By / May 13

Two weeks ago, the Small Business Administration (SBA) issued new guidance (FAQ 31) for the Paycheck Protection Program that raised concerns and uncertainty about whether nonprofit organizations and houses of worship were able to certify that their loan application was “necessary” given the current economic uncertainty. This guidance indicated that organizations would be required to consider other sources of liquidity before they could certify that the loan application was necessary.

Because many nonprofit organizations and houses of worship had already received loans under the program, many have been actively considering not participating in the program because of an unclear set of standards. For instance, would nonprofit organizations need to deplete all unrestricted cash, including minimum reserve balances, before applying?

Thankfully, today SBA issued a clear, bright-line safe harbor that gives certainty for organizations that have received small loans under the Paycheck Protection Program that they may certify that their loan application was necessary given the current economic climate. Many nonprofit organizations have applied for PPP assistance based on incomplete information about giving trends and the medium-range economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While organizations will still need to meet SBA’s loan forgiveness requirements in the future, they need not worry about whether their certification that the application was necessary will be second-guessed with the benefit of hindsight.

What’s the bottom line?

The SBA will consider the necessity certification for all loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million to have been made in good faith. In other words, if a church or ministry received less than $2 million, they need not fear the SBA later making the argument that the loan was not necessary.

Question 46 of the new guidance is below, and the full, updated guidance may be found at the Treasury Department’s website.

How will SBA review borrowers’ required good-faith certification concerning the necessity of their loan request?

Answer: When submitting a PPP application, all borrowers must certify in good faith that “[c]urrent economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary to support the ongoing operations of the Applicant.” SBA, in consultation with the Department of the Treasury, has determined that the following safe harbor will apply to SBA’s review of PPP loans with respect to this issue: Any borrower that, together with its affiliates, received PPP loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million will be deemed to have made the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request in good faith.

SBA has determined that this safe harbor is appropriate because borrowers with loans below this threshold are generally less likely to have had access to adequate sources of liquidity in the current economic environment than borrowers that obtained larger loans. This safe harbor will also promote economic certainty as PPP borrowers with more limited resources endeavor to retain and rehire employees. In addition, given the large volume of PPP loans, this approach will enable SBA to conserve its finite audit resources and focus its reviews on larger loans, where the compliance effort may yield higher returns.

Importantly, borrowers with loans greater than $2 million that do not satisfy this safe harbor may still have an adequate basis for making the required good-faith certification, based on their individual circumstances in light of the language of the certification and SBA guidance. SBA has previously stated that all PPP loans in excess of $2 million, and other PPP loans as appropriate, will be subject to review by SBA for compliance with program requirements set forth in the PPP Interim Final Rules and in the Borrower Application Form. If SBA determines in the course of its review that a borrower lacked an adequate basis for the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request, SBA will seek repayment of the outstanding PPP loan balance and will inform the lender that the borrower is not eligible for loan forgiveness. If the borrower repays the loan after receiving notification from SBA, SBA will not pursue administrative enforcement or referrals to other agencies based on its determination with respect to the certification concerning necessity of the loan request. SBA’s determination concerning the certification regarding the necessity of the loan request will not affect SBA’s loan guarantee.

By / May 7

Dear Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Schumer, and Minority Leader McCarthy:

Thank you for your hard work on passing previous COVID-19 relief packages. I’m grateful for your efforts and your dedication to assisting others during this time of crisis. While those packages include many provisions to aid people who have been affected by the crisis, there are more steps that need to be taken to help.

The economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be difficult for many and devastating for others, including our nation’s most vulnerable populations. As you work on the details of a Phase 4 legislative package, I write to ask you to include our nation’s charitable sector and protect our vulnerable populations. The charitable sector is on the frontlines of this crisis, providing care and resources for the unemployed, the elderly, and the vulnerable. There are many suffering from COVID-19, but certain vulnerable populations are suffering from unique burdens and challenges right now.

I’d like to ask you to include the following provisions in a Phase 4 package:

Charitable Sector and Nonprofits Provisions

Two-year Universal Charitable Deduction to Encourage Giving to Charities

A Universal Charitable Deduction (UCD) would incentivize all taxpayers to give to nonprofits and charities, including churches. This action would help mitigate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our government should welcome the generosity of all citizens–at all levels of income–who desire to help their neighbors through religious associations, educational institutions, and any organization that relieves poverty.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 doubled the standard deduction, which means that most Americans no longer itemize their deductions. Under the federal tax code, people can only claim a deduction for charitable contributions if they itemize their deductions. Since the amount of people who itemize deductions has shrunk, many nonprofits are concerned there would be a drop in donations, because of the lack of incentive to give. The Charitable Deduction is the only deduction for which the taxpayer receives no other material benefit (compared with the mortgage interest deduction or tuition deduction).

The Phase 4 relief package should include an unlimited Universal Charitable Deduction, retroactive to 2019 and extending for two years to propel American generosity to the organizations serving at the front lines in our communities.

Provide Additional Payroll Support for Charitable Nonprofits

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) authorized billions of dollars in forgivable loans to small businesses to pay their employees during the COVID-19 crisis. While some nonprofits were able to access a PPP loan, many others weren’t able to, due to a variety of reasons, including limited funds in the PPP program.

The inability to access those loans will hinder the good work of many nonprofits, and could permanently close other charitable organizations. This could be solved through a nonprofit charity grant program that would be accessed by faith-based charities to support employee retention, hiring, and programming. The funds could be administered through a nonprofit PPP program, and a nonprofit grant program administered by the U.S. Treasury.

Additionally, the 500 employee cap under the PPP could be adjusted to support larger nonprofit organizations. This adjustment will allow for more charitable organizations to be able to receive financial aid, to help keep their doors open. Faith-based and charitable nonprofits are on the frontlines of caring for the vulnerable, especially in times of crisis, and the U.S. government should seek to provide the necessary support for these important organizations.

Support Nonprofit K-12 Schools and Families

While the CARES Act allocated funding for K-12 public schools, there was limited support for faith-based educational institutions that educate millions of children. Congress should provide additional support for nonpublic schools, by enacting a tax deduction, retroactive to 2018 for a portion of tuition payments made by parents to a non-public K-12 school. Parents who choose to enroll their children in these institutions are facing financial strain and stress, and many may be unable to pay the full tuition amount. This tax deduction could ease their burden, and also help the public school sector from being overwhelmed if there was an influx of children and youth enrolling.

Provisions to help Vulnerable and At-Risk Populations

Flexibility within the SNAP Benefit Program

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted food supply chains, driving up the price of food, which has a disparate impact for lower-income families. Many families find themselves newly needing to access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While Congress did expand and increase unemployment insurance and benefits, many families are still unable to feed their children. Malnutrition weakens peoples’ immune systems, and children who are malnourished face long-term health and cognitive consequences.

In addition, not all SNAP recipients are able to purchase groceries online for home delivery. This especially puts the elderly poor in urban areas at particular risk—they risk exposure on public transportation and at grocery stores. Congress should include a provision that legally expands the USDA online SNAP purchasing pilot program to all states, to help vulnerable SNAP recipients be able to safely get food.

Congress should allow for flexibility within the SNAP program, to ensure that individuals’ needs are met, that all Americans have access to food security, and that participants are able to purchase food in ways that keep them safe. SNAP is the most cost-effective anti-hunger program in the United States and has the added benefit of supporting local small businesses. Allowing flexibility within this program will seek to ensure that people’s basic needs are met, and more Americans will have food security.

Flexibility within the Chafee Program for Foster Youth

The John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood (Chafee Program) provides funds to states, territories, and Indian tribal entities (states) with material and other support for current and former foster youth. Congress should allow for flexibility within this program to serve and support older youth facing the stress and disruptions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, youth age out of foster care between ages 18 and 21, depending on the state they live in. Congress should allow for all youth, in all states to participate in the Chafee program until age 23. This will provide additional resources for youth who have transitioned out of foster care before the COVID-19 crisis hit.

Flexibility on Discharges from the Foster Care System for Youth Ages 18 to 21

Youth in foster care age out between 18 and 21, depending on the state. The statistics are grim for youth that age out under normal circumstances, and many youth experience homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, and are at a higher risk of being trafficked. Congress should place a moratorium on youth aging out during the COVID-19 crisis for youth, ages 18 to 21 to provide safety and security, so they can continue their current living arrangements, and have the support they need. This additional time will help these youth successfully transition out of care.

