The Ever Gnawing Inner Doubt – A Discussion of the Role of Religion in Business Ethics

November 17th, 2014 11:59 am

The Ever Gnawing Inner Doubt – A Discussion of the Role of Religion in Business Ethics

My presentation will focus on the role of religion on the part of influential people in corporate America, the private sector, and the challenges they face in promoting their ethical and religious beliefs when to do so is seen to conflict with either their authority, or the beliefs of other stakeholders.  This can be a cautionary tale, not only for those of us who are engaged in business activities in America.

At the outset, may I say how flattered I am to be included with the very impressive speakers and attendees at this conference.  My organization, Ethos, has a well-founded reputation for providing cutting edge consulting services.  Nevertheless, this is a very different venue for me.  Coming from America, I can tell you that All-Hallows College, and the Vincentians, enjoy a world class reputation for scholarship as well as deeply held religious commitment and faith.

So perhaps it is appropriate that I begin with a confession:  I am a hopeless middle of the roader. There is in America right now a serious struggle between some, but not all, religious leaders, and many, but not all, in government, who seek to restrict the actions of corporate leaders of faith.  This is an incredibly complex and controversial issue, and many people of good will on both sides seem to feel that their point of view is the only legitimate one.  Perhaps that is why I chose as my title for this presentation, “The Ever-Gnawing Inner Doubt.”

My liberal friends on the left despair of my unwillingness to support all of the proposed government mandates, and my conservative friends on the right are impatient with my unwillingness to support all of their resistance.  The good news is that at the end of the day, I still have friends.

Much of my career has been working across the globe, in the most diverse cultural settings imaginable.  Warlords and peacekeepers, Muslim and Christian, capitalists and communists . . . I hope I have been able to impart some small amount of insight and wisdom to one and all, and I know that I always came away smarter and more knowledgeable than when I arrived.  I am sure that will be true here in Dublin.

One of the things I learned is that one size seldom fits all.  I will of necessity confine most of my remarks to the American experience, since that is what I know best.  But I know full well that our American solutions don’t work everywhere.  We don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, but it is my hope that you will find that our experience, and the issues that we are struggling with, are relevant and useful to you, wherever you are from.

America prides itself above all else on being a pluralistic society.  The motto on our great seal,” E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one, reflects the ideal of Americans as a people who emerge united from a melting pot – but, especially when it comes to articles of faith, another   description may be equally applicable - not a melting pot, but a salad bowl, whose individual components remain identifiable and unique.  We can expect people to merge, but not submerge, their most deeply held beliefs and associations.

In the gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s, American capitalism was virtually unchecked by government or by the better natures of the men who presided over the means of production.

People are complex and complicated organisms.  It is difficult to explain a John D. Rockefeller, who taught Sunday school, and at the same time ruthlessly crushed business rivals and even small business people who sought only to retain their independence . . . the price fixing, price gouging, vicious monopolistic practices were also exemplified by Daniel Drew, who  endowed a theological seminary while professing that “sentiment is all right … at home   friendship (is for) Sunday when you’re talking about the sermon….but downtown the dog that snaps the quickest gets the bone.”

How to explain Andrew Carnegie whose violent strike breaking practice knew no bounds of decency, undeterred by the horrific living conditions of his workers, yet whose charitable endowments endure to this day. Or George Pullman, raised by parents who taught Sunday school in the home, whose 2 brothers were prominent ministers, and yet he believed that religious teaching was inapplicable to his deplorable treatment of his workers – he was called “an avaricious wealth absorbing tyrant and hypocrite.”

By way of contrast today, virtually every American corporate leader exhibits, or at least espouses, a sense of social responsibility, sometimes only lip service, but more often than not a real sense of corporate citizenship.  Corporations, and their leaders, play a prominent role in tutoring the disadvantage, donating to charities, protecting the environment, and most important, adhering to the mantra that good ethics is good business, and good business is good ethics.

Were the Rockefellers, the Drews, the Carnegies just hypocrites?  How did they not see the conflict between the golden rule and their business practices?  How could they love thy neighbor, but not when they were at work?

Interesting perhaps, but a question for another conference.  We are concerned with the here and now, and in the present we applaud business leaders who lead their companies into social responsibility, doing good works while also doing well.

So what is the problem? Perhaps we can think of it as a religious fault line in America. Starting with a preeminent doctrine in our bill of rights, the right to freedom of religion but what may also be somewhat inelegantly called the right to be free of religion.

At this juncture I will take a brief detour to provide the legal framework and historical background on which today’s topic is situated, and that is the development, dare I say evolution of American civil rights law, because religion is a cherished civil right.  In a religious analogy, it has often been said that slavery was America’s “original sin.”  The United States abolished slavery later than other so-called developed nations, and only after a bloody civil war.  For 100 years thereafter, black Americans, although no longer in bondage, did not enjoy the full protection of the constitution.  Eventually remedial laws were passed, and executive protection was afforded . . .  And a formidable building block towards fairness emerged in the form of Supreme Court decisions.

