The idea that "corporations are people" seems at first to be a joke. Or an arcane legal fact, a definition of "corporation" in a context where the definition of "people" isn't what you would naturally think it was.
No one would probably care whether corporations are (legal) people or not, anyway, except for the very real political consequences attached to that doctrine.
It's interesting, though, to see that the idea has taken hold not just in legal and political spheres, but elsewhere too. People who, I'm confident, know as little about corporate law as I do, have taken this idea that corporations are "people" quite seriously.
And drawn natural conclusions. Such as:
Starbucks hates God and follows Satan.
One could imagine this as satire, but it doesn't seem to be so. Steve Andrews, head of USA Christian Ministries -- one of the many miniscule would-be-kingmaker organizations making up the Christian Right today -- called for the boycott on exactly these grounds. Starbucks is one of a list of businesses that support same-sex marriage in Washington State, were same-sex marriage was signed into law Monday. For Andrews, this means Starbucks is in rebellion to God, openly hating God, and following Satan in the destruction of America.
I know what it means to say a company support something, and what it means to say a corporation oppose something. There are very practical, measurable facts of the matter. But what does it mean to say a corporation hates? Or loves? Or has any relationship to God at all?
Will Starbucks go to hell? Could it go to heaven? Does it have sins and could those sins be forgiven? Will it stand in judgement at the last day, called to account before the divine throne?
The implicit assumption of Steve Andrews' arguments seems to be yes. It seems that he's taken the idea that corporations are people, and then applied his evangelical anthropology consistently, so what's true of people is true of corporations. Who need Jesus. And must decide, and take a side, and choose whether or not they'll acknowledge Christ as Lord.
This is confusing, though. I can't see how Andrews (taking him in good faith) or anyone could think this is the case.
It's odd, additionally, since the simplest argument that "corporations are people" is that they're nothing more than collections of people. This is Mitt Romney's explanation, e.g. but evangelicals such as Andrews typically hold that only individuals, not collectives, can have relationships with Jesus.
There is, on the other hand, an old Puritan idea that salvation or damnation is collective, i.e., corporate. Thus the debate about whether the coming kingdom of God would include the territories of the New World. Joseph Mede argued America might well be the seat of Satan in the last days, and have no part in Christ's millennial reign. And that that would directly effect America's Christians' participation in the new, heavenly kingdom. Samuel Sewall argued in the other direction, saying the kingdom of heaven on earth probably would include the new world -- Sewall going so far as to make the case "the seat of the Divine Metropolis" would likely be in Mexico.* Such an argument seems silly, but it's based on this idea of covenants, and people being saved or damned as people plural, rather than individuals. As John Winthrop said, in the too famous speech to the Separatists about to land in Massachusetts: "We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body."
Even there, though, the idea was not that the business venture, per se, was Christian or not, but whether the company of saints, i.e., the church, fulfilled its covenant with God. Puritans and others have argued that people, in the sense of race or nation or church, have a such a compact, and will be deal in toto, en masse, but not that profit-making enterprises all necessarily are that way or are dealt that way.
I also sincerely doubt Andrews or those like him would affirm any version of covenant theology.
It does not seem like what he's saying is that certain people who run Starbucks hate God, either. One could make that argument, I suppose, but he seems most interested in opposing the business as a business. Certainly no individuals (as "individuals" are normally understood) are named. Rather, Andrews speaks of the corporation, "Starbucks."
But what does it mean to say that Starbucks hates God? I really have no idea. It seems premised on the assumption, though, that Starbucks is a corporation and corporations are people. But what that means in this context, too, is entirely unclear to me.
It is exactly this confusion that underlines the whole argument about religious freedom being violated by an Obama administration Health and Human Services rule that religious non-profits' health care plans must cover birth control. Though, in practice, this is a question about the breadth of an exception to a law, i.e., whether the exemption for religious organizations should extent to religious schools, hospitals, etc., it's been opposed as requiring a violation of conscience.
But whose conscience?
If, as America's Catholic bishops seem to so adamantly believe, requiring coverage of birth control is to require someone to sin, who is committing this sin? Who could confess it? Who could receive a priest's absolution?
Non-profit corporations, apparently. Who are people. And thus have religious freedom, consciences, etc., and can sin or not, and have a right or wrong relationship to God.
If the argument isn't that corporations are being forced to commit sin, but rather certain people who work in those organizations which are legally classified as organizations, then one should be able to identify the individuals who's freedom is being thus violated. But is it the CEOs? The accountants who purchase the health care plan for the non-profit corporation? The church authorities who oversee the Catholic schools, colleges and hospitals?
It doesn't seem like anyone is making the argument that Catholic individuals are being forced to do something wrong -- something they'd have to repent of, pray for forgiveness for, or, say, be denied communion over. Rather, it seems like the point is that corporations, as such, which is to say, as people, have been forced to violation their consciences.
But it's not like a Catholic hospital receives communion. It's not clear how a corporation, even a Catholic one, could make an act of contrition. Or do any of the things Catholic people are required by their church to do. It's not clear how corporations can be "people" for the Catholic church, or what it means to say a corporation's conscience and religious freedom is violated. Yet, the argument corporations have religious freedom seems to me to be based on this idea that they are people, with all the complications and confusions of what that could mean or would mean just sort of set to the side.
It can still seem like a joke, this idea that corporations are people. Or the subject of a law school seminar. Yet the idea has been taken up by religious groups, taken hold in the sphere of public-religious debates, where what that means, "corporations are people," is supposed to shape positions of current political issues, and what it's understood to mean could have far-reaching consequences.
*E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America, 76-77. Curiously, it's in the context of this argument that the idea of the Rapture is advanced by Cotton Mather.