Flexibility for Compassionate Release in the Federal Prison System

Incarcerated men and women are especially vulnerable in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis because of contained physical space. This is especially true for aging and immunocompromised incarcerated populations. Congress should expand compassionate release during the pandemic, so that higher-risk individuals would be protected from medical harm. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and federal courts use this tool to reduce sentences for federal prisoners on a case-by-case basis for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”

Congress should temporarily reduce the 30 day waiting period for federal prisoners to file a motion for compassionate release directly with a federal court in order to speed up the process and provide quicker physical and medical relief to those incarcerated.

Use Digital Programming in Federal Prisons

In accordance with social distancing guidelines, federal prisons have restricted traditional face-to-face programming and visitation. These prisons should allow for use of electronic tablets for those incarcerated to allow access to rehabilitative programming while the threat of COVID-19 persists. These programs are crucial for long-term outcomes and community reintegration, and we urge Congress to find ways to ensure that these programs can continue.

Support for Second-Chance Entrepreneurs

The Paycheck Protection Program eligibility requirements deny financial relief to small business owners with a criminal record. An estimated one in three Americans have a criminal record, and the strict requirements hinder many business owners from accessing the Paycheck Protection Program. This restriction places an additional burden on those who have already paid their debt to their communities and who are working to support themselves, their families, and their communities.

To the extent that fraud is a concern, SBA has other tools at its disposal, including audits conducted at the time of loan forgiveness. These new restrictions should be lifted to allow all members of our communities to participate.

Thank you again for your hard work during these difficult times. I appreciate your consideration of these issues I raise here, and I look forward to working with you in the coming weeks.


Russell Moore
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

By / Apr 4

This week, as the Small Business Administration (SBA) launched the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to aid small businesses, nonprofits, and houses of worship, a few lingering questions remained in terms of how the SBA’s normal requirements for its loans would apply to faith-based nonprofits and houses of worship. The administration resolved those questions through the release of two interim final rules and a frequently asked questions document for faith-based organizations. These rules and guidance provide clear answers for faith-based organizations deciding whether to move forward with an SBA 7(a) loan during this time of crisis. Here is a summary of the key parts of these documents, which are linked at the bottom of this article.

Faith-based organizations and houses of worship don’t surrender their rights by participating in the PPP.

Faith-based organizations and houses of worship will retain all constitutional and statutory religious freedom rights as they participate in the PPP. Indeed, as discussed further below, several program requirements are modified or waived for faith-based organizations in light of the religious freedom rights that they possess. According to the SBA guidance: Simply put, a faith-based organization that receives a loan will retain its independence, autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and authority over its governance, and no faith-based organization will be excluded from receiving funding because leadership with, membership in, or employment by that organization is limited to persons who share its religious faith and practice. Further, in the initial rules for the PPP, the Small Business Administration made clear, “All loans guaranteed by the SBA pursuant to the CARES Act will be made consistent with constitutional, statutory, and regulatory protections for religious liberty, including the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and other regulatory and statutory protections for faith-based organizations.

Faith-based organizations retain their rights to hire leaders and staff consistent with their religious beliefs.

Current SBA regulations and the new guidance released this week make clear that faith-based organizations, including churches, may continue to hire pastors, leaders, and staff that share their religious beliefs. No new requirements on hiring will apply if the organization participates in the PPP. The guidance states, “SBA regulations also make clear that these nondiscrimination requirements do not limit a faith-based entity’s autonomy with respect to membership or employment decisions connected to its religious exercise.”

Churches will not be required to change membership requirements or religious practices.

Although participating in the PPP program does come with some new nondiscrimination requirements, discussed further below, the SBA guidance makes clear that churches will not be required to make changes to its religious practices, including membership, Bible studies, weddings, funerals, and so on. As discussed above, churches retain their religious freedom rights even while participating in the program.

Faith-based organizations will be required to offer social services to the public without discrimination, but most organizations already do.

While participating in the program, faith-based organizations will be required to offer goods, services, and accommodations to the general public without discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, age, or national origin. It is worth noting, however, that on principle, nearly every faith-based organization or church is already doing so. Consider the example of a soup kitchen or thrift store: these services are already open to all and not for the sake of complying with a nondiscrimination law, but for the sake of the gospel. The guidance clarifies that these new requirements do not apply to a church’s ability to care for its own members. The guidance states, “SBA’s regulations do not apply to limit a faith-based organization’s ability to distribute food or clothing exclusively to its own members or co-religionists.” Further, the guidance clarifies that these new requirements are not permanent, “once the loan is paid or forgiven, those nondiscrimination obligations will no longer apply.” To see the SBA’s full guidance of this issue, see question 5 in the SBA’s new FAQ document.

Faith-based organizations are generally exempt from the SBA’s affiliation rules.

In order to qualify for the PPP, the organization must have fewer than 500 employees. In addition, the SBA has a complex set of affiliation rules that have raised some questions about whether a group of churches or an entire denomination should be counted as a single organization for the purposes of the 500-employee limit. The SBA’s guidance clarifies, “If the connection between your organization and another entity that would constitute an affiliation is based on a religious teaching or belief or is otherwise a part of the exercise of religion, your organization qualifies for an exemption from the affiliation rules.” For further information about the exemption for affiliation requirements, see questions 6, 7, and 8 in the SBA’s FAQ document.

Churches can participate even if they have not received their own tax exemption letter from the IRS.

Guidance from the SBA clarifies that churches are eligible to participate even if they have not received their own tax exemption letter from the IRS. This applies to churches and integrated auxiliaries that are operating under another organization or convention’s tax exempt status as well as churches that meet the statutory definition of a church but have not applied for tax exempt status. The guidance provides: Churches (including temples, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship), integrated auxiliaries of churches, and conventions or associations of churches qualify for PPP and EIDL loans as long as they meet the requirements of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and all other PPP and EIDL requirements. Such organizations are not required to apply to the IRS to receive tax-exempt status. See 26 U.S.C. § 508(c)(1)(A).


Thankfully, the SBA’s new guidance provides the answers to the questions that churches and nonprofit organizations have been asking this week with respect to religious freedom and eligibility for the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program. To go deeper, the documents discussed above may be found here:

By / Dec 3

If you’re like me, your calendar was hemorrhaging long before the holidays showed up. In fact, the pace we keep is a cultural phenomenon of sorts—one that most of us aren’t equipped to handle well.

Our ever-present phones make us daily, instantaneously available to hundreds, even thousands, of people. Our “commuter-style community”—since friends and family no longer live together in the same village or neighborhood—demands Herculean time and effort. (You know that coffee date with your friend? The one that took you 17 texts and three reschedules and a 45-minute drive? Case in point.)

Electricity allows us to stay up long past sundown (when our bodies are naturally wired for sleep), and a stealth little lie tells us that the more we do, the more we’re worth. As if that’s not enough, our world is under the curse of sin, so our work is difficult, people expect more of us than we can deliver, and sudden crises make wreckage of our well-plotted calendars.

Quieting my anxious heart

In the past, I dealt with this reality in a variety of unhealthy ways—two of which were as Lady Failure (“Everyone expects so much of me, I can never measure up!”) and Self-sufficient Savior (“I’m their only hope! I have to save them!”). My attempts to satisfy endless expectations and demands only succeeded in making me anxious, resentful, or withdrawn. I was keeping a lot of people happy, I was getting a lot done, but I was regularly running on fumes emotionally and physically.

But in recent years, I’ve been learning the skill of quieting myself in God’s presence, of perceiving him with me smack-dab in the middle of life’s pressures. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky talk. This is rubber-meets-the-road truth that is changing the way I think and feel and act. You’re already familiar with these, but take another look at a few of the Scriptures that talk about God’s “with-ness”:

  • Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me (Psa. 23:4).
  • But as for me, God’s presence is my good (Psa. 73:28).
  • So Joseph was there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him (Gen. 39:20-21).
  • The Lord your God is with you; he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you. He will quiet you with his love. He will rejoice over you with singing (Zeph. 3:17).

