Hobby Lobby in the Huffington Post

Religion in American History

I’m late on posting this, but I offered my opinion of the Hobby Lobby ruling at the Huffington Post. It was also picked up by AlterNet. Reprinting here for anyone who missed it:

It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had. I’ve been a history professor for years, toiled as a graduate assistant before that, and even did a stint as an IT technician. But the three months I worked at Hobby Lobby stocking googly eyes and framing baseball cards takes the cake. I wanted a break from academia but it ended up not being a break at all. I found myself deconstructing and analyzing all aspects of my job — from the Bible in the break room to the prayers before employee meetings and the strange refusal of the company to use bar codes in its stores. (The rumor amongst employees was that bar codes were the Mark of the Beast, but that rumor remains unsubstantiated.) Three months was enough to convince me that there is something larger at work and the SCOTUS decision only confirms my belief that corporate Christianity (and Christianity that is corporate) has made it difficult for Americans to discern religion from consumption.

As a scholar of religious history, I observe the way that faith intersects with culture. I study and publish on megachurches and my interpretation of this week’s events is informed not only by my experiences as an employee at Hobby Lobby but also my knowledge of recent religious trends. My biggest question after hearing the decision was not about the particular opinions or practical repercussions (which are significant and have far-reaching and dangerous consequences). Instead, my first thought was: “What is it about our cultural fabric that enables us to attribute religious rights to a corporate entity?” In the United States we have increasingly associated Christianity with capitalism and the consequences affect both corporations and churches. It’s a comfortable relationship and seemingly natural since so much of our history is built on those two forces. But it’s also scary.

Hobby Lobby is a for-profit craft chain, not a church. I’m stating the obvious just in case there was any confusion because — let’s face it — it’s confusing. It’s as confusing as those googly eyes (do you really need three different sizes, Hobby Lobby, really?). Today, we see giant churches that operate like corporations and now corporations have some of the same rights as churches. Many megachurches adopt “seeker-sensitive” approaches to attract members, relying on entertainment and conspicuous consumption to promote their services. After a while, the spiritual and secular lines start to blur and the Christian and corporate blend. Ed Young, Jr.’s Fellowship Church, for instance, started a “90-Day Challenge” for members. The church asks congregants to pledge 10 percent of their income and promises “that if you tithe for 90 days and God doesn’t hold true to his promise of blessings, we will refund 100 percent of your tithe.”

Megachurches advertise on television, billboards, the Internet. They have coffee shops and gift stores. Some feature go-cart tracks, game centers, even oil changes. Many are run by pastors that also serve as CEOs. So when Hobby Lobby seeks similar religious rights as these very corporate churches, we have to reconsider our definition of religious organizations and maybe even say “why not?” We have normalized corporate Christianity to the point that the Supreme Court deems it natural for businesses to hold “sincere” religious beliefs. The religious landscape in the United States, including our familiarity with megachurches and celebrity pastors, certainly contributes to the acceptance of the church/company conundrum.

The “why not” can be answered, however, with the real costs of the decision. Women’s reproductive rights are compromised. The religious freedom of employees for these corporations is compromised. The sanctity of our religious institutions is also compromised. To protect religious pluralism and freedom of the individual we need clear demarcations between what is spiritual and what is economical. Otherwise, we sacrifice the soul of American religion and all that makes it good and why I study it on the altar of industry. I can’t get those three months at Hobby Lobby back (or the praise muzak out of my head) but I can see more clearly the dangers of allowing corporate Christianity to become the norm. Without clear boundaries, we risk distorting the very idea of religious freedom and the rich, diverse religious culture that makes us who we are. And that’s tragic — maybe not as tragic as praise muzak, but tragic nonetheless.

I’m Too Sexy for My Church: Observations on Ed Young, Jr.

Religion in American History

At Religion in American History, I discussed Ed Young, Jr.’s Sexperiment in the context of evangelical trends.

I’ve got sex on the brain and I blame Ed Young, Jr. I’ve been watching way too many podcast sermons from this dynamic senior pastor and it’s starting to affect my work. Literally. I’m researching and writing a chapter on megachurches and sexuality and keep coming back to Ed Young, Jr.’s teachings at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. I’m trying to put his approach to Christian sexuality into a larger context of historical evangelical rhetoric and practices and it’s getting tricky. Young replicates the heteronormative religious teachings of the past (and present) but he does so while openly addressing sexuality and encouraging congregants to think and talk about sex in pretty explicit terms. In other words, to me it’s the same rhetoric that has dominated mainstream evangelicalism for decades but taken to another, overt level. Or, as Young himself says, “a whole nutha level!”

