Business and Religion: Old Couple or Bosom Buddies?

By Gahr, Evan | The American Enterprise, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Business and Religion: Old Couple or Bosom Buddies?


Gahr, Evan, The American Enterprise


Is the Republican coalition really composed of a deeply troubled and unholy alliance between economic libertarians and social conservatives? That's certainly the conventional wisdom. The press portrays economic and social conservatives as sharply different, mutually suspicious partners in a big tent that could be ripped asunder at any moment.

Actually, though, the two camps enjoy far more common ground than armchair pundits and secular observers realize. A quick trip to Republican National Committee headquarters demonstrates this. There, the party's ballyhooed GOP-TV is broadcast from a studio built with a $2.5 million donation from the family who co-founded Amway, a religiously inspired multi-billion dollar sales company. Another sign is that when Phyllis Schlafly, venerable social conservative, polled the members of her Eagle Forum awhile back, they said their number-one priority was "cutting the size and scope of government" (abortion came in second).

Still, the perception of an economics versus social issue fissure in conservative ranks persists. Economic libertarians are, of course, associated with business, social conservatives with religion. And many people assume that business and religion are inherently contradictory, that businesspeople don't care about moral questions, that social conservatives view money-making as sacrilege. In this view, religion is considered unworldly, irrational, soft-headed; devout folks are too superstitious to handle the wear and tear and hustle of corporate life. Capitalists, on the other hand, are selfish, even malevolent - forced to sell their soul to turn a healthy profit.

"There's the perception that to be successful you've got to do something dishonest," says Herman Cain, chairman of Godfather's Pizza. "But I haven't had to stab anyone in the back, and I don't plan to." Adds former United States Treasury Secretary William Simon, a devout Catholic and multimillionaire businessman: "Pushers and shovers and connivers aren't the leaders in business."

Apparently not. Indeed, the existence - and often disproportionate representation - of the religiously committed in just about every business endeavor from investment banking to fast-food suggests that religion and commerce can be two sides of the same gold coin. "The Bible is a manual to success," says Truett Cathy, president and founder of the 725-restaurant Chick-fil-A chain.

Daniel Lapin is a rabbi and also president of the Cascadia Business Institute, which draws on the insights of religious tradition to improve business performance. He contends that money and godliness are interrelated. "Capitalism is utterly dependent on the Judeo-Christian tradition. No capital market has ever grown indigenously outside of Christendom. It's not a coincidence that atheistic regimes have proven incapable of running viable economies."

Lapin, author of the forthcoming Ten Commandments of Business Success, adds that even the slogan emblazoned on U.S. coins, "'In God We Trust,' highlights the unbreakable bond between faith and money. In the final analysis, the only value in money is the value that lies in the promise for others to do things in exchange for money."

The connection between faith and money is, in fact, well established. Christianity Today executive editor David Neff notes that the United States has long benefited from religiously motivated businesses. Corporate giants such as J. C. Penney were founded by Christian businessmen. "This is not a new phenomenon by any means."

Nor is it a disappearing one. Consider a recent survey of small business owners. The National Federation of Independent Business questioned a national cross-section of 800 owners of companies in such diverse fields as construction, retail, agriculture, and insurance. Fully 43 percent of all respondents identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christian. The average church attendance among this sample of typical business owners was two times per month. …

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