“God with us” is our good, our confidence, our peace, and our salvation. We may not be able to slow life down to a snail’s pace; we may not be able to circumvent exhaustion or avoid pain—but we absolutely can keep a quiet heart when we live in the keen awareness of God’s presence.

How I’m learning to be aware of God’s presence

Let me give you an example of how I’m learning to do this on a daily basis. I typically wake in the morning with my mind racing through all the messages I haven’t returned, the work deadline ahead, the places we need to be today, the people we’ll be connecting with. Then there’s the inevitable: Do I have snacks for my son’s school event? What gift am I going to take to the shower? Did I fill out that paperwork for my next doctor’s appointment?

Perhaps in our own acceptance of weakness and dependence, we will show someone else how to go to God.

Just as my stomach begins to tie itself into a nice little knot, I stop and remind myself that God is with me. I say to him, “God, thank you for being with me and giving me everything I need in order to do what YOU want me to do today.” Then I thank him for a few simple things: the time with sweet friends last night, my husband’s amazing forgiveness, the anticipation of my morning cup of coffee. Finally, I bring a Scripture to mind. This isn’t the deeper Bible study I’ll get to later today, but it’s still meaningful truth that directs my heart to God.

And now? Now I can sense him with me, and the weight of today no longer rests on my shoulders—it’s on his, where it belongs. Inevitably, I’ll need to revisit this practice (prayer, gratitude, truth) many times throughout my day. But that in itself is a beautiful thing, is it not? We never stop needing him. And the more we go to him, the greater our peace and joy.

Here’s another simple way I quiet myself: I follow Elisabeth Elliot’s advice to “do the next thing.” If I knew everything that the month will require of me, I’d probably just stay in bed with the sheets pulled over my head. But I’ve been given extraordinary provision to do what’s right in front of me, this very moment. I can wash another sink of dishes, have a difficult conversation, or drive through traffic to another doctor’s appointment—because God is with me, and he has everything I need.

I love how Andrew Murray wrote of this in his book Humility: “The life God bestows is imparted not once for all but each moment by the unceasing operation of His mighty power. Humility, the place of entire dependence upon God, is from the very nature of things the first duty and the highest virtue of His creatures.”

So when my day finally comes to a close, I can leave unfinished business at the feet of my Lord, trusting that he is God and I am not. Maybe I let someone down (someone I really wanted to care for). Maybe my phone is still full of unreturned messages. Maybe my to-do list is laughing at me. Can I rest in that? Do I trust that God can work out these tasks and these relationships far better than I can?

How about you? Is someone deeply disappointed in you for not being available to them right now? Do you have more tasks than you do time? We are gloriously limited creatures—and it is a difficult but beautiful thing to be weak, to be utterly dependent upon the One who “bears our burdens day after day” (Psa. 68:19). Perhaps in our own acceptance of weakness and dependence, we will show someone else how to go to God.

As we seek the presence of Jesus, our limitations are not laziness, nor are they a means of self-preservation. Rather, they are divine invitations to experience the Spirit’s power in and through us. We are called to lovingly lay down our lives for others, but the life we lay down must flow from Christ in us—and not out of guilt or people-pleasing or self-sufficiency. When we practice God’s presence and ask him for moment-by-moment wisdom to “do the next thing,” we get to experience his joy—and his joy is our strength (Neh. 8:10)! On the contrary, when we frantically try to “do ALL the things” and keep everyone happy, we ultimately fail at loving people well and redeeming the time.

I have many miles to go in learning how to abide in God’s presence in the pressures of life, but I’m so grateful for the journey. And it’s liberating to finally understand that busyness isn’t my enemy; it’s an opportunity to turn to God and experience his nearness.

“Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you; I will help you;
I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand.” —Isaiah 41:10

By / Jul 29

Religious liberty is “the condition in which individuals or groups are permitted without restraint to assent to and, within limits, to express and act upon religious convictions and identity free of coercive interference or penalty imposed by outsiders, including the state.” The 800th anniversary of Magna Carta was June 15, 2015, and Magna Carta set forth, for the first time in Western law, the revolutionary idea that all people are subject to the rule of law. Magna Carta propounded 63 distinct liberties, first of which was the freedom of the English Church:

“In the first place we grant to God and confirm by this our present charter for ourselves and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church is to be free and to have all its rights fully and its liberties entirely.”

This Western tradition of religious freedom, though wrought with inconsistencies, carried forward to the formation of the United States of America. America’s cherished first freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Religious liberty, however, is not just an American or Western value. The 1981 U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief set forth the truth that violations of religious liberty have “brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance and Discrimination each decry the violation of religious liberty and are considered binding on roughly three-fourths of the world’s nations.

Unfortunately, not all nations of the world respect religious freedom. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory commission that monitors religious freedom worldwide and acts as policy advisors to the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government. USCIRF bases its analysis and recommendations on its statutory authority and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In its recently released 2015 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended the designation of 17 countries as Tier 1 countries of particular concern, or CPC, including China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam. The USCIRF also placed 10 countries on the Tier 2 list, countries that do not fully meet the CPC standard, but are nonetheless characterized by at least one of the elemental violations of CPC countries. Those countries include Cuba, India, Turkey and Russia. These countries are marked not by the religious freedom guaranteed in Magna Carta, the U.S. First Amendment or U.N. Declaration, but rather act in violation of the first and most basic human right.

But, what does this have to do with international trade law? Like the obligation to minimize or prevent certain human rights labor violations in the global supply chain, international trade law can be used to combat religious liberty violations around the world. In fact, United States Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, has taken the lead to make international religious freedom a cornerstone of American trade policy for the first time in the nation’s history.

Om May 18, 2015, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Sen. Lankford’s amendment to the Senate version of the Trade Promotion Authority bill by a vote of 92-0. The amendment added a provision to TPA’s overall negotiating objectives requiring the Obama Administration to consider the religious freedom record of parties to trade negotiations. The amendment does not provide specific directives on how the Obama Administration should consider a country’s religious freedom record in trade negotiations, but makes clear that the U.S. will take seriously the religious freedom of all people in all nations – religious liberty is of more importance than economic liberalization. The provision will be the first time in American history that religious freedom will be taken into account during unilateral trade agreement negotiations should it pass the U.S. House and be signed into law.

The trading partner most directly impacted by Sen. Lankford’s religious liberty amendment to TPA is Vietnam, the only country currently party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and named to the USCIRF Tier 1 CPC list. According to the USCIRF 2015 Annual Report, Vietnam severely restricts independent religious practice and represses individuals and religious groups its government views as challenging its authority. Individuals remain imprisoned for religious activity or religious freedom activity. The USCIRF has recommended that Vietnam be named a Tier 1 CPC every year since 2001.

It is unclear, though, just how Vietnam might be impacted by the amendment in TPP negotiations. The U.S. trade delegation could choose to minimize the objective, making a joint declaration in any trade agreement with no compliance teeth. The U.S. trade delegation may pursue a path with more teeth and tie the reduction of customs duty for goods sourced from Vietnam to the certification of liberalized religious liberty policies. The most aggressive, and least likely, would have the U.S. trade delegation negotiate a change in Vietnamese religious liberty policy parallel with a trade agreement. Regardless of the implementation, though, the existence of a negotiating objective related to the advance of religious liberty globally is a welcome sight even as the U.S. pursues trade liberalization.

Economic freedom is important, but religious freedom is more important. To echo Sen. Lankford’s floor speech, the greatest American export is the “dignity of each person…[and that] every person should have protection of the government to live their faith, not the compulsion of the government to practice any one faith or to be forced to reject all faith altogether.” The U.S. can pursue both policy goals – the expansion of religious liberty globally and trade liberalization. There is no dichotomous split between the goals and trade agreements can serve as a vehicle to effectively influence countries to pursue the “dignity of each person” by protecting religious liberty.

By / Oct 16

If we know that the poor will always be among us, what should we do about it? Can we really do anything that truly matters?

The answer to those questions has been explored and discussed numerous times. Thankfully, there are organizations dedicated to helping equip the Church in serving those in need. One such ministry is HOPE International. HOPE’s mission is to invest in the dreams of the poor as they proclaim and live the gospel in the world's under-served communities. They do this by: Sharing the hope of Christ as they provide biblically based training, savings services, and loans that restore dignity and break the cycle of poverty. The love of Jesus Christ motivates them to identify with those living in poverty and be His hands and feet as they strive to glorify God.

