ARE CORPORATIONS “persons”? Legally, they are. They have the right to own property, to enter into contracts, to sue for defamation. Thanks to Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, they also have “free speech” rights. Voting is the only right corporations lack—and the tsunami of political money unleashed by that Supreme Court decision makes that limit irrelevant.
“Person” is an important word for Christianity. We speak of the three divine persons of the Trinity, and of the human person made in the image of God. What are we to make of “corporate personhood?” It’s tempting to invoke idolatry and the golden calf of Exodus. However, corporate persons are akin more to the “golem” of Jewish folklore—a human creation that fulfills our immediate goals, but brings about unforeseen destructive consequences.
Mitt Romney’s campaign gaffe “Corporations are people, my friend” points to the problem. He wasn’t arguing that corporations are literal people, but that they are made up of people working together. But what matters is the nature of these shared projects: The corporation insulates its anonymous stockholders from liability and works solely to maximize the value of their investments.
Indeed, the “corporate person” is the perfect homo economicus. A human owner of a firm, no matter how hard-eyed, will still have moral qualms and live in a community that judges his or her character. In contrast, the corporate person has no interior life. These abstract “persons” are served by trustees with the responsibility to do everything legally possible to maximize profits. They may regret abandoning devoted workers in order to seek cheap labor, but if they refuse, they fail in their fiduciary duty to the corporate person’s one-dimensional interests.
Corporations originated in thick moral and communal contexts that yoked them to the common good. Their specialization and efficiency brought many benefits, including large-scale manufacturing and long-term research and development. But over the years their efficiency, focus, and accumulation of wealth and power enabled them to overcome the limits originally placed on them. They shook free of the communities where they originated and now transcend even the states that charter their existence. They are powerful “citizens” with the narrowest of interests, striding about the world dictating terms to the communities and governments with which they deal. They simplify the world, removing the legal, regulatory, moral, and cultural obstacles to their pursuit of profit.
And, in fact, this curiously incorporeal corporate model has come to truncate our very concept of human personhood, as the corporate person’s transactional relationships become the model for everything. Participatory citizenship and the common good are replaced with the individual taxpayer’s demand for value. The nation-state’s obligation to all its citizens is replaced with an economic logic of a serviceable market. The U.S. Postal Service is derided as obsolete, as corporate competitors cherry-pick profitable markets and ignore the rest. Marriage becomes a transactional contract. The nuclear family is cut off from broader relations to focus solely on its own welfare. Our embodied vulnerability ceases to be something that binds us together in solidarity, and becomes instead something we address individually by managing our personal retirement and health-care portfolios.
The answer is not to simplistically condemn corporations, but to bring the Christian understanding of our creaturely personhood—finite, mutually dependent, and graced—to bear against the truncated corporate fiction. We can then clearly see the limited value of these inventions and guide them so that they may serve, rather than replace, us. What has been long underway in legislation, tax codes, and Supreme Court decisions is nothing less than a hidden fight for the truth of the human person.
Vincent Miller teaches theology at the University of Dayton and is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.