As we're greeted today by the news that a Christian bakery in Northern Ireland faces legal action over refusing to bake a cake with a slogan in support of gay marriage, this week's New York Times column by Ross Douthat is hugely relevant. What I like about Douthat is that e's almost never content to trot out the same old line on any given issue, instead inviting his readers to consider things from an unusual angle.
His column this week is no different – in it, he argues that left-wing liberals should be fans of Hobby Lobby, the company that just won a case at the US Supreme Court exempting them from having to provide health insurance that covers abortifacients under the Obama administration's HHS Mandate.
Talking about the rightly-bemoaned decline of the “socially conscious corporation” in American life, he writes:
There are, however, exceptions: companies that still have a sense of business as a moral calling, which can be held up as examples to shame the bottom-liners.
One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, (the US minimum wage is $7.50) and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”
He's talking about Hobby Lobby, but he's also talking about the way religious organisations in general are often the ones most likely to be pursuing liberalism's economic goals. Douthat argues that attempting to weaken or just get rid of those organisations in the same of social liberalism will only end up hurting the poor.
His argument echoes that of his colleague David Brooks, who wrote a masterful column a couple of years ago called 'Flood The Zone', in which he argues that to fight a problem as complex and multifaceted as poverty, you need a “thick ecosystem” of voluntary and community organisations.
To build this thick ecosystem, you have to include religious institutions and you have to give them broad leeway. Religious faith is quirky, and doesn’t always conform to contemporary norms. But faith motivates people to serve. Faith turns lives around. You want to do everything possible to give these faithful servants room and support so they can improve the spiritual, economic and social ecology in poor neighborhoods.
As I'm more of an economic lefty than either Douthat or Brooks, I'm happy to go further: It's perfectly appropriate for the state to actively fund certain types of religious organisations with values that differ from the state's own, because having a healthy plurality of such groups and organisations, all striving for the common good, is a net benefit to society – even when their visions of the common good sometimes clash with each other, or with the conventional wisdom.
Which is why the last report from the Forum on Patronage in Primary Schools was a big improvement on its predecessors – it did much more to acknowledge the ways in which a religious ethos can be agood thing in education, rather than just a barrier to inclusion.
There are dangers for left-wingers in automatically assuming that religious organisations are enemies. In fact, by making that choice, activists may be helping to destroy potential allies – whether they're schools, hospitals or even bakers – who uphold values that any liberal ought to hold dear.