I interviewed Christ Horst, author of Mission Drift and Vice President of Development for HOPE, in order to learn more about this ministry. Horst has been with HOPE since 2006 and is based out of Denver, Colo.

HOPE provides funds through microfinance. What is microfinance? 

HORST: Microfinance is the process of giving small loans and savings services to entrepreneurs in developing countries. They use that capital to start small businesses. With their profit, they repay their loans.

This works well in developing countries where jobs are scarce and small. Family-owned businesses are very common. A loan of $50 or $100 helps grassroots entrepreneurs start businesses—it helps tailors buy sewing machines, farmers buy seeds and fertilizers and grocers buy their products in bulk.

Many microfinance organizations also provide business training to their clients. At HOPE, we’re also firmly committed to sharing the love of Christ with our clients so that they flourish not just economically, but also spiritually. We believe Jesus’ sobering words that a man can gain the whole world yet still forfeit his soul. Because of this, we see ourselves not just as bankers, but as missionaries, reaching into far corners of the earth with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

How has this approach to serving the poor been beneficial to the individual, their community and the economy of their region? 

HORST: At HOPE, we've found that most poor people really want to work. They have gifts and abilities they'd like to have utilized, but are often unable to do so because jobs are scarce. Unemployment robs them of the dignity that comes from working and providing for their families.

Our founder Jeff Rutt discovered this in the 1990s when he started travelling to Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His church started sending containers of food, clothing and medical supplies to the city of Zaporozhye. Eventually, a pastor there pulled him aside and said the donations were doing more harm than good. People were becoming dependent on the shipments, and local businesses were losing customers because they couldn’t compete.

Rutt came back to the U.S. and started researching. He heard about microfinance, and in 1997, HOPE International was born. We started with loans to 12 entrepreneurs in the Ukraine, and we’ve grown to 17 countries, now serving over 675,000 grassroots entrepreneurs across the globe.

What are the criteria for becoming a HOPE country?

HORST: At HOPE, we are committed to serving the world’s under served communities in the countries of greatest poverty. That means we focus our work in countries that don’t already have a concentration of financial services. We look for clients who don’t have access to formal banking opportunities. Right now, we work in 17 countries throughout Latin America, Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Some examples of countries that we work in are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, Haiti and Malawi.

How do you find the individuals to borrow money? Can anyone apply? Is there an application process?

HORST: Our goal is to always work alongside the local church. Often, when we start work in a new area, we will connect with pastors and train them and other community leaders. From there, we ask them to recommend people for our programs. Our field staff—all local to the countries where they work—are ultimately responsible for recruiting new clients and informing communities about the opportunity.

We employ a vetting process for clients. Our field staff members verify the business a client proposes to ensure it’s sustainable and has room for growth. Most clients come to us with a pre-existing business or concept. While there’s not a formal application, clients agree to the process, and they go through a multi-session training on how they must use the loan before receiving the funds. 

Since our inception in 1997, HOPE and our field partners have issued over two million loans to these entrepreneurs. And they’ve proven to be a remarkably good risk. Over that time, we’ve had a 98 percent repayment rate.

How long does it usually take to process a loan from the development to the implementation of the business? 

HORST: Our loan cycle is short—clients typically repay their loans within six months. We only give loans to clients who have strong business plans and who are ready to succeed so they can quickly purchase the items that will make them more productive. Usually, that increased productivity translates very quickly to greater profit.

What are some of the most common businesses started?

HORST: The businesses are diverse, just like the 675,000 clients we work with!

HOPE clients operate grocery stores, clothing stands, farming cooperatives, restaurants and catering services. Some sell donuts, and others produce wheelbarrows. We have one client in Burundi who started a business renting out chairs and place settings for weddings. She eventually grew her business to serve events of 200 people, and she began renting out wedding dresses as well.

I understand that most of the loans are for women. Why do you think that is?

HORST: We provide business training, savings services and small loans to the most vulnerable people around the world. In many areas where we work, women are most vulnerable because they have been excluded from traditional business and banking opportunities. Yet, research has shown that women are most likely to invest in their family. So when we empower women with opportunities to run successful businesses, we are in turn investing in children, education, nutrition and healthcare. By investing in women, we are investing in their entire communities.

Are there any new countries or regions you are currently working with?

HORST: About a year ago we started programs in Malawi. This summer we launched a third partnership in India.

Are there any success stories that stand out to you?

HORST: Our partner in the Philippines, The Center for Community Transformation, has a client named Dolorosa. She’s been in their programs for about eight years, and she now runs several successful businesses. She’s become very influential in her community.

One time, Dolorosa said, “My most fervent dreams are no longer for myself . . . I want to be able to create jobs for others because I believe it is easier to lead individuals to Jesus Christ when their stomachs are not empty.” To me, that’s exactly what microfinance is all about: restoring clients’ dignity through employment and leading them to Christ.

I believe you shared that there is an astonishing 98 percent return rate on loans. I imagine many would think the risk would be much greater. Why do you think you have such a wonderful percentage on the return or payback for your loans?

HORST: We do have a 98 percent repayment rate. We believe this is due to a few reasons:

  1. We provide business training, and we vet our clients’ business plans. They don’t get a loan for a home improvement project; the loan must support a business that is likely to be profitable.
  2. Our field staff members have ongoing relationships with the clients, and they answer questions whenever needed.
  3. Our programs take place through solidarity groups in which one loan officer works with a group of 10 to 20 clients. These groups become an incredible support to our clients—clients develop strong friendships, develop a business network, and they cross-guarantee each other’s loans. This is where the concept of “social collateral” comes into play. The clients are highly incentivized to make payments back so as not to harm their reputation within their community and because they have agreed from the outset to cross-guarantee each other’s loans. There’s a natural safeguard here: if someone defaults, the group steps in to make the payment on their behalf.
  4. We place an enormous emphasis on savings. In all of the places where we work, savings is a component of what we do. It’s important for the families we serve to not just have access to business loans, but also access to a safe place to save their money. In many of the places where we work, there simply are no banks. Our clients are then forced to save in not-so-safe ways, like putting their hard-earned savings under the mattress or paying exorbitant fees to a “money collector” to hold their savings for them.

How can our readers get involved and learn more? 

HORST: Our website,, has many ways to get involved, including attending one of our 18 events around the U.S. this fall, donating financially or items, such as cars and electronics, or even going on a trip to see our work firsthand.

People sometimes wonder how banking and entrepreneurship make life better for the poor. What about hunger? What about trafficking? What about orphans? The great news is, that’s why we love microfinance: the impact goes far beyond mere economics.

Microfinance is not a cure-all, but its impact is stunning: many of the families we serve can now afford to eat three meals per day, so nutrition improves. Many parents can pay their children’s school fees, so literacy rates increase. Income is more regular, so when a child gets sick, the family can afford life-saving medicine. Families have a reserve of savings, so if there is a drought and crops die, there isn’t such intense temptation to traffic a child to pay rent.

Often, once a HOPE client’s business is profitable, they will care for other people in their community. Many women take in orphans. Some savings groups have a fund just for widows in their area. Some clients grow businesses so large that they create additional jobs in their community. Ultimately, we see employment bring a lot of dignity to our clients as they use their God-given talents and abilities. When that happens, they in turn bless others. Entire communities flourish.

For too long, we believe that we’ve underestimated the power of people living in poverty. In a traditional sense, charity often tells families in poverty they can’t. At HOPE, we want to equip them with tools so they can. Charity tells recipients they are not worthy, not capable. We want to remind the people we serve that they are created in the image of God. As image bearers, they all have gifts and skills worth investing in.

Microfinance has been a new concept to serving those in need for me. Though I would never rate means of service, HOPE’s mission and implementation seems to be a sustainable method for empowering individuals to learn how to care for themselves and their community. My prayer is that what begins with one loan will impact generations to come—ending generational poverty and launching thriving communities.

Image credit: Nikole Lim

If you are in the Nashville, Tenn., area, hear from Peter Greer, HOPE International’s president and CEO, as he shares how HOPE-network clients around the world mobilize discipleship, training, savings and small loans to create brighter futures for their families and communities. The event will take place on Thursday, October 30, 2014, from 7:30 – 8:30 a.m. at the Brentwood Country Club in Brentwood, Tenn.. For more information or to reserve your seat, contact Isaac Ezell at [email protected]. You may also visit their website at

By / Jun 25

According to the defenders of the Obama Administration’s contraceptive coverage mandate, employers and health insurance plans are simply required to cover basic preventive health services for women. The mandate, however, represents so much more.

