Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Corporations Are Gods Now

To put the new Supreme Court decision in context, it helps to remember how Elizabeth Warren became a folk hero. This was long before she was running for the Senate, when she was working essentially as a regulator with her focus on financial institutions. In her speeches and official recommendations, she called for corporations to be held accountable for their actions. She patiently spelled out the social consequences of the lack of accountability for corporate actions.

The Supreme Court’s approach, in its recent decision on corporations, is the exact opposite of this. The decision places corporations above the law by allowing them to consult their own religious beliefs when deciding whether to comply with laws regarding the treatment of workers. Corporations, in truth, don’t have religious beliefs, so the decision makes no sense whatsoever, but it is law regardless. And if you consider the consequences, something the Supreme Court clearly could not be bothered to do, the effect is deeply troubling.

Corporations do not have religions, but if corporations did have religious leanings, what would those be? To answer that question, consider this one: if a corporation built a shrine, a temple, a cathedral, or some similar religious edifice, what would it be? The answer is glaringly obvious if you walk around the center of any major city and look at the gleaming towers of glass and metal. Corporations build shrines to themselves. It is not a symbol of any human religion but a corporate logo that you see on the faces of these temples. Corporations have no religious beliefs that a human would recognize, but the belief they do have, more than any other, is a belief in their own overarching greatness. If a corporation were to pray, as it essentially does when it adopts a mission statement or a similar document, it would be praying to itself.

And now, the new Supreme Court decision has codified this into law. When a corporation prays to itself, that is now a protected religious expression. A corporation can appoint itself as god, and not only will the Supreme Court not object, it will all but insist on this arrangement. In essence, the Supreme Court has just declared that corporations are gods. It may not have used those exact words, but that is the principle that will be in play when future cases come before the courts that refer to this decision as a precedent.

This same court’s declaration that corporations are people has gone a long way toward upending democracy. This new declaration that corporations are gods is so mind-bending I can’t begin to draw a line around the possible consequences. But if elevating corporations to the status of people has caused trouble, elevating them to the status of gods will surely make things worse.

Even before the consequences are known, the decision has held the court up to ridicule. Actual religious institutions, ones founded on the religious beliefs of actual people, are deeply troubled at the way the court decision appears to put corporation above religious institutions in the religious sphere. Legal scholars complain that the court, given a chance to make a very clear and simple decision that would uphold the principles of law, elected to make a very complicated decision instead. And for ordinary workers, the bottom line is that the court has made a new law that is almost impossible to explain, but makes everyone’s everyday lives more complicated. Court-watchers described the day as a new low for the Roberts court, in terms of its reputation among legal scholars and the public. This was not just because of the “corporations are gods” decision — there was another equally awkward decision on the same day. When the word on the street is that you don’t have to be a legal scholar to do better than the Supreme Court, it is an indictment not just of the current court, but of the political system that created it.