Religion & Business: A Christian Perspective

David W. Miller serves as Executive Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School, and is an Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Business Ethics. David also leads the Center’s “Ethics and Spirituality in the Workplace” program. The mission of the Center is “to promote the practice of faith in all spheres of life through theological research and leadership development.”

David also teaches business ethics at Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Management. He has particular interest in ethics and spirituality in the workplace, moral leadership, and helping companies become faith-friendly. David’s forthcoming book, The Faith at Work Movement, examines the growth, dynamics, and possible future of the faith in the workplace movement.

He received his Ph.D. and M.Div. degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). While doing his doctoral work, David co-founded The Avodah Institute in 1999 and served as its president. Avodah’s mission is to help leaders integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.

Prior to academia, David lived and worked in London, England for eight years, where he was an equity partner in a private bank that specialized in international investment management, corporate finance, and mergers and acquisitions. Before that he was a senior executive and director of the securities services and global custody division of Midland Bank plc (now part of the HSBC Group). He first moved to London as the managing director of the European operations of State Street Bank and Trust, a leading U.S. securities services bank. He started his management career in the U.S., after graduating from Bucknell University in 1979, working for IBM for eight years in a variety of sales and marketing management positions in New Jersey and New England.

David is a frequent speaker at gatherings of business leaders, industry associations, academic conferences, and large church programs. His views are often cited in the media, including in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Dallas Morning News, Fortune Magazine, Forbes, NPR, ABC, NBC, and CNN.

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Once upon a time in American business, succeeding persuasively that it is no longer access to and meant playing the game. And playing the game distribution of material assets that make for an meant not being too influenced by factors beyond egalitarian society. Rather, he suggests, access to those of the game itself. Sure, it was fine to go to and distribution of spiritual assets are central to church or temple, and maybe even profess a belief the well being and establishment of an egalitarian in God, but that was a weekend topic that one society. assiduously avoided at work. Real men didn’t discuss faith. Work was work, church was church and the twain never met.

Today, that model seems strangely anachronistic, almost quaint, and out of touch with both human the surge of interest and activity in questions experience and cutting-edge research. Business people are no longer content to live compartmentalized lives in which their work is separate from their faith. People are no longer willing to park their soul in the parking lot along with the car. They have come to realize that a bifurcated life that leaves faith and work in separate compartments is not only an unhealthy way to live, but also an ineffective way to conduct business. Studies increasingly suggest that companies hat have a soul or an institutional appreciation of and respect for the spiritual dimension of their employees, tend to enjoy a number of positive business metrics. Moreover, even secular scholars such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel, are reconsidering the role of spirituality and religion in society. Fogel argues persuasively that it is no longer access to and distribution of material assets that make for an egalitarian society. Rather, he suggests, access to and distribution of spiritual assets are central to the well being and establishment of an egalitarian society.

Business consultants and academics of many stripes are now engaging this area of spirituality and work in droves.  Indeed, my own research concludes that the surge of interest and activity in questions pertaining to Faith at Work are neither a flash in the pan nor simply this year’s cure-all management fad like Quality Circles or TQM once were.  Rather, the increased activity surrounding Faith at Work meets the criteria of being a bona fide social movement — and one that will be with us for some time to come.

The Faith at Work movement is a loose network of individuals and groups around the nation driven by a quest to integrate faith and work, that rejects the systems and structures that lead to compartmentalized and fractured lives. The Faith at Work movement is comprised of formal organizations, informal groups, conferences, eNewsletters, web sites, books, magazines, and radio shows. It is a richly diverse movement of men and women of all corporate levels — from receptionist to CEO — and from all professions and lines of work, ranging from trading and technology to marketing and manufacturing. The various programs and resources in the movement are designed to help people integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.

In days gone by, IBM employees began the workday singing the company song. Does the emergence of the Faith at Work movement mean today’s employees will now start the day singing hymns and praise music? I hope not. At the risk of offending several friends in the Faith at Work movement, I find it problematic when a company, particularly a publicly traded one, overtly embraces one faith tradition as its official or de facto religion of choice. Trying to make a company Christian (or Jewish or Muslim, for that matter) leads to several obstacles, not just legal but commercial and theological as well. Are we meant to build Christian companies, or are we meant to build great companies? Are we meant to be Christian marketing representatives and Christian CEOs or are we meant to be excellent marketing reps and CEOs who happen to be Christians? In each case, I believe it is the latter.