In the mandate, the Administration legislated its moral vision and values. Indeed, the mandate rests upon moral judgments made by the Administration based upon its conception of the good and the just society. However, the administrative agencies that developed and issued the mandate employed regulatory procedures that hindered public participation and hampered dialogue between policy makers and interested individuals and institutions. In other words, the Administration manipulated regulatory procedures and thwarted what is supposed to be a transparent, deliberative decision-making process. The Administration did this to ensure that the outcome of the process would be what it desired.

Consequently, the mandate should concern Christians and non-Christians alike—and for more reasons than simply the real threat it poses to religious liberty. Both Christians and non-Christians should also be concerned with (1) the procedures employed in adopting the mandate, (2) the shift in health policy implemented through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the mandate, and (3) the Administration’s moral decision making that resulted in the mandate.

The Unfair Process That Produced the Mandate

The ACA did not mandate that employers and health insurance plans cover contraceptive services. Rather, the ACA required cost-free coverage of several broad categories of preventive health services, including preventive care and screenings for women as provided in guidelines by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The Obama Administration subsequently adopted regulatory rules implementing this provision of the ACA. It was in these rules that the Administration decided to include all U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling within the required package of covered preventive health services. The FDA-approved contraceptive methods include Plan B, Ella, and copper intrauterine devices; each of these methods operates after fertilization and can have an abortifacient effect by preventing implantation.

In adopting the mandate, the Administration decided to employ regulatory rulemaking procedures that restricted public participation and prevented a full vetting of the rules before they went into effect. Ordinarily, agencies adopt regulations pursuant to standard rulemaking procedures that require agencies (1) to give the public and interested persons notice of proposed rules, (2) to afford the public opportunity to comment on (i.e., give feedback regarding) proposals, and (3) to review the feedback received, modify proposals based upon the feedback, state in writing the reasons for adopting the final version of rules, and issue the final rules. Upon issuing final rules, agencies specify the effective date.

In the case of the mandate, the Administration utilized a truncated regulatory process that rendered public participation largely ineffectual. First, in July 2010, the Administration issued interim final rules implementing the ACA’s preventive health services provision. The Administration’s decision to issue interim final rules meant that the rules would be effective immediately without the public having an opportunity to comment on any proposed rules. The Administration justified its decision not to follow the ordinary rulemaking procedures and its use of the truncated process by citing federal statutory authority and claiming an urgent public need to make the rules effective immediately. Thus, the administration would not allow a 60-day delay so that the agencies could receive and review comments on its rules before they went into effect; any feedback from the public would be considered at a later time. Although this first set of rules did not mandate coverage of contraceptive and sterilization services, it prepared the way by requiring health plans to cover evidence-informed preventive care and screenings provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by HRSA, and it indicated that these guidelines were in development and expected before August 2011.

Soon thereafter, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America issued a press release, kicking off a national campaign to ensure that the guidelines would require coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives. Inside the Administration and at the top of HHS, Planned Parenthood had friends who could ensure this result. For instance, Kathleen Sebelius, HHS Secretary at the time who approved the mandate, was a friend; reports have shown that she had longstanding ties to and received political contributions from the late George Tiller, a Kansas doctor well-known for performing late-term abortions. Additionally, Washington, D.C. attorney and former drug lobbyist William B. Schultz, whose clients at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP included Barr Laboratories, the maker of Plan B, became HHS’s principal deputy general counsel and acting general counsel in 2011 and HHS’s general counsel in 2013.

Second, HHS provided funds to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to convene a committee to review preventive services for women and advise HRSA. The Committee on Preventive Services for Women (Committee) met five times in six months and conducted three open sessions for members to hear from select women’s health experts and reproductive rights advocates. Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher Institute, and other pro-abortion groups were well represented among Committee members and invited presenters.

In a short period of time, the Committee produced a report and recommendations. It recommended the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling (i.e., family planning services) for women with reproductive capacity. One committee member issued a dissenting opinion expressing concern that the compressed period of time prevented the Committee from conducting a serious, systematic review of all evidence for preventive services. Beyond the time constraints, he noted that the Committee’s process “lacked transparency and was largely subject to the preferences of the committee’s composition,” in which “a mix of objective and subjective determinations [were] filtered through a lens of advocacy.” Institute of Medicine, Clinical Preventive Services for Women: Closing the Gaps 232 (July 19, 2011).

Third, HRSA’s guidelines and HHS’s second set of interim final rules then came in rapid succession in July 2011. The Administration made the interim final rules effective immediately and afforded a 60-day public comment period after the effective date. Again, the Administration justified its use of a truncated rulemaking process based upon federal statutory authority and an urgent public need to make the rules effective immediately without any delay occasioned by allowing public participation in the process. These rules required coverage of preventive care and screenings provided for in HRSA’s guidelines. In this rulemaking, the Administration addressed for the first time public comments submitted regarding its first set of interim final rules—the public had provided “considerable feedback regarding which preventive services for women” should be covered. Group Health Plans and Health Insurance Issuers Relating to Coverage of Preventive Services Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 76 Fed. Reg. 46621 (Aug. 3, 2011). With these rules, the Administration provided HRSA discretion to establish a narrow exemption for religious employers that qualify as houses of worship.

Fourth, in February 2012, the Administration finalized without any change its interim final rules, despite having received over 200,000 comments on its rules and despite dozens of cases filed challenging the mandate. The Administration’s decision to retain the narrow religious-employer exemption came after President Obama personally met with Archbishop Timothy Dolan (now Cardinal Dolan) and indicated that the protection of conscience was a sacred duty and that he did not want to impede the Catholic Church’s work. Along with this rule, the Administration announced that it would afford a one-year safe harbor to non-exempt, nonprofit organizations with religious objections. This safe harbor, in Archbishop Dolan’s view, simply gave religious institutions one year to figure out how they would violate their consciences. The political effect of the one-year safe harbor was to release some pressure and delay some fallout from the mandate until after the 2012 presidential election.

Fifth, once the Administration had succeeded at pushing through the chief part of the mandate, it slowed the rulemaking process down and followed regular procedures as it considered the scope of the exemption and the accommodation for religious employers and other organizations. In other words, when the Administration turned its attention to accommodating religious and conscience objections, it ensured that the public (including those opposed to a religious-employer exemption and any accommodation of nonprofit institutions) would have a full opportunity to comment on agency proposals. In the last set of final rules, which were issued in July 2013, the Administration finalized the religious-employer definition for the exemption and provided an accommodation for some religious nonprofit institutions that requires health plans to provide the covered services at no cost to enrollees.

The Paradigm Shift That Frames Contraception in Public Health Terms

The ACA and the mandate shift the framing of contraceptive and sterilization services from health care to public health. The ACA did this through its mandate that employers and health insurance plans cover preventive health services. The mandate accomplished this by including contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures as well as patient education and counseling services in the preventive health services package. This shift in policy framing is significant.

Health care and medicine focus on individual patients and the physician-patient relationship. In therapeutic relationships, physicians act in the best interest of their patients, providing care to diagnose and treat injury and illness and to cure disease. In the public health framework, focus shifts away from care for individual patients to government efforts to promote the population’s health and to prevent injury and illness. Public health efforts have traditionally aimed to promote the common good by conducting disease surveillance, preventing injury, and controlling and preventing infectious disease.

Over the last two decades, however, progressives have advanced a broader, more comprehensive vision of public health. Acting pursuant to this enlarged vision, progressives have aggressively undertaken to use government power, including its power to coerce conduct, to change socioeconomic conditions, restructure society, and address social and economic “determinants of health.” They have assigned moral force to their agenda by appropriating the language and values of social justice. Indeed, in their view, social justice is one of the central values of public health that inspires their ambitious programs and policies to improve the health of all members of the population and to address “persistent patterns of systematic disadvantage” by altering social and economic conditions. Lawrence O. Gostin, Public Health Law: Power, Duty, Restraint 22 (Revised and expanded Second Edition 2008).

