Business and Religion: A Clash of Civilizations?
edited by Nicholas Capaldi
(M&M Scrivener Press, 2005), 442 pages.

This book is the first in a series published by M&M Scrivener Press, and edited by Nicholas Capaldi, the Legendre-Soule Distinguished Chair of Business Ethics at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he also serves as the Director of the National Institute for Business Ethics. The series, titled Conflicts and Trends in Business Ethics, strives to “rethink . . . our understanding of traditional business practice and its relationship to everything else.”

The book looks to the modern tensions among business, ethics, and morality and how these can be bridged by a heightened understanding of both business and religion. Capaldi has brought together a variety of voices from varied religious and cultural traditions across the globe “in an on-going conversation designed to challenge, defend, and rethink our traditional views.”

The potential conflict between a globalized business and faith is not new. In his landmark book After Virtue, Alisdar MacIntyre argues that if we hope to slip the grip of modern barbarians, we need another sort of St. Benedict to help us see our way clear. Just as Benedict engaged the world with his Rule, we too must do the same, living out our faith in the marketplace. His world faced the challenge of how to bridge religion and commerce. Our world faces a magnified version of this challenge: Western culture is largely business culture, which has taken over popular culture, and transformed it into something hostile to religious faith.

It is here in a world dominated, if not governed, by business and its interests that business and religion meet. A world in which religion is minimized, seen as personal and expected to be kept out of the public square and the boardroom. It is not so much a clash of civilizations as the book’s subtitle suggests. Rather it is more like the subculturization of religion within the civilization of business—a subculture that is expected to be subservient to business and struggles within itself between being relevant to and validated by the business culture and acting in opposition to it.

Business, that is the buying and selling of goods and services, does not so much clash with religion as the growth-driven capitalistic and global model of business clashes with our very nature. Business and religion can thrive together if intertwined with each other in “a formal, stable, patterned existence in a particular place . . . a community of neighbors (with) a collective history.” This type of environment however is not conducive to the unlimited growth-based, global business model that dominates contemporary understanding of capitalism; although it is conducive with a different profit-based business model—one that seeks to build and sustain local community as a meaningful part of that community.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, however, the influence of religion on business is tremendous, especially when we talk of business morals and ethics. Religion is in the world, but not “of” it. Therefore it shapes the world by throwing as John Paul II wrote, a “critical light on society.” Business is unable to throw a critical light on society or itself and must look to something else for its bearings. As a result business needs religion to check and inform itself. Indeed business gets its validity from religion. A business world uninformed by religion becomes undone by its ego and avarice, recognizing only the primacy of growth and profit, it devours all in an attempt to get more—our recent business headlines tell this tale clearly.

Business and Religion presents all sides to this debate, from those seeking disengagement from global capitalist models to those interpreting those models through a tradition of faith. The challenge and, for some, the frustration is the apparent lack of common ground between the two camps. But in reality, there is only one camp—that of humanity. And if we recognize thisand choose to operate our business lives from the viewpoint of our connectedness as humans beings, than we will create a humane business world. This cannot be achieved by fiat, although it can be achieved by individuals executing their business responsibilities with an awareness of the human and community based obligations born by all; taking action accordingly. Such actions are sacrificial in nature and it is this that makes such action difficult and rare.

Capaldi’s book provides several exceptional essays to guide us in this direction. One essay, Subsidiarity as a Business Model, focuses on the Catholic principle of local governance as a model for business success. Subsidiarity made its debut in Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. He presented for the first time the recognized goodness of local governance and commerce set against the trend towards political and economic centralization. The employment of subsidiarity as a model for business as well as government is the epitome of the environmentalist slogan of “Think globally, act locally.” This is the challenge of today’s business executive, how to act locally yet engage effectively in a global business environment. The challenge can only be answered by courage and education; courage to stand fast in the face of expediency as a method to enhance short-term profits and education of executive and management staffs to recognize the long-term power and profit to be gained by leveraging the interests, needs, and talents of local communities. The placement of profit and loss responsibilities in the hands of local business units, and requiring executive development to include time in line operations of the business unit an executive leads is all part of building a sense of obligation and understanding of the role local business operations play in the success and growth of a global business.

Also of note, is the contribution of Harold B. Jones, Jr. a Methodist pastor who teaches at Mercer University’s Stetson School of Business and Economics. His essay, The “Conflict” Between Business and Religion: Where Does It Come From?, focuses on how one’s religious orientation manifests itself in either a religion based self-justification of actions, in other words using religion when it is convenient or conducive to personal gain, or viewing religion as a source of rules about how to live and conduct oneself in the world.

Jones maintains that a person of good spiritual discipline is better equipped for worldly success than her non-believing counterparts; summarizing that “. . . the deeply religious person is likely to be a more effective human being than the one who keeps God at a distance.” This is to say, that “a person . . . is likely to deal more effectively with life when under the influence of a deeply held faith.” Jones tempers the Weberistic tone of his words by acknowledging this view is not uniquely Protestant. Rather, “Long before the Reformation it had been the distinctive trait of Western monasticism and as such had played a role in the laying of the foundations of Western prosperity.” How true this is and it is a large part of the reason we need to find “another sort of Benedict” to help us restore the rightful balance between prayer, labor, and leisure in human activity. Benedict was all about business as it fit into its proper place and time within the wholesome rhythm of a rightly ordered society and life.

Jones sees that religion and business do not threaten each other; it is the acceptance of material abundance as the measure of things that puts us askew and at odds with religion. It breeds a lack of personal and cultural discipline so essential to a balanced life and culture.

The penultimate essay in this collection is by Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute and adjunct professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Marriage and the Family. Gregg’s essay, Globalization: Insights from Catholic Social Thought, is well placed at the end of the collection and draws an accurate bead on the mark which lies at the heart of this question of conflict between religion and business: “How is a Christian to live out the Great Commandment (Mt 22:36-40) and be a successful person of business at the same time?”

Gregg cites George Weigel’s summary of the tensions between a Christian or a Catholic worldview, and the modern worldview being spread by globalization. The former stresses the integral unity of every human being, whose end is ultimately not of this world. The latter renders the inclination to transcendence to the satisfaction of desires. He struggles in his conclusion however as he seeks to reconcile a libertarian view with the Great Commandment—a tall order for any “individual” to undertake.

In Business and Religion Capaldi accomplishes the goal he set for himself: to bring together a variety of viewpoints in a single binding in order to stimulate thought and open up dialogue on a critical component of modern life. Hopefully this effort will extend itself beyond academia and the executive suite, finding its way into local communities and all levels of business—finding a hearing and application within the very human workaday world it contemplates.

Kevin P. Shields is a vice president at Automatic Data Processing (ADP), Owings Mills, Maryland.