Applying Faith

Christians engaged in business can and should turn to their faith as a powerful and profound foundation for developing ethical business principles and sustaining integrity. Though some might be puzzled to think of religion as a resource for doing business ethics, the Jewish-Christian tradition is rife with attention to and resources for modern business ethics. With a minimal amount of cultural transposition a Christian can find several theological motifs in Scripture that undergird and guide a modern business ethic, and a logic that challenges the popular relativism of postmodern society.

Christians engaged in business can and should turn to their faith
as a powerful and profound foundation for developing ethical
business principles and sustaining integrity.
A Christian could, for instance, ground a modern business ethic in the creation narrative found in Genesis. The doctrine of creation offers a three-legged stool as a foundation for business ethics. It reminds us of who we are, how we should treat other people, and our responsibility as stewards of the resources entrusted to us. Genesis reminds us that all of humanity is created in the image of God, which demands that we develop an ethic of dignity and respect in our dealings with employees, coworkers, customers, and yes, even our competitors.

A Christian’s approach to business ethics can be further developed theologically by turning the ancient Holiness Code. Found in the book of Leviticus, the Holiness Code insists on fair weights and measures and honest product representation, and recognizes the right for reparations and forgiveness when fraud or deceit occurs. Another overarching theological motif of the Jewish-Christian business teachings is justice. The prophets Amos and Isaiah are critical of the powerful and wealthy, just as Jesus is critical of those who gain their wealth unscrupulously. In a modern western culture where cheating is increasingly endemic, this timeless voice of honesty stands tall.

New Testament Insights

The New Testament carries these motifs forward, offering other insights for business ethics, and reinforcing the theme of forgiveness perhaps more than any other religion does. A careful reading of the Gospels reveals a Jesus who is very interested in money, production, investments, and stewardship of material assets. Some of his harshest recorded words, from the parable of the talents, are reserved for those who do not assume some level of risk in employing the assets and gifts entrusted to them. Does this mean that Jesus’ teachings on business ethics can be reduced to a simplistic Calvinist version of the Puritan work ethic? No, the gift and the challenge of turning to Jesus as a source for business ethics is that he always seems to go beyond minimum custom, laws, and regulations. Sure, he insists that you honor your workers and pay them a fair wage. But he also shows uncommon grace and generosity when choosing to pay some people more than the going wage, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. A Christian who seeks to do business ethics grounded in the teachings and life of Jesus is compelled to develop a “double bottom line,” one that values and insists on a satisfactory financial return and requires treating people not merely as a means to an end but as an end in their own right.

Building on these theological motifs, a Christian might find fresh and effective ways to conduct business ethically. But what about the workplace itself, especially in a pluralistic business world where many faith traditions — as well as those with none at all — are represented? Is there a boundary between faith and work and, if so, where? If people increasingly want a holistic life, and if research continues to support the benefits of integrating faith and work, how do we do it in a way that is commercially effective, personally authentic, and theologically sound — as well as legally safe and publicly acceptable in a litigious and pluralistic world? Am I suggesting that companies, like certain non-profits, should become faith-based? No, my research and advisory work suggests that while individuals might be faith-based, it becomes problematic for publicly traded companies. Rather, I propose, public companies should seek to become “faith-friendly.” A faith-friendly company is friendly to and respectful of all faith traditions. Such an organization recognizes the importance of one’s spiritual identity, the value of religion in ethical and character formation, and encourages the holistic development of their people.

The faith at work movement can be a rich source of ethical guidance and spiritual nurture in the development of a modern business ethic. In particular, a business ethic grounded in Christian thinking offers rich, textured, and powerful resources for modern times. It will both nurture and challenge the businessperson to go beyond the legal minimums and expectations of modern business theory. And finally, business ethics in the modern corporation will be enriched by companies that adopt a faith-friendly policy, thereby allowing employees of all religious orientations to tap into the deepest and most powerful source of ethical guidance—God. Move over Sarbannes-Oxley.