Benchmark Ethics: Religion and Business: Synergy or Catastrophe?

On my latest visit to Barnes & Noble, I was struck by the number of books in the business section (not the religion section) with titles like Jesus, CEO; Moses on Leadership, and the like. One-Minute Manager Ken Blanchard seems now to have several such titles. Clinton McLemore’s Street-Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business without Selling Your Soul (2003) draws in a big way from the biblical book of Proverbs. We also hear more and more about “spirituality” in business — both in a traditional Christian and a more “new age” mystical way.

Can there be a positive, constructive synergy between religion and business? Or is any such relationship doomed to become a catastrophe? Should we just transfer our thinking about “church and state” to “religion and business” with a firm “wall of separation” between the two?

I don’t think so. A business (private) is not the same as a state (public). And a religion (worldview and lifestyle) is not the same as a church (organization). Religion, broadly speaking, is about something believed to be sacred — and then about values, theories, and practices related to that sacred center.

A classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by pioneering German sociologist Max Weber, showed how capitalism developed and flourished in cultures shaped by a Calvinistic sense of “calling.” When people viewed their work as a serious calling from God, and looked at their life for evidence that they were among the elect rather than the reprobate, they tended to have a terrific work ethic. Serious Calvinists, like the New England Puritans, had an unusually strong spirit of enterprise and invention. When combined with frugality, discipline, thrift, and avoidance of wasteful habits like drinking and gambling, the result was capitalist success, wealth, and prosperity.

Catholic, Quaker, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Mormon, Amish, and other, religious traditions have each had their own influences on various business views and practices with respect to money, the treatment of animals, slavery, environmental concerns, and so on. There can be no dispute that religions have had significant influence on business in the past — some of it regrettable, some laudable. We wouldn’t have the modern business landscape without religion.

Stephen Carter’s popular study The Culture of Disbelief (1993) was a serious challenge to the cultural inclination to trivialize and marginalize religion in modern life. Carter reported surveys that consistently show that, even in our supposedly secular era, upwards of 80% of the American people say their ethical values come from their religion.

This suggests that we will make no progress on our ethical disagreements if we bar all discussion of the religious roots of our varied values. They are inextricably bound up together.

When values and ethics are on the table, especially when they are in dispute (say, in a conflict over HR policies and practices in a Muslim culture), it can be very helpful to listen respectfully to someone’s religious explanation of why a certain value judgment is important to them. Resolution of such controversies and differences may still be difficult but sharing the deepest roots of our values and ethics with each other builds respect and it may even suggest new possibilities for common ground.

Religion is often also a major motivational factor in business. Many people want to please and glorify God by the way they work in their business. They feel accountable both to God and to their religious community for their work performance as well as their ethical choices. What can a manager say to this influence but “Amen.” (Of course, if the employee’s religion is a distraction to their performance, the appropriate word is “Woe, unto you” not “Amen”!).

Religion can also be an important source of ideas for how to run a business, how to treat customers, and so on. This is where an open mind is a managerial asset. Good ideas should be welcome, no matter what the source may be. If Moses knew how to run a meeting, or Mohammed knew how to sell, or Buddha knew how to resolve disputes, let’s hear about it.

In short, the religion/business relationship has a rich history and a potent future. Globalization abroad and diversity at home make multi-religious interactions a fact of business life. Religious distraction and disrespect must be barred from the workplace but that still leaves plenty of room for positive relationships.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.