Merritt, Moore debate Hobby Lobby’s alleged ‘hypocrisy’

If the Southern Baptist owners of Hobby Lobby really cared about religious freedom, they would stop doing business with China, a faith-and-culture writer says. Southern Baptists’ top expert on religious-liberty concerns countered that buying from foreigners isn’t the same as denying liberty to U.S. citizens.

By Bob Allen

A faith-and-culture writer and Southern Baptist Convention official clashed June 17 about whether it’s hypocritical for Hobby Lobby to call itself a Christian company while doing business in China.

Jonathan-MerrittAuthor and Religion News Service blogger Jonathan Merritt observed in The Week magazine that for many evangelicals Hobby Lobby President Steve Green’s claim “we run our business on Christian principles” is music to their ears when it comes to the company’s Supreme Court case challenging the contraception mandate in Obamacare on religious liberty grounds.

Merritt, son of former SBC President James Merritt, suggested that proclamation doesn’t measure up with the company’s business practices of importing products made in China, notorious for things like child labor, restricting religious freedom and a recently lifted one-child-per-family policy incentivizing abortion.

“The Bible is replete with calls for economic justice,” said Merritt, author of books including Green Like God and A Faith of Our Own. “Can you call yourself a ‘Christian business’ when you leverage your profits to support an economic system that blatantly perpetuates injustice?”

Even more glaring, Merritt argued, is the disconnect with Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit claim that forcing them to include contraceptive services that the owners find morally wrong in their employee health care plans violates their constitutional rights.

“The craft store chain is hailed by conservatives as standing up to Uncle Sam and fighting for religious freedom,” Merritt said. “Yet Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars’ worth of bric-a-brac from a nation that denies 1.35 billion citizens freedom of worship.”

“If Hobby Lobby was concerned with religious freedoms — not just those of conservative American Christians — it would quit doing business in China,” Merritt said.

Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, responded in comments posted on Merritt’s Religion News Service blog terming that line of reasoning a “red herring.”

russell moore sbc mugMoore, who just presented Hobby Lobby founders Steve and Jackie Green with a religious liberty honor at the recent SBC annual meeting in Baltimore, said the most effective strategy for reforming the Chinese government is economic engagement, not boycott.

“If the Green family believed that a boycott of all Chinese businesses would bring the Chinese government around on human rights, I’m quite certain they would do so,” Moore said. “And so would many of us. But that’s hardly the case.”

Moore said buying products from companies that operate in a country with high abortion rates is not the same as requiring a Christian in the United States to pay for drugs that may terminate a pregnancy.

“Someone with a conscientious objection to the death penalty isn’t implicated in capital punishment because she buys oranges from Florida, where capital punishment is practiced,” Moore countered.

Moore said the Christian moral tradition “has always held a distinction between direct, personal involvement in sin and living in a world in which sin exists.”

“Whether one thinks one ought to do business with companies in China, this is obviously a very different question from whether the government ought to force employers to pay for drugs that cause abortions,” Moore said. “The Greens have put their entire business on the line for their convictions about freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all.”

Guidelines drafted by the U.S. Health and Human Services department for implementing the Affordable Care Act include an accommodation for nonprofit organizations that oppose contraception for religious reasons, but not for-profit business owners like the Greens.

Moore’s agency joined a friend-of-the-court brief in January arguing that a person’s right to the free exercise of religion doesn’t hinge on whether or not he or she happens to own a business. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments March 25 and is expected to rule within the next couple of weeks.

“This isn’t a word of prophecy, but I think we are going to win this Supreme Court case,” Moore said in a panel discussion on Hobby Lobby and the future of religious liberty during last week’s SBC annual meeting in Baltimore. “I really do.”

Merritt said Hobby Lobby serves as a reminder of why for-profit businesses should resist labeling themselves as “Christian.”

“The free market is messy and complicated and riddled with hypocrisy,” he said. “Conducting business in today’s complex global economy almost ensures one will engage in behavior that is at least morally suspect from a biblical standpoint.”

“Every time you buy a decorative platter from Hobby Lobby with a Bible verse stamped across it, you have funded the company’s fight against the HHS contraception mandate,” Merritt said. “But you’re also sending a chunk of change to a country that forces people to abort their children, flouts basic standards of workplace dignity and denies more than a billion people the right to worship.”