Using William Ellery Channing to Counter the Hobby Lobby Decision

It has long been my position that if Unitarian Universalists were required to read, study closely, and learn to quote from one single document from our history, it would be William Ellery Channing’s Slavery (available online through Google Books.) While its history is well known — that it alienated the affections of major figures in the congregation which long had revered his service — we cheat the fundamentals of our faith by not focusing on his assertions rather than his courage. The intention he states — to ground equal rights in a philosophical argument that makes no reference to, and recognizes no distinctions, of race, wealth, religious — is just what we need today. For despite Channing’s usual elevation of God, this document joins the lectures on Self-Culture as the groundwork of our humanist values. Much of today’s political breakdown rests on the inability of secular and free-range left wing leaders to articulate a comprehensive philosophical counter to conservative religious arguments. Happily, William Ellery Channing has provided here, in one document, everything we need to lift our stature in current debates. A person, being made in God’s image (according to Channing; you might have a different explanation of our common forms), is plainly an End in himself, purposed by his Maker to pursue the moral law implanted as part of creation and birth.

Here is Channing’s value in the Hobby Lobby, and similar, situations: “Man has rights as a moral being.” Not as a naturally occurring accident which manifests scientific inevitability, not as a servant to even the holiest institutions, not as a covenanted social animal. We are each a moral being and is therefore our inherent right to exercise personal morality.

Pause for a moment to recognize this distinction. It first of all refuses to restate the Locke/Jeffersonian formula: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [Jefferson]/property [Locke]. Instantly it has value to avoid a pitfall where the current political poles have set themselves and gotten stuck. Yet just as he has not called out Locke/Jeffersion, neither does he call out those who see moral self-improvement in terms of a particular religion or doctrine. Perhaps that explains why Dr. Channing stood alone among Unitarians of his day in fellowshipping with Roman Catholics on terms of mutual respect. In today’s realm, his argument offers as much to libertarians as to covenanters, and, more importantly, states a limit which applies as greatly to radical individualism as to corporate power.

Channing sets this definition against extremist uses of the Locke/Jeffersonian right to pursue, to hold, and to alienate [sell] personal property. Before money, before land, before even clothing and shelter, Channing says there is a basic property inherent from birth, and it is the right to exercise one’s physical, intellectual, and moral capacities for one’s own ends. When we say a criminal forfeits such rights, we are affirming that he or she had them. When a worker signs a contract to provide labor, he hands over only such rights as the contract enumerates, and only for such time as the contract designates. It is the duty of the contractor to assure that implicit rights — human rights — are not by the terms of the labor removed.

Back in the day, schoolchildren studied a play from William Shakespeare called “The Merchant of Venice.” It reeks of anti-Semitism and is therefore no longer so highly esteemed, for its climax used to teach us, in graphic terms, exactly what Channing laid out with such philosophical loftiness. A young man, whose name I forget, has contracted to provide, if he fails to repay the money, a pound of his own flesh. Dim memory hints that this repulsive requirement arose from distaste from the young man’s courtship of the merchant’s daughter, but in any case, this is what the merchant demanded. The young man trembles in fear and turns to legal redress. The judge announces that this aspect of the contract can only be performed if the merchant can find a way to carry it out without removing a single drop of blood, for blood is not something the young man contracted to surrender. So our language came up with the term, “exacting a pound of flesh” for unreasonable requests piled onto what started reasonably.

How valuable this dispassionate assertion as a way to throw cold water into the hot tempers of our current political dysfunction! Whether it’s about unions or family or money itself, Channing has given us a powerful tool. Here are the sentences I would have all of us offer on a regular basis::

“As every human being is bound to employ his faculties for his own and others’ good, there in an obligation on each to leave all free for the accomplishment of this end; and whoever respects this obligation, whoever uses his own, without invading others’ power, or obstructing other’ duties, has a sacred, indefeasible right to be unassailed, unobstructed, unharmed by all with whom he may be connected. Here is the grand, all-comprehending right of human nature. Every man should revere it, should assert it for himself and for all, and should bear solemn testimony against every infraction of it, by whomsoever made or endured.”

I write this post in part to explain my assertion yesterday that the Hobby Lobby case can be turned against its victors by embracing their claim that a corporation has moral duties. Let the Supreme Court assert that human rights apply to corporations, whether set up for profit or social good: what our religion’s greatest founder taught is that moral beings have moral obligations. And the first of these is, to maintain the moral independence of all others.


