Friday, July 04, 2014

Corporate personhood

I'm going to begin by making a legal and political point, then use that to segue into a theological point. Liberals mock or revile the legal concept of corporate personhood when that crops up in certain First Amendment cases that don't go their way. They act like corporate personhood is arbitrary or absurd.

Of course, judges and lawmakers are perfectly aware of the fact that corporate personhood is a legal fiction. But it's a meaningful and essential construction. As one prominent law prof. explains:

The law also treats various nonhuman, nonsentient entities as “persons” for certain legal purposes. Corporations, estates, trusts, partnerships, and government entities are often defined this way. Walmart, Illinois, and the California Pension Fund can sue, for example, without anyone asking if they have a right to abortion. Sometimes, corporations can bring suit (or be sued) because a statute explicitly gives “persons” that right, and defines “persons” to include corporations. At other times, the statute does not define “persons,” but courts interpret the word to include corporations because they believe that is what Congress intended. This transubstantiation of corporations into persons advances some pretty uncontroversial policy goals. If corporations lacked personhood, you couldn’t sue FedEx for crashing a van into your car, or Walmart for selling you a defective space heater that burns down your home, or J.P. Morgan for defrauding you when you get a lemon mortgage. You wouldn’t be able to enter into contracts with a corporation at all. Legislatures and courts have been treating corporations like persons for hundreds of years: There is even a general interpretive rule in the law that when Congress says “persons,” it means corporations as well, unless the context of the statute provides otherwise.
Here's another useful analysis:
This goes into even more detail:
So the principle is quite important in its own right. But that brings me to the next point. Catholics complain that justification by faith alone, the imputation of Adam's sin, and the imputation of Christ's righteousness, are "legal fictions." Likewise, some atheists (e.g. Ken Pulliam) and Arminian theologians (e.g. Joel Green) complain that penal substitution (or vicarious atonement) is a "legal fiction." To this I'd say three things:
i) If you'd rather die in your sins than accept vicarious atonement, you get what you ask for.
ii) It's not a legal fiction. Christ's righteousness really is imputed to the elect. 
iii) But suppose, for the sake of argument, it was a legal fiction. So what? Maybe that sounds bad. But there's no reason a "legal fiction" should have invidious connotations. The law treats businesses and nonprofit organizations as if these were were persons, even though a legal person is not a real person. Yet there's nothing silly about that construction. To the contrary, it's a necessary acknowledgement of the fact that human action has a social as well as individual dimension. The law must confer personal rights and responsibilities on such organizations. 
Union with Christ is analogous to corporate personhood. Even if we consider it a "legal fiction," that's a meaningful and necessary principle.  

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