It’s been many years since I taught constitutional law, but I recall that once govermental discrimination was abolished, there remained a netherworld of so-called private discrimination, and the court established a doctrine of “private actions affected by a ‘public interest.’”

So that, in essence, if a few people want to have a weekly card party in their home, no blacks allowed, there is no legal objection to their doing so.   But an inn-keeper, or the owner of a pub, cannot discriminate based on race, because there is a public interest in allowing all Americans to travel and engage in commerce.

I bring this up because we are discussing the rights of business owners, and the rights of the people they employ, and how the government seeks to navigate between what are often competing interests of these groups.

Our supreme court recently ruled that the owners of a privately held corporation, itself a term of art, may on behalf of that corporation refuse to provide certain types of contraceptive care for female employees if the owners believe that contraception to be the equivalent of abortion, and if the owners have a deeply held religious objection to abortion.  It would be impossible for me to exaggerate the bitter emotions this case has stirred up.  The dissenting justices themselves  engaged in unusually harsh and very personal condemnations of this decision, which was decided by the barest of majorities, one vote, and the majority justices strained to provide assurances that the case would not establish a precedent but would be applied very narrowly.

Here the battle lines are blurred:  the owners of a corporation whose religious beliefs compel them to refuse to pay for particular medical benefits while continuing to provide a wide range of benefits to others; blurred because the litigation takes place in the context of complicated legislation including the affordable care act (“Obamacare”) and the religious freedom restoration act.

A clearer picture emerges when corporate leaders speak out in support of a particular position on controversial public issues and the government is not in the picture, but consumers rally to express their disapproval, often organizing product boycotts.  This is what happened when the head of a fast-food chain voiced disapproval of gay marriage.  In this instance there appears to be no impact on employees, the CEO speaking in his own behalf and using his own funds to support religiously based groups . . . no withholding of employee benefits or discrimination in hiring or promotions.

If the issues are complicated in the case involving contraceptive drugs, they are relatively straightforward in this case:  free speech for everybody.  The CEO is free to express his opinions, and spend money to support them, and customers are free to take their business elsewhere.

The next step on this continuum is the recent boycott of an upscale hotel, widely publicized due to the participation of major figures in the entertainment industry.  In this case there was no action or advocacy by the corporate officers; rather, the spark for the protest was that the hotel was owed by a foreign monarch whose country practices sharia law

But life is seldom that simple.  What happens when a big-city mayor “boycotts” a different fast-food chain, using the power of his office to support the boycott, that is, refusing to allow the stores to open in his city?  Is this a legitimate use of public office?  Again, no claim that the company discriminates.  If it reaches the courts, will the courts extend protection to the company whose religious views offend the mayor?

At this point I want to emphasize that I am unaware that corporate leaders who espouse other-than-religiously-based ethical views, even if not widely favored face this kind of opprobrium; so that animal rights activists, those who favor legalization of marijuana, etc. Can express their views, donate their money as they see fit, without adversely affecting their companies’ bottom line.  Two of our most prominent business leaders, Warren Buffet, the world’s third richest man, and business icon Bill Gates, are lionized for their good works.  By the way, if either the world’s first or second richest person is here today, can we get together after this session?

So why are religion and religiously-based ethical values a flashpoint for private protest and government interference?  As to private protest, the likelihood is that the religiously based actions of some segments of corporate America clearly interfere with deeply held commitments, for example the right of same sex couples to marry or the right to abortion.  And even if it’s only an expression of support for limiting these rights, people recognize that words have consequences.

What lessons for the corporate leader of faith?  One easy answer is to keep a low profile, a dividing line between what you believe, and what actions your company takes; going further, provide quiet, behind the scenes support, and avoid any reaction from customers and other business partners.  However, such a self-imposed limitation runs right up against the conscience of those whose faith compels them to act on their beliefs.

A roadmap for dealing with the government is far murkier.  It has become part of the common parlance that in America there is a ”wall of separation” between church and state.  This is an unfortunate circumlocution of what the constitution really says and how it has been interpreted.  “We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a supreme being,” in the language of the Supreme Court’s most liberal justice, is a compelling testament to the favored role religion occupies in our national life.

Nevertheless, the government is like a balance wheel on a bicycle, ensuring that we don’t veer too far off course: protecting free exercise of religion, but not so far as to establish a state religion. The worst case scenario is when the government is litigating against a religious organization, not merely against private individuals who hold deep religious beliefs.

The Obama administration is currently in the unenviable position of fighting in court against the little sisters of the poor . . . As an old trial lawyer, I can tell you that it would be difficult to find a more sympathetic client.  Nevertheless, in fairness to this administration, this is not the first time the federal government has had to litigate against a religious organization: Jehovah’s witnesses take literally the biblical injunction against graven images, and the government was ultimately unsuccessful in compelling their children to participate in public school flag salute ceremonies; Christian Scientists occasionally end up in court when they refuse to seek medical treatment for their children.  The twists and turns of decades of litigation concerning compulsory prayer in public schools, and more recently, sectarian prayer at public meetings, where citizens and business entities must be present in order to present their views on pending government action, can drive even the most astute scholars mad.