7 thoughts on “Using William Ellery Channing to Counter the Hobby Lobby Decision

  1. I think you’re way over reading this case. I believe insurance should insure against excessive costs, not a prepaid plan covering routine costs of staying healthy. But if ‘reproductive health services’ in debate here are that important and difficult for all to obtain, than it seems a better argument for the Government to provide for all as a subsidy or tax credit, rather than mandate employers include in their benefits packages.

  2. PS Because I don’t by the case anyone argues corporations or any other collectives are moral actors in the same way individuals are. If anything the conservatives and libertarians I cross paths with of the mind that almost any human collective bound to stray and violate human rights. And the larger the collective and more powerful collective, the greater the risk. That’s why you find Tea Partiers and Conservatives pushing things like Term Limits for Politicans. They don’t trust power. They feel much the same about big corporations. It was the bailouts that sparked so much of the movement in the first place.

  3. Bill — preventive care is one way to reduce excessive costs and it’s very common for health insurance companies to encourage preventive care.

    The Guttmacher Institute and others have already documented the benefits of contraceptives in reducing excessive costs:

    Women and couples use contraceptives to have healthier pregnancies, to help time and space births, and to achieve their desired family size.

    Family planning has well-documented health benefits for mothers, newborns, families and communities. Pregnancies that occur too early or too late in a woman’s life, or that are spaced too closely, negatively affect maternal health and increase the risk of prematurity and low birth weight.

    Source —

    Providing birth control falls into the same preventive health category as immunizations (no co-pay on my insurance), smoking cessation (no co-pay as well), and colonoscopy for persons over the age of 50 (also no co-pay).

    This is because insurance companies know it’s better for their bottom line to reduce any potential barriers for customers using preventive care. It’s also better for society as a whole.

  4. Steve… a bit of a tangent, but preventive car in the sense of Obama care’s implementation far far from a cost saver. There’s a good bit of research on this.. google around but here is a good one from NEJM I’ve had some first hand experience with this in VA. In a nutshell, the costs of screening a whole population to determine they have nothing wrong usually far exceeds the costs saved from the true postives.

    This is also the big policy failure with Obamacare and the Mass plan. Politicans want to add popular screens and services for the general population. At some point that grows and puts the pressure on the expensive interventions to treat the sick. These plans become prepaid service plans and no longer insurance plans for illness.

    From a policy point of a view, I’d like to keep insurance as insurance and push the low cost stuff onto non traditional providers who know how to offer this stuff to big populations at low cost… i.e. I’d Walmartize a good bit of the Medical Government complex.

  5. PS Back to Elz’s theme on Conservatives and Corporations as Moral agents, my experience with Social Conservatives in Illinois is they would scoff at the notion of Corporations as purveyors or morality of any sorts (or capable of it because of the profite motive). Corporations are up to their neck in American’s “moral decline” (their view) and would be quick to cite stories such as this:

    The only difference between a social conservative and the purvailing progressive view on the worth of corporate America would be IMO the social conservative fears the power given to a Government to police corporations e.g. prohibing corporate donations to a Gay Pride parade, more than the immorality that comes from letting a corporation spend freely as it wishes. A Progressive in turn things the Government can enforce a moral corporation as Elz suggests here.

    Makes sense?

    • Oops! The theme wasn’t that conservatives and corporations have been moral agents in the past, nor do I believe that they will be so unless we learn how to hold them accountable. “Outcomes based” accountability goes only so far in the American context, because people everywhere embrace the idea that society ought to have natural leaders, and these folks will have more assets at their disposal. I’m trying to come up with a philosophical foundation for establishing limits to those assets and the options available for employing them.

      Arguments against the Supreme Court affirmations that corporations are legal persons fall into two categories. The more familiar argument is that a “person” is a physical human being, and that argument is going nowhere. So what do we do instead? Let’s push the premise: if corporations are legal persons, let’s strip out their special legal protections, especially limited legal liability. Right now, the right trots that out to protect shareholders — which includes people like me, because I depend on an IRA — whereas in fact, it is used to protect management, who are as ready to victimize shareholders as anyone else. What I’m saying — as both a community member and a shareholder — is that once corporations are legal persons, they have the same responsibilities as any other legal persons, and the same vulnerability to legal consequences.

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