AUGUST 8, 2001
God and Business
-- James K. Wellman, Jr.
"God and Business" was the title of Fortune's July ninth cover story. Two years ago Business Week led with a similar article, "Religion in the Workplace." Both examine the changing place of religion in business or, using the preferred term, spirituality in the workplace. Both articlesask whether God and business can co-exist -- whether one can make meaning and money at the same time.
What is behind this interest in workplace religion? According to a 1999 Gallup poll, seventy-eight percent of Americans feel the need for "spiritual growth," and nearly half have talked about their faith in the workplace. To be sure Americans are spending more time at work, and many people want religion to be a part of their everyday lives. The American Academy of Management's recent acceptance of an interest group called Management, Spirituality and Religion indicates that the business world is waking to this longing in the American psyche.
For now, expressions of this awakening are mostly internal to corporations. Individual Buddhist meditative retreats are common for executives. In one case a Harvard Business School Graduate-turned shaman leads a group of executives on a dream journey to empower their deeper selves. Another corporation creates space in the workplace for its multi-religious workforce to pray. Corporations have also used religious and spiritual practices to enable organizational innovation. Xerox Corporation, for instance, cited Native American vision quests as responsible for the invention of one its best selling copiers, a ninety-seven percent recyclable machine.
Though religion is clearly a growing presence in many businesses, the relationship is far from one way. The methods of business are the very methods many religious organizations use to promote their "commodities." Indeed, the CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association) convention looks no different than most trade associations, and Fortune quotes Thomas Tewell, pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, who calls business people to be "points of distribution" for God's love in the workplace. Tewell's words call to mind Roger Babson and other early twentieth-century businessmen, who promoted Christianity as the best vehicle for creating efficient employees and productive corporations.
Another leading force in the attempt to bring religion and business closer together is Bill Child, CEO of R.C. Willey Home Furnishings, a Utah-based retailer and practicing Mormon. Child's company was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet's holding company. When Child told Buffet of his plan to expand operations to Las Vegas while continuing to keep stores closed on Sunday, Buffet balked. Child then put up his own money to fund a test case in Boise. The test was a success, and Child is now opening his eleventh store in Las Vegas. Buffet is now, the article relates, "a convert."
So, can God and business co-exist? Can one make money and meaning at the same time? The clear message of all these stories is a resounding "yes." Of course, religion can create its own dilemmas. Since 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has reported a twenty-nine percent increase in religious-based discrimination charges. Only sexual harassment and disability-related incidents generate more complaints.
More important than the question of co-existence is the question of the consequences of this partnership. To some, the results amount to a commodification of the sacred. But the accommodations, like the influences, go both ways. Some corporations have awakened to the spiritual needs of employees, and made room for them to develop their spiritual lives at work. Providing "space" for religion within a business may also lead to greater awareness and more frequent avoidance of practices with harmful human, moral, and environmental consequences. Perhaps this developing relationship will give corporations a keener sense of their own responsibilities to the common good.
-- James Wellman teaches in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington. He recently published The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism. Wellman is executive director of the Legacy Institute, which does research and consults with corporations on the integration of their personal legacy and corporate mission.