I mention these cases because they drive home the point that no one can be sure how the government will react, and business leaders are well advised to take into account that actions they take may lead not only to damaging boycotts, but lengthy and expensive litigation . . . But such litigation can also result in upholding the rights of the corporate leader and the corporation.

Perhaps an occupational hazard of being an attorney, I tend to stress the role of the courts.  There is also a robust history of business entities obtaining relief from local governments:  America had a history of so-called “blue laws,” compelling stores to close on Sunday; the courts engaged in what I consider a legal fiction, ruling that this was no establishment of religion; rather rest and time away from work was necessary for the general welfare. . . But minority religions whose day of worship was not on Sunday could not substitute their day, so in effect they were asked to forego their sabbath day of rest and prayer, or close on their sabbath as well as Sunday, negatively impacting their profit margin.  These laws are far less prevalent in the United States today.

In the time remaining I will turn to a more global view.  Remember that the United States has no established religion.  Many countries do:  the Church of England is the official church of that country.  Nevertheless, although it caused the abdication of a king who wanted to marry outside the rules of the church, for the most part it is of little significance in the day to day life of English men and women.  Individual rights are protected regardless of religion, and there is no religious requirement for voting or holding office.  There are catholic countries with varying degrees of a church based government, and varying degrees of church control.  The Jewish state of Israel is an anomaly; there is religious freedom for all, no religious requirement for voting or holding office, but there are carve-outs, specific areas where preferences are granted to some observant Jews and where rabbinical counsels get to decide certain issues affecting the Jewish part of the population.

I want to be very careful how I choose my words next.  I referenced Sharia law earlier.  It is the height of folly to embark on any business enterprise overseas without first learning what Margaret Mead called the rituals, dances, and taboos.  This is nowhere more relevant than in countries which are operating under Sharia law.  Financing arrangements must take into account proscriptions exist against money-lending for profit, so shared ownership is sometimes the cost of doing business; American businesses can be proud of our efforts (the Sullivan Principles) to fight apartheid in South Africa, but western values and practices of impartiality and tolerance and equal treatment may be met with severe resistance in some places.

Conclusion – Your great poet Yeats said “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  I respectfully disagree.  I believe that there is a protected sphere for corporate leaders of intense religious belief and a role for them to play in public life . . . But I also maintain we are a healthier society when we occasionally listen to an ever-gnawing inner doubt.


1.  The role of religion on the part of influential people and the challenges they face when their ethical/religious beliefs conflict with their authority or the beliefs of other stakeholders.

2.  Currently, in America there is a serious struggle between some religious leaders and some government officials who seek to restrict the actions of corporate leaders of faith.

3.  History is full of corporate giants who strongly professed religious beliefs yet engaged in behaviors that resulted in illegal or deplorable business practices against rivals and their own workers.

4.  Today’s mantra is that good ethics is good business.

5.  Freedom from slavery, akin to religion as a cherished civil right, was not fully realized in America until remedial laws were passed, executive protection was afforded and Supreme Court decisions led the way toward freedom.

6.  Once governmental discrimination was abolished, there remained private discrimination.  The courts established a doctrine of “private actions affected by the ‘public interest’” to ferret out the remnants of government–sanctioned discrimination.

7.  The government seeks to navigate between what are often competing interests between the rights of business owners and the rights of the people they employ.

8.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that owners of a privately held corporation may refuse to provide certain types of contraceptive care for female employees if the owners believe that contraception is the equivalent of abortion, and if the owners have a deeply held religious objection to abortion.

9.  The case was controversial – narrowly upholding the owners of a corporation whose religious beliefs compel them to refuse to pay for certain benefits for some, while continuing to provide a wide range of benefits to others.

10. The litigation took place in the context of complicated legislation including the Affordable Care Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

11. There have been several instances where corporate leaders have expressed controversial religiously-based beliefs and the public has chosen to boycott their businesses.

12. Corporate leaders who espouse other-than-religious based ethical views can more readily express their opinions without affecting their companies’ bottom line.

13. Religion and religiously-based ethical values spark concern and private protest in those who hold different, deeply held commitments.

14. Going forward, the road traveled by corporate leaders of faith and the government’s mandate to ensure religious freedom for all is difficult to navigate.

15. The government has a long history of litigating against religious organizations.  Such litigation may result in the government’s favor, but may also result in upholding the rights of the corporate leader and the corporation.

16. Globally, there are many countries that have an established religion and it is essential that corporations wishing to do business in a foreign land are cognizant of, and sensitive to the religious imperatives of that country.

17. There is a protected sphere for corporate leaders of intense religious belief and a role for them to play in public life . . . but we are a healthier society when we occasionally listen to an ever-gnawing inner doubt.


Presentation by Ethos LLC Senior Ethics Advisor Arnold Haiman, JD CCEP
2014 International Vincentian Business Ethics Conference
Dublin, Ireland