Operating with this robust understanding of public health, present-day progressives pit collective interests against individual interests, employing a utilitarian calculus that favors populations over individuals. This vision of public health is reflected in the regulatory materials accompanying the mandate. These materials indicate that the mandate is intended to further two large social goals: (1) public health and (2) gender equity. The materials also reveal the Administration’s view that expanding access to contraceptive and sterilization services without cost sharing will meet the unique health needs and burdens of women, improve their social and economic status, equalize their standing in the workforce, and reduce unintended pregnancies and medical costs.

The Morality That Was Legislated in the Mandate

For the Administration and present-day progressives, health care reform, which now includes the contraceptive mandate, has been a moral undertaking. In a letter to President Obama written ten months before the ACA was signed into law, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy expressed the moral vision that has inspired the reform effort. In his letter, he observed that health care reform was “the great unfinished business of our society.” He added that health care “concerns more than material things; . . . what we face is above all a moral issue; . . . at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” Letter from Edward M. Kennedy, U.S. Senator, to Barack Obama, U.S. President (May 12, 2009), available

Although the mandate is encased in regulatory, social scientific, medical, and public health terminology, the technical words should not obscure the reality that the mandate legislates morality, as every law and regulation does. Its moral underpinnings become apparent when viewed as a public health initiative. One of the leading experts in public health law and policy has offered the following observation about moral decision making in the field:

Since a principal aim of public health is to achieve the greatest health benefits for the greatest number of people, it draws from the traditions of consequentialism, which judges the rightness of an action by the consequences, effects, or outcomes that it produces. Utilitarianism, one of the most influential forms of consequentialist ethical theory, holds that actions are justified insofar as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. (Lawrence O. Gostin, ed., Public Health Law and Ethics: A Reader 14 (Revised and updated Second Edition 2010).)

The Administration’s utilitarian calculus in the mandate is straightforward: the interests in public health and gender equity are compelling and outweigh less weighty interests such as the religious liberty, moral objections, and economic freedom of individuals, institutions, and organizations coerced by the mandate. In its view, the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.

The Administration lauded the benefits of readily-accessible preventive services, including a healthier population, disease prevention, earlier treatment, and reduced health care costs. Drawing on the IOM Committee’s report, it claimed an array of benefits: meeting the basic health care needs of women; preventing unintended pregnancies (whether unwanted or mistimed); promoting healthy birth spacing; avoiding contraindicated pregnancies; saving employers pregnancy-related costs and costs related to absences and reduced productivity; removing the out-of-pocket-expense barrier to effective contraception; helping women achieve equal standing in the workforce; and improving the socio-economic status of women. The Administration retained a narrow religious-employer exemption because a broader exemption would lead to more employees paying out of pocket for contraceptive services, thus making it less likely that employees would use contraceptives. (In her well-research article “No Compelling Interest: The ‘Birth Control’ Mandate and Religious Freedom” published in the Villanova Law Review, Professor Helen M. Alvaré challenged the empirical grounds cited by the IOM Committee, showing that the mandate is less about science and more about ideology.)

The Administration deemed the costs to be minor. It asserted that the mandate does not undermine religious and conscience exemptions in federal law and that its rules are consistent with the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In conclusory fashion, the Administration’s utility balancers asserted that its “approach complies with [RFRA], which generally requires a federal law to not substantially burden religious exercise, or, if it does substantially burden religious exercise, to be the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.” Group Health Plans and Health Insurance Issuers Relating to Coverage of Preventive Services Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 77 Fed. Reg. 8725 (Feb. 15, 2012). Thus, even RFRA’s strict scrutiny standard, the highest standard courts apply when reviewing government laws, posed no problem for the mandate because the Administration viewed its interests as compelling. In the end, forcing individuals and organizations to violate religious belief or conscience did not have much weight.

On its face, the utilitarian balancing appears objective and even capable of leading to undeniable conclusions. But, in reality, such moral reasoning leads to preordained conclusions that conform to the values of decision makers. In other words, utilitarian balancing affords policy makers an opportunity to put their own thumbs on the scale as they import their own subjective values and assign more weight to their own values and less weight to opposing values. It appears that that is precisely what happened with the making of the mandate.

Furthermore, this mode of moral decision making emphasizes immediate, concrete, and convenient interests, while deemphasizing or ignoring more remote, more abstract, or less convenient interests. In the case of the mandate, the Administration’s analysis gave no weight to the status of the unborn, even though several FDA-approved contraception methods prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. Thus, these new humans, who are in their earliest and most vulnerable stages, received no consideration, and the moral objections of millions of citizens who understand these methods to constitute abortion, and not contraception, were given little weight.

Thus, the mandate legislates morality. The mandate reflects a moral vision of the good and the just society. The mandate advances the Administration’s vision of women’s freedom and gender equity by providing unfettered access to the full range of family planning services as a means of fulfilling its vision of the good. The Administration also understands such access to be a necessary component of its effort to reorder society according to its conception of the just society. Additionally, the mandate is premised upon the moral values of the policy makers regarding the family, human sexuality, and the status of the unborn. The mandate also expresses the Administration’s moral judgment that its vision of public health and gender equity should be advanced even at the expense of unborn babies, religious freedom, matters of conscience, and the economic freedom of individuals and organizations.


In adopting the mandate, the Administration bypassed standard regulatory procedures. It did so to ensure that its moral vision, values, and judgments would prevail. Public health policy experts have warned that the legitimacy of public health initiatives may be undercut when initiatives are premised more on ideology than science, when government is not transparent in approving initiatives, and when the process for adopting initiatives is unfair. It may be that the Administration’s contraceptive coverage mandate will become a textbook example of a public health initiative delegitimized by the actions of its proponents.

By / Jun 18

The  idea of following Jesus certainly involves more than just the way that you spend an hour of your time on Sunday mornings. For most Christians, it will involve working as a Christian in some sort of a secular enterprise. Doing so raises some difficult ethical questions. I know the feeling first-hand.

I spent my high-school years working for a business that my father had started. Ashley Lighting manufactures lamps for hotels to place in their guest rooms. That lamp beside your bed in that Residence Inn? It’s possible that I wired it up with my own two hands.

Small family businesses are short on job descriptions and long on flexibility. I got to try my hand at a lot of things. I managed aspects of our process to obtain listing with Underwriters Laboratories, designing and wiring testing stations to comply with UL requirements. I selected and installed our first computerized accounting, distribution, and manufacturing computer system (we started with Cougar Mountain software, and then eventually migrated to Macola). Of course, I also manufactured lamps, packaged them, loaded trucks, unloaded trucks, and did a thousand other things. You know that you’re the owner of the business when you drive in to the factory at 2:00 am because you’re housed in an old, leaky building and you need to check for water leaks during a severe rainstorm to make sure that your brass parts aren’t ruined.

Along the way I faced a lot of spiritual challenges. Early in the life of this business we began to receive orders from hotels in Las Vegas. The first genuinely enormous order that I recall went to the Roman Tower in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Those were hand-cut lead-crystal lamps. The crystal was produced in East Germany (that’s how old I am), exported to West Germany, then exported to a broker in New York City, and then shipped to our facility (at the time) in Monette, Arkansas. In my young conscience I worried that we were buying parts from communists in order to sell lamps to gangsters. It made me uncomfortable.

Of course, it helped me tremendously that I had grown up in a Bible-preaching church and a Bible-believing family. When I looked at the pages of Scripture, I couldn’t find the verse telling me to refuse to do business with sinners. The closest thing to a marketplace boycott that I could find involved the economic isolation of those who refused to take the mark of the beast. We were doing honorable work. We were treating our employees fairly. We were being honest in our business practices. We were paying our taxes. We were not under obligation, I concluded, to accomplish any sort of economic isolation from sinners or infidels in the marketplace.

I did not come to this conclusion, however, without retaining some wariness about the dangers of business liaisons. Look at whence God sourced materials for the construction of the temple: Apparently God has no problems with our purchasing or vending our wares rather broadly. But look at the sexual temptations to which Solomon fell while doing business with unbelievers. Marketplace temptations are serious temptations that call for circumspect living, to be sure.

