Business Ethics and Religion After the Financial Collapse

Reflections on the Theology on Tap talk given by Dr. Richard Shields in October 2010

A variety of explanations have been provided for the global financial crisis of 2008 and early 2009 -- low interest rates; financial deregulation; conflicts of interest by credit-rating agencies, etc. However, in his Theology on Tap talk, “Business Ethics and Religion After the Financial Collapse”, Dr. Richard Shields focused on a more fundamental (yet oft-forgotten) factor in deciphering the nature of this recent financial meltdown -- religion (or lack of it) in business ethics. According to Dr. Shields, there existed an unfortunate paradox at the bottom of this financial debacle: that is, although religion has a lot to say about business matters (and economic activity more generally), yet it was completely absent from the ethics of the business world.

Whether the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the Koran, they are all rich guides for how humans should conduct their economic affairs in ways that are just and ethical. For instance, the New Testament story of the workers in the vineyard who all got equal pay, although some worked fewer hours than the others (Matthew 20:1-16), is one of the many examples of religion’s input on business matters. Probably, one of the key lessons of this story is that we should not be too proud of what we do, or expect more than those whom we think do less. However, it is a lesson that runs counter to the entitlement mentality of the business world, according to which the remuneration level should have no limits for those who “merit” it.

Despite the vast body of religious wisdom relevant to business ethics, Dr. Shields observes, there has been a radical disconnect between the two in recent decades. This disconnect is probably best illustrated by the remarks of the management guru, Tom Peters, while writing for the Chicago Tribune, on April 5, 1993: “… when talk turns to the spiritual side of leadership, I mostly want to run. It should be enough if I work like hell, respect my peers, customers and suppliers, and perform with verve, imagination, efficiency and good humor. Please don’t ask me to join the Gregorian Chant Club, too.” For Mr. Peters (and the mainstream business school of thought, more generally), there must be a distinction between a kind of empowerment-spirited management which is good, and a kind of spiritually-informed management which seems to cross a line, and blur the borders between church and corporation. According to Dr. Shields, the raw condemnation, by some religious leaders, of unethical business conduct has (unfortunately) been another contributing factor in cementing the divorce between religion and business ethics.

Yet, however troubling this defective relationship between religion and business ethics might be, we must be cautious not to desire to see it fixed at any cost. It will serve no good whatsoever if religion develops a type of bond with the business world, whereby religion is utilized to justify and encourage a culture of greed and risk taking. In fact, as observed last December by The Atlantic magazine, in its cover article titled, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?”, the real estate bubble in the United States may well have been fueled (if not actually caused) by the preaching of the “prosperity gospel”, which proclaims that  God blesses believers with financial prosperity, and that grace and fate will (somehow) shower the faithful with material riches, (despite their bad credit or lost job).  This upbeat theology, according to The Atlantic, resonated so well with corporate America that banks started teaming up with those pastors preaching the “prosperity gospel” to win over new customers for subprime loans.  This is an undesirable bond between religion and the business world; for at its core, it is merely an absorption of religion by the business world.

It seems that Dr. Shield is cognizant of the potential for this problematic association between religion and the business community, and thus refrains from considering it as a possible cure to the disconnect between the two spheres. Instead, in Dr. Shield’s view, the way to mend the broken relationship between religion and business ethics is by embedding business in the larger human matrix. This means that a continual dialogue between religion and the business community must take place. This way, each camp will benefit from the perspectives and the input of the other. This way, bold religious accusations will be replaced with constructive and  informed advise; and corporate arrogance will be replaced with a willingness to bring to the table (in everyday workplace settings) ethical dilemmas that would otherwise go undetected in the business world. One wonders if the financial meltdown of 2008 and early 2009 would have occurred, had such a dialogue (between religion and the business world) taken place during the last few decades.

by Fred Gjoka.