Prof. Timothy L. Fort has made a very interesting contribution to our understanding of the relationship between business and commerce in his recent book, Prophets, Profits, and Peace: The Positive Role of Business in Promoting Religious Tolerance . Religion affects politics, he writes. Why wouldnt we think that it would affect business, too?
His argument is that business can have a positive effect in acculturating religions of the world to embrace the Golden Rule, provided managers and employers come to have a greater appreciation of, and tolerance for, religion and its many varieties. This serves as a challenge to those in the commercial world who regard religion as a menace and also to those in the religious world who regard commerce as a dangerous intrusion into faith.
On the second point, Fort provides extended examples to show that commerce is an unavoidable fact of life and that its entanglement in religion is something religious leaders should welcome and use to their benefit. Indeed, they already do. The commercial marketplace is the primary venue for the distribution of books, music, clothing, and other matters related to spreading the faith. Commerce not only gets the message out; it brings the revenue in. All this activity has predisposed religions to take more seriously the effectiveness of the marketplace.
Further, a critical element of the marketplace is the idea of peaceful cooperation between people. In times of war, the market suffers and it doesnt respond well to violent ambitions and convulsions. The market is a setting of good will among people, a setting of mutual benefit. We might say that the Golden Rule applies in the marketplace. Reciprocity in contracts is a critical feature of long-term business success.
Fort argues (citing ethicist LaRue Hosmer) that every major religion in the world accepts some aspect of the Golden Rule¯that we should treat others as we want to be treated. The marketplace encourages religions to look to this principle, rather than conflict and acrimony, as a basis for social engagement. He writes:
All religions have a peace dimension . . . . That dimension is profound, and it plays to the more inspiring dimension of the tradition. Whether Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism, each is proud of the peaceful dimension of its tradition and seeks a time when that dimension will govern rather than the rarer times when one must resort to violence. Peace is thus not only an existential good but a good that can offer common ground among the traditions themselves. And if there was a time and place where the peaceful dimensions of those faiths have a reason to play out, it is a business environment where people try to get some work done.
Business in turn makes a contribution back to faith. First it provides economic development, and experience suggests that when peoples and countries are united in a common task of production, there is less incentive for violence. Multinational companies train citizens in effective skills that feed back to the creation of intermediating institutions, including houses of worship. In addition, economic development means technological transfer, which can aid religion.
Second, business can assist in promoting nonviolence by diminishing feelings of frustration and injustice. This is particularly true if corporations avoid a tight and corrupting relationship with local officials and bureaucrats. Business, by being wholly transparent to the local population, can cultivate trust and a sense of progress and openness. Ethical business behavior has both explicit and implicit payoffs, reducing frustration and encouraging the better parts of both religion and business.
Third, business can actually help build a sense of community; as employees or stockholders, for instance, citizens can engage in a common task. Participation in business gives people a stake in prosperity and adjusts their attitudes to the ideals of getting along with others.
Forts thesis presents a serious challenge to the commercial world as well. It ought not be hostile to religion in its corporate culture or its management practices. The author reports that when he runs seminars for business school students, there is intense interest in learning about the doctrines and practices of various sects and religious traditions. Fort considers this a good impulse since business is about engaging people and understanding their values.
He suggests that business students need to learn about other religions so that, as they discover traits that connect with their own traditions, students can view different religions as less threatening to their beliefs. Indeed, no corporation can afford to offend the religious sensibilities of the particular countries or employees and contractors with whom they work. Religious values are at the very core of the motivating force of human action for many people, and no commercial venture can afford to ignore them. Corporations take on religious institutions at their peril; while they cannot permit every complaint to dictate management practices, avoiding offense is generally a good rule.
Unfortunately, the reader will not find many examples illustrating this argument in Prophets, Profits, and Peace . Fort would have been wise to augment his discussion with commentary on the number of religiously fundamentalist societies that experienced changes once business played a greater role. For instance, are there some regions of the Muslim world that experienced an increase in secular business practices without losing the prevalence of religious practice? And how have corporate cultures adjusted to working in heavily religious societies? The book does not look into these questions. We are given a great deal of high theory without the right kind of examples to make the theory work.
In addition, Fort does not address the way in which commercial priorities could compromise religion. It is good for a faith to shed a violent impulse in order to do business. It is another matter to weaken or marginalize key doctrinal tenets or traditions because the commercial world finds them foolish. I am thinking here of the almost evisceration of Advent under the pressure of Madison Avenues marketing needs. I do wish that Fort had addressed a common concern that commercialism could rob religions of all that makes them distinct from the rest of the culture.
Even if it might seem Pollyannaish at times, especially in Fort’s view of the almost automatic and pacific harmony between the market and religion, Prophets, Profits, and Peace nonetheless makes a valuable contribution by helping us understand some challenges presented by the globalization and commercialization the world is undergoing. In this he helps us see that the age of prosperity might also be an age of faith.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.