A later emotional struggle came for me when more and more of Ashley Lighting’s products began to be manufactured in China. From a business standpoint, operating in China was a foregone conclusion. You can purchase a lampshade in China and have it shipped to the United States for less money than it costs to purchase the raw materials to manufacture your own lampshade in the United States. That’s right: If your employees agreed to work for you for free and you determined to make no profit at all, you still couldn’t compete with a Chinese lampshade. The business case for Chinese manufacturing, however, troubled me more, not less, over the prospect of conducting this kind of business. How little must they be paying workers over there for prices to be so low? Do I really want to be involved in that kind of business?

The decision was not mine to make (God called me to leave that life behind and enter ministry), but I’ve come to see that the launch of manufacturing operations in China was a God-ordained move. I don’t throw around terminology like that lightly. I don’t try to vindicate all of my decisions by making God responsible for them. I don’t want to have to explain before God why I besmirched his reputation by pinning all of my mistakes upon him. But on this matter, I have no doubt. Why?

God used our move to China to advance the gospel. Can a business be Christian? A business is neither more nor less than human beings going about their work. If human beings can be Christian while they are working—can work in ways distinctively informed by their Christianity—then a business most certainly can be Christian. For obvious reasons I probably ought not to go into excessive detail, but Ashley Lighting’s operations in China have been used by God to spread the gospel and plant churches there. My father is already in Heaven, and I’m absolutely confident that this is a topic of conversation there.

Jonathan Merritt argues that we should “Stop Calling Hobby-Lobby a Christian Business.” The sole criticism of Hobby Lobby in the article is that they buy products that were manufactured in China. According to Merritt, the Green family should “quit doing business in China” since doing business there “flouts Christian values.” Merritt does not allege any specifically heinous practices among Hobby-Lobby’s suppliers. If he has done any research about the specifics of their involvement in China, it does not appear in the article. The argument, it seems, is that doing business with China is ipso facto the flouting of Christian values.

I can’t imagine that Merritt’s article is popular among the throng of Christian missionaries who are doing business in China. Where would Christian work in China be today if Merritt’s position were to win the day?

American manufacturing in China has IMPROVED conditions for Chinese workers. Our going to China has not made Chinese workers more poor, more oppressed, or more harshly treated. On the contrary, consider this graph from Reuters depicting changes in Chinese wages roughly over the period of time during which Ashley Lighting has been involved in China.


When are people better-off? When they have a job that only pays a little money, or when they are unemployed and make no money at all? Few things are more obvious facts of history than the realization that American investment in low-wage manufacturing in China has improved the economic circumstances of individual Chinese people and the Chinese economy at-large.

What would happen to the well-being of Chinese citizens if all American businesses took Merritt seriously and quit doing business in China? You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Economics to grasp the enormity of suffering that would fall upon that nation.

Our move to China has saved the jobs of our American employees, not eliminated them.If we had not opened Chinese operations we would be out of business today. That’s not speculation; it’s a fact. The parts to manufacture lamps are no longer readily available in the United States. Our entire industry moved to China. If we had been the lone holdouts, what would we have done when our suppliers stopped selling in our market? All of our employees would be out of work.

As things stand, although we have reduced (not entirely eliminated) manufacturing jobs in the United States, we have added jobs in management and distribution. Our domestic payroll is higher than it was at many points in time when we were solely a domestic manufacturer.


Perhaps Mr. Merritt would reply that these are just the sort of self-serving rationalizations that greedy businesses spout when someone prophetic like him calls us to task. Perhaps he would quickly cast me as the “other” and wish that I were more conscientious like he is.

But here’s how conscientious we are: My father, my brother, and I once made significant political contributions to our congressman (a Democrat) to gain a few minutes of his time to implore him to consider tougher sanctions against China for their treatment of Chinese Christians. This was before we were doing business in China. We were the poster-children for conscientiousness about Chinese oppression. We put our money where our mouths were.

Do you know how our Congressman replied? He said, “Billy Graham himself asked me not to put economic pressure on China. He is of the belief that economic punishment against China would lessen opportunities for the gospel and bring down more persecution, not less, upon Chinese Christians. Should I listen to Billy Graham or you?”

Not long after that Ashley Lighting was manufacturing in China. Measured both by our intent and by the results, it has proven to be one of the most Christian things we’ve done.

By / May 26

Freedom of religion or belief is good for business. As outlined in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights,

Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Why is it good for business? In short, because religious freedom:

Fosters respect
Reduces corruption
Engenders peace
Encourages broader freedoms
Develops the economy
Overcomes over-regulation
Multiplies trust

First, religious freedom fosters respect by protecting something that more than eight-in-ten people worldwide, 84 percent according to a recent Pew Research study, identify with – a religious faith. Given that so many people are attached to a faith, to violate the free practice of religion runs the risk of alienating the mass of humanity, something that certainly would not be ideal for morale and socio-economic progress. Indeed, forcing the 16 percent of people with no specific religious attachment to have a religion would likewise be alienating. Religious freedom ensures that people, regardless of their belief or nonbelief, are accorded equal rights and equal opportunity to have a voice in society.

Second, religious freedom reduces corruption, one of the key ingredients of sustainable economic development. For instance, research finds that laws and practices burdening religion are related to higher levels of corruption. This is borne out by simple comparison between the Pew Research Center’s 2011 Government Restrictions on Religion Index with the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. Eight of the ten most corrupt countries have high or very high governmental restrictions on religious liberty. Religious freedom also implies that business people can draw on religious values and moral teachings in their businesses. The attempt to force businesses to act as secular, neutral, value-free organizations may be one contributing factor to the corruption, greed and short-sighted decisions that lead to the global economic collapse of 2008 that still affects many people and nations today. Allowing religion to inform business ethnics certainly is an underused activity implied by religious freedom.

Third, research clearly demonstrates engenders peace by reducing religion-related violence and conflict. Conversely, when religious freedom is not respected and protected, the result is often violence and conflicts that disrupt normal economic activities. Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies. Such has occurred in the ongoing cycle of religious regulations and hostilities in Egypt, which has adversely impacted the tourism industry. More generally, religious freedom is a key ingredient to peace and stability, which is particularly important for business because, where stability exists, there is more opportunity to invest and conduct normal and predictable business operations, especially in emerging and new markets. This is the topic of the 2011 Cambridge University Press book, The Price of Freedom Denied.

Fourth, religious freedom encourages broader freedoms that contribute to positive socio-economic development. Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, for instance, argues that societal development requires the removal of sources of “unfreedom.” And restrictions on religious freedom are certainly a source of unfreedom. Removing impediments to religious freedom facilitates freedom of other kinds. And research finds empirical evidence or this relationship. Religious freedom is highly correlated with the presence of other freedoms and a variety of positive social and economic outcomes ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women. While correlations are not causation, the correlations suggest that a more robust future research agenda should focus on better understanding these connections because it appears the freedoms rise or fall together.

Fifth, religious freedom develops the economy. When religious groups operate in a free and competitive environment, religion can play a measurable role in the human and social development of countries. For instance, sociologist Robert Woodberry finds that the presence of proselytizing Protestant faiths, i.e., faiths competing for adherents, was associated with economic development throughout the world in the previous century. Even before that, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that such Protestant associations in the early U.S. of these sorts established seminaries, constructed inns, created churches, disseminated books, and founded hospitals, prisons and schools. And these contributions are not just a legacy from the past. Katherine Marshall, former director of the Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics at the World Bank and former director in the World Bank’s Africa and East Asia regions, also recognizes that faith communities not only provide education and health services but they also provide social safety nets for orphans, disabled people and people who fall behind.

Sixth, religious freedom overcomes over-regulation that accompanies certain types of religious restrictions that directly limit or harm economic activity. A few current examples from the Muslim-majority countries – a set of countries with particularly high religious restrictions – are illustrative of how the lack of religious freedom contributes to worse economic and business outcomes. Religious restrictions among Muslim-majority countries impacting businesses take many forms. One direct religious restriction impacting economic freedom involves Islamic finance. For instance, businesses involved in creating, buying or selling Islamic financial instruments can find the situation that one Islamic law (sharia) board deems a particular instrument acceptable while another board does not, making the instrument’s acceptance on stock exchanges subject to differing interpretations of sharia. Religious restrictions also include legal barriers for certain import and export industries, such as the halal food market and outright bans of certain blockbusters from the film industry. And, certain government laws and restrictions on religious freedom can stoke religion-related hostilities that disrupt markets throughout the region. Examples range from employment discrimination against women over such things as headscarves to the misuse of anti-blasphemy laws to attack business rivals. And perhaps most significantly for future economic growth, research shows that the instability associated with high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities can influence young entrepreneurs to take their talents elsewhere.

