just want to be left in peace to nourish their eccentric and non-scientific views about the sacred human dignity of zygotes. But it’s impossible, of course, to divorce those views from the consequences for the affected employees. And so long as such companies operate in the secular world, they benefit like other secular entities from the various investments and subsidies our society makes available, even though they seem to be asserting the right to unilaterally disregard laws and policies that allegedly violate their tender consciences.
More to the point, Hobby Lobby’s political and religious allies would if given the power to do so impose their beliefs about zygotes on the rest of us. It’s not as though a Supreme Court decision providing an exemption from the relevant provisions of the Affordable Care Act will create some sort of truce in the culture wars, or convince the Christian Right to live and let live with the wicked citizens of this sinful society. Their extremist position on abortion and contraception is, after all, just a subset of a more generalized hostility to feminism and the very idea of sexual or reproductive rights.
Laws aside, the new conservative Christian gospel of “religious liberty” as representing a right to wage cultural counterrevolutionary war is a particular challenge to Christians who do not share Christian Right views–who aren’t convinced the prophetic role of the Church should be identified with premodern notions of sex and gender, or is best discharged by fighting to bring back the bourgeois paradise of 1950s small-town America. So it’s not just unbelievers who are puzzled and dismayed by Hobby Lobby. Those who ask “WWJD?” and can’t imagine the Son of God fighting to protect corporate rights are largely silent witnesses of all the Christian Right celebrations over this decision.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.