Hobby Lobby and I BELIEVE: The US Identity Crisis

Last week, the USA World Cup team lost to Belgium in a closely-fought game in which the US impressed, or so I’m told (I’m not a soccer fan). Right to the end the fans were still chanting :


It sounds a little odd to the Brit, whose football chants are all “will”, or – ruefully – “won’t”. To our ears, belief in a success that merely “can” be achieved seems a little half-arsed. (“We can’t win”, the German-born US coach Jürgen Klinsmann had already predicted last December). There is something unusual in the I/We division too. UK chants are all us and them: collective identity taken for granted.

But then, in the US, “belief” is a whole different ball game. The day before the match, SCOTUS (the Supreme Court of the United States), upheld the right of the chain store, Hobby Lobby, to cut a number of contraception benefits that are usually standard in employee healthcare insurance packages. The ruling covers cases where such benefits go against the religious beliefs of the owners of any “closely held corporation”, defined by the IRS as having “50% of the value of its outstanding stock owned (directly or indirectly) by five or fewer individuals at any time during the last half of the tax year”.

SCOTUS pointed out that The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability”, unless, that is, the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person— is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest”. Interest vs belief is not a fair fight. The Government granted only short-term utilitarian concerns to set against powerful ideologies held in individual hearts and minds. As more than one person tweeted post-SCOTUS, “Great decision! It’s against my religion to pay taxes!”

 The SCOTUS decision and the Belgium match took place during the same week as Independence Day, the US’s celebration of the nation’s original tax refuseniks. While “No taxation without representation” was a call to extend the involvement of the individual within the state, the Declaration of Independence was an attempt to create a lasting idea of nationhood based on the ‘self-evident’ equality and “unalienable rights” of the person. It is “to secure these rights” it declares, that “Governments are instituted.” This is a vision of a society founded on ‘ontological individualism’  – a theory best summed up, perhaps, by Margaret Thatcher’s words “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women”. 

Sarah Weddington, the attorney representing “Jane Roe” in the 1973 landmark case, Roe vs Wade, helped achieve the legal provision of abortion in the US on the grounds of individual moral freedom: “It is unthinkable to allow complete strangers, whether individually or collectively as state legislators or others in government, to make such personal decisions for someone else.” Besides opening a can of worms about who should pay for healthcare and how, the Hobby Lobby decision goes to the heart of what it is to be a US individual. Hobby Lobby is a very American business. “Founded in a garage by David Green in 1970”, the self-starter company celebrates the small-scale self-expression of crafting, though it has, confusingly, transformed this individualistic pursuit into a large-scale commercial enterprise of “576 stores across the nation that average 55,000 square feet”, selling beads, silk flowers, and what it describes as “accessories and notions”. Most of these are produced industrially and abroad, replacing the hobby components that must once – in idyll if not in memory – have been hand-made as part of the hobbying process. In the hyperlinked world, whether they are “individual” or “collective”, Sarah Weddington’s “complete strangers” no longer exist, at least economically. Hobby Lobby hobbyists are part not only of a national (by virtue of walking into a store), but an international community of makers, both factory and home-based, if only they considered it.  

In response to the SCOTUS decision, Sarah Bakerby (@bakerbk) created this viral Twitter shot:


The image shows how the SCOTUS decision transfers identity from the individual-as-person to individuals-as-abstract-entities, including corporations. In 2010, corporations were awarded the same right as individuals to freedom of speech. 

“I” BELIEVE, but “WE” CAN WIN?: the USA seems at the point of an identity crisis. Though the chant can be traced to a single inventor, Jay Rodriguez, and a single moment, fall 1998, it became popular due to it’s adoption, in 2009, by Utah State University’s basketball team, then by other teams in other sports. Now there’s a network of individuals… 



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