And seventh, religious freedom multiplies trust. Religious freedom, when respected within a company, can also directly benefit a company’s bottom line. These include both lower costs and improved morale. An example of lower costs includes less liability for litigation. For instance, the clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch fought and lost a religious discrimination case in 2013 related to firing a Muslim stock girl for wearing a scarf in violation of the company’s dress code. The case resulted not only in substantial legal costs but also negative national publicity. Respect for reasonable accommodation of religious freedom in the workplace can improve employee morale, increase retention of valued employees, and help with conflict resolution. Moreover, businesses may gain a competitive advantage by engaging stakeholder expectations that are increasingly demanding that companies play a positive role in addressing environmental, social and governance challenges. As recognized by business consulting group McKinsey & Company, the ethical stakeholder has clearly emerged and is on the rise. Important business stakeholders include business partners, investors and consumers, and a growing segment of ethically sensitive customers tend to prefer companies that are responsive to human rights. Indeed, consumer and government preferences given to human-rights-sensitive companies may give a company an advantage in competitive markets and enable it to charge premium prices and land choice contracts. And recognizing this human rights impact on branding, companies such as Gap have assumed shared responsibility for the conditions under which its goods are manufactured.

Given that religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes, advances in religious freedom are in the self-interest of businesses, governments and societies. While this observation does not suggest that religious freedom is the sole or even main anecdote to poor economic performance, it does suggest that religious freedom is related to economic success. Certainly, businesses would benefit from taking religious freedom considerations into account in their strategic planning, labor management and community interactions. For instance, when evaluating locations for future research and development operations, countries with good records on religious freedom may be a better environment to find societies open to innovation and experimentation.

By / Feb 13

In the ongoing struggle between religious freedom and the Health and Human Services sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate, the arsenal of bad arguments deployed by the Obama administration has been very impressive. “Corporations have no claim to the freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights” is perhaps the most extreme of these views. With more seeming modesty, some advance the more limited view that unlike churches and other religious organizations (which are often legal corporations, of course), for-profit corporations have no freedom of religion under the First Amendment, even if the Supreme Court has said they do have freedom of speech and press under the same amendment. “Profit-making companies don’t pray and don’t worship,” the argument runs—as though prayer and worship exhausted the range of activities that may properly be called “religious.”

Or—another favorite—it will be argued that employers holding out against the HHS mandate for religious reasons are “imposing their religion” on their employees. Even some federal judges have committed this howler, which rests on a fundamental confusion about what it means to “impose” on people when they are still entirely free to do as they wish. Consider all those employers whose insurance plans did not cover abortifacient drugs before ObamaCare and the mandate came along. Were they imposing their religion on their employees? Did anyone think so at the time? The imposition of an opposing view on an unwilling actor is coming entirely from the government in these cases, not from the employers. Since the financial burden of compliance with the HHS mandate is not an enormous one for most employers, it is even natural to suspect that the true reason for the government’s imposition of it is precisely to “break” pro-life employers and make them serve a secular pro-abortion agenda.

As bad as it would be if the “companies don’t pray” and “you’re imposing your religion” arguments won the day, there is yet another feature of the government’s strategy that represents a danger to religious freedom. In order to win any of these mandate cases, the government must undertake to answer theological questions, and get a court to agree with its answers. And the government—including the judiciary—has absolutely no business asking such questions, let alone answering them.

In his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” in 1785—one of the foundational texts of American religious liberty—James Madison remarked that every person’s first and highest duty is to God, and one cannot surrender one’s conscience even to all one’s fellow citizens combined. Therefore “civil society”—that’s his term for all of us, acting as the highest earthly political authority—can take no “cognizance” of religion, and must leave individuals and religious communities alone, free to act in matters of faith as their conscience dictates. Hence government, our political servant, obviously has no competence in religious affairs. And Madison concludes that no “civil magistrate” in any branch of government can ever be a “competent judge of religious truth.”

The Supreme Court has long endorsed this view of Madison’s, and in a number of precedents has made it clear (to quote one prominent example) that “it is not within the judicial function and judicial competence to inquire” whether any particular religious claim is true, or whether a claimant to religious freedom has relied on an orthodox view of the faith he espouses, or has even “correctly” understood the religious doctrine that lies at the base of his own legal claim. The courts must satisfy themselves that someone’s religious views are sincerely held, but beyond that they cannot venture into doctrine or theology.

Yet in case after case, this is exactly where the intrepid lawyers of the Obama administration have ventured to go, and a dismaying number of federal judges—but thankfully, still a minority—have followed them into this forbidden territory.

The covert theological argument of the Obama administration goes something like this: A plaintiff holds for religious reasons that the destruction of unborn human life is a grave moral evil (or, in the case of Catholic plaintiffs, that it is morally wrong to practice artificial contraception). The HHS mandate, if complied with, will result in some other persons—the plaintiff’s employees—using abortifacient and/or contraceptive drugs or devices. Since the actual provision of these drugs and devices is by insurance companies, and the use is the choice of the employees, the requirement that the employer merely “facilitate” such use, while remaining free verbally to discourage or even denounce such use, places the employers at several steps’ removed from the conduct they regard as an immoral betrayal of their faith. Therefore their complicity is too “attenuated” for the mandate to amount to a “substantial burden” on their free exercise of religion—the phrase “substantial burden” representing one of the key legal elements in litigation under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But this argument is deeply flawed, as an encouraging number of judges have recognized. To say that the mandate’s requirements create only an “attenuated” connection between an employer’s actual deeds and the conduct his religion condemns is to make an essentially theological argument. In Catholic doctrine in particular, there are well-developed principles of moral theology regarding “cooperation with evil” and when one’s involvement is sinful. But for Christians more generally—and for many in other faiths too—deliberating about how tangled up one is in complicity with the sinful acts of others is integral to living the faith. “Am I wrongly providing others with the ability, and even materially encouraging them, to do things that God forbids us to do?” is a valid question for an employer to ask himself. If the employer is trying to live his faith every day of the week, it is arguably a necessary question for him. But for government lawyers, or judges, to address such a question is a violation of religious freedom.

In the Hobby Lobby case and other HHS mandate litigation, the position of the plaintiffs is that just providing the coverage for abortifacients or contraception is too much for their consciences to abide. (In the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the sisters hold that even signing the all-clear for others to provide the coverage is more than their religion can tolerate.) I could argue here that their moral reasoning is sound; I think it is. But legally and constitutionally, these obviously sincere plaintiffs are entitled to a judgment that they suffer a “substantial burden” even if many reasonable people would say their consciences should rest easy. That’s the bottom line if we believe that the civil magistrate is no “competent judge of religious truth.”

The Seventh Circuit case of Korte v. Sebelius, decided in November, illustrates the danger nicely. Judge Diane Sykes correctly held for the court that the Korte and Grote families, each of them Catholic business owners, suffered a “substantial burden” on their religious freedom. She added that the government’s “attenuation” argument

purports to answer the religious question underlying these cases: Does providing this coverage impermissibly assist the commission of a wrongful act in violation of the moral doctrines of the Catholic Church? No civil authority can decide that question.

Judge Ilana Rovner, dissenting in this case, unwittingly proved Judge Sykes’s point. First she stated, correctly, that “evaluating the nature of the burden imposed is not a test of the orthodoxy, consistency, or theological merit of a plaintiff’s stated religious belief.” But only a few pages later, Judge Rovner bought the “attenuation” argument, and claimed that nothing in the mandate “requires the Kortes or the Grotes themselves to do anything that violates the Catholic Church’s disapproval of contraception.” What was this, other than a presumptuous effort to instruct religious believers in a “correct” understanding of what their own faith teaches?

Here we encounter a truly vicious irony at work in the HHS mandate cases. In order to convince federal courts that employers objecting to the mandate are suffering no infringement of their religious freedom, the Obama administration must lure the judges into joining them in the decision of grave questions of moral theology. And that is an infringement of religious freedom.

All Americans of good will should pray the Supreme Court will resist this deadly invitation in the Hobby Lobby case.