It all started with the Sexperiment. In 2008, Young encouraged congregants to engage in “Seven Days of Sex,” challenging his married church members to have sex every day for a week in order to improve their relationships, their jobs, and their Christian walk. A charge by a pastor to engage in sex (and this is for all married couples—including those dealing with adultery and needing to find forgiveness) is an interesting one, to say the least. Then, in 2012, Ed and his wife Lisa published a book on how married couples can strengthen their marriages through sex and, in turn, help build healthier congregations. To promote the book, the couple held a 24-hour “bed-in” on a rooftop. They stayed in bed all day (to the detriment of their health–the rooftop was not the best place to hang out for 24 hours) and were filmed answering viewers’ questions about sex and relationships. The purpose of the book and an accompanying sermon series are, according to Lisa, to learn how to “have sex His way, and… understand what it was meant to be.” The sermon series features Ed and Lisa Young talking to congregants from a king-sized bed about the church taking control of sexuality. Using the Bible as “God’s Sex Manual,” the couple explains how sex is not just physical but is spiritual. Young argues that sex is God’s idea and should be openly discussed by the church so that it can define the discourse (rather than letting the larger, secular culture control things). Recognizing that the church has often focused on the “prohibitions,” Young turns this idea around and describes what is permitted or encouraged by the Bible within marriage.

That last clause is important. While the Youngs openly discuss the sensitive subject of sex, they constantly refer back to a heteronormative, marital model. There are “no escape clauses, no fine print,” Young says, that indicate that sex should be anything other than between a husband and wife. In another sermon series (I told you… eventually these Ed Young, Jr., sermons will crash my computer), Young explains what Jesus would say to Ellen DeGeneres: “You’re awesome, but homosexuality is not my ideal.” The Sexperiment does not emphasize prohibitions in a direct way, but the undercurrent is to undercut other sexual choices/lifestyles. In other words, this part of Young’s message is very much in line with traditional mainstream evangelical teachings on homosexuality.

Since they are constantly a touchstone of mine (see book), I can’t help but think of how early Baptist and Methodist ministers would react to Young’s methods. There would be agreement on the heteronormative, marital emphases, but the message would most likely be shocking and disturbing. Young would be radical, would be disciplined, and would lose his position in the church. In fact, some of these ministers (especially Methodist itinerants) struggled with marriage and whether a pastor should have a helpmate. Could they afford a wife? Would a wife distract from their ministry? (Lyerly and Heyrman describe this issue and Bob Elder examines women’s roles in evangelicalism.) It’s interesting to see a shift over the past 150 years to pastors needing wives and then to Ed and Lisa Young sharing the pulpit to discuss the intimate subject of sex, while sitting on a giant bed no less.

American religion, however, has not always eschewed the subject of sex. There are well-known (and mostly ill-fated) religious groups in the United States that emphasized the importance of sex among congregants. The nineteenth-century Oneida Community comes to mind as well as the more recent Warren Jeffs’ FLDS compound. In both of these instances, however, the religious leader arranged partnerships and dabbled in, erm, the very illegal. What I’m getting at is this: There are occasions where religious groups will discuss sexuality in an open forum or encourage marriages and sex to promote the growth of their spiritual community.

Let’s be clear, Young is not creating anything like these communes. There is, however, something seemingly scandalous about talking about sex in church—and the mode of delivery used by the Youngs definitely garnered mixed reviews. And Young is not simply describing “healthy” sexual partnerships, he is also encouraging sexual acts among congregants, which does touch on some of the tactics used by other historical religious groups.

Speaking of scandal, another megachurch pastor’s words on the subject of sexuality made national headlines in 2006 when his own actions did not match his teachings:

In this sermon, Ted Haggard presents a traditional argument that the relationship between a man and a woman is intended by God to represent the union between Christ and the Church. Young is borrowing from this same reasoning but adapts this teaching in his Sexperiment: Not only does God desire a relationship between a man and a woman, but he desires a lot of sex in that relationship and not just for reproduction. God created sex for married men and women, he created it to be passionate, and he created it to strengthen the church. And Young created Sexperiment for me to have plenty of fodder for a chapter. So I guess it all works out.