Christmas Reflection: Can Good Christians Make Good Businessmen And Women?

Dec 23 2013, 4:47pm CST | by

Christmas Reflection: Can Good Christians Make Good Businessmen And Women?
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

“… [T]he chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.” –Calvin Coolidge, 1925 

We all know the reason for the season: It’s to put America back to work, by boosting the economy through shopping sprees and travel plans.

And we increasingly know about the thick and thorny tangle of related issues:

  • While economic development has been solid (and at times breathtaking) in recent decades, the divide between the haves and the have-nots has been growing even faster. President Obama spoke earlier this month about the problem of growing inequality, whereby “a family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than the typical family, which is a record for this country.”
  • Even The Economist, one of our great champions of the free market, has brooded increasingly over whether enough may finally be enough.
  • Some scholars have argued that trust—the glue that binds a democratic society—breaks down as the distance between the rich and the poor grows, and that this trust even breaks down at a chemical level within human bodies, resulting in a breakdown of measures of social good.  (See the famous TED talk by epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson).
  • And economic development itself may not be environmentally sustainable and may turn future generations into have-nots. As The Economist noted a few years ago, our concept of economic development may make the planet implode once it houses 9.3 billion by the year 2050.

Against this backdrop, there’s the matter of clashing values that have historically guided most Americans. These values are often frighteningly contradictory when it comes to business and money.

Stewart Davenport, a history professor at Pepperdine University, bravely addressed the elephant in the room a few years ago in Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism 1815-1860: 

Americans are and always have been some of the most voluntarily religious people in the world as well as some of the most grossly materialistic. In other words, Americans simultaneously and paradoxically subscribe to both the Christian ethic of humility and selflessness, and the American liberal-capitalist ethic of competition, success, and self-promotion.

It is almost as if many Americans have gone about trying to understand themselves and their world with the Bible in one hand and John Locke in the other. Reconciling the two, however, has never been an easy task. One told them that ‘ye cannot serve God and mammon,’ while the other unabashedly encouraged them to pursue lives of material happiness.”

In Unrighteous Mammon, Davenport observed three different groups in America’s past wrestling with what economic development meant:

  • One group of religious leaders simply welded capitalism onto Christianity, without embarrassment or apology.
  • Another group was reactionary, arguing that society should resist the evils of no-holds-barred capitalism.
  • And a third group attempted to find a middle position, in which new economic realities would arise without dismantling the entirety of the Christian ethic.

I find the first group to be at times morally tone-deaf. I admire the second group’s moral resolve, but I suspect it’s too hopelessly naïve to affect how people live.

The third group, in the time of Adam Smith and today, may be the one that has something meaningful to bring to the discussion of how morality and prosperity intersect.

Principled … But Pragmatic

These people are principled but pragmatic.  They know they’re living in a complicated world. They try to make peace with that complicated world, and they try to make that complicated world a little better, knowing that a perfect world is beyond their reach.

Unlike the first group, they don’t pretend that the structure of this complicated world is ideal. Unlike the second group, they don’t keep closing their eyes and imagining utopian fantasy realms in which there are no winners or losers.

In that sense, good Christians (and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Wiccans and, yes, secular humanists) can be good businessmen and women, combining a sober sense of humility and duty with the “moving impulses” that Calvin Coolidge ascribed to Americans. In fact, all of them may need to be both “good” and “good at business,” if our current concept of an American lifestyle is to remain a viable model in the coming years.

Source: Forbes Business


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