The Religious Freedom and Business Foundation was established in early 2014, with headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland. Its founding director is Brian Grim, one of the most reliable practitioners of what has come to be called “religious demography”—the gathering of religious statistics worldwide. For many years Grim ran surveys on religion for the Pew Center for Research (he continues this enterprise by publishing an online newsletter, The Weekly Number). Brim has for a long time had an interest in the issue of religious freedom. (A few years ago he and I attended a conference in Istanbul on this topic. On this occasion we were together on one of my favorite boat rides in the world—on the Golden Horn, past the magnificent mosques of the Ottoman period, out into the Bosphorus.) Starting and running a foundation opens a new phase in Grim’s very productive career.The foundation defines for itself a dual mission: “To educate the global business community about how religious freedom is good for business”—and “engaging the business community…in promoting respect for freedom of religion or belief.” The first part of the mission means the gathering of empirical evidence (and, if Grim has anything to do with it, much of it will consist of numerical correlations); the second part entails active advocacy. His foundation, in collaboration with something called the UN Global Compact “Business for Peace” (one of the many organizations linked to the United Nations), has just come out with a publication entitled Business: A Powerful Force for Supporting Interfaith Understanding and Peace. The publication reports on studies of positive impacts of business on the two supposedly linked desiderata. The carmaker BMW supports awards to projects serving this purpose. They are a mixed bag—including “Helping Muslim Youth in the Philippines”, “Promoting Understanding Through Tourism in the Holy Land” (the Israeli government has invested quite a few shekels in that one), and best of all—“Coke serves up Understanding across Borders”.I have no quarrel with either part of the dual mission of Brian Grim’s foundation—as long as one does not expect businesses to behave as if they were charitable organizations: A business behaving like one will in short order go bankrupt. Put differently, Mother Teresa as the CEO of a corporation would have been fired by the trustees for violating her fiduciary responsibilities. Any business wishing to survive in a competitive market economy must make a profit (though this can be defined in shorter or longer time frames). If one reads the mission statements of many American corporations , one may imagine their executives going through a rigorous “examination of conscience” before every meeting. This does not mean that they cannot decide to engage in or to support any number of good causes—including religious freedom and peace. However, these morally worthwhile activities must be undertaken within the iron-clad imperative of remaining profitable.The aforementioned publication makes a useful distinction between “core business activities” and “outreach activities”, with both able to contribute to the causes of peace and religious freedom. “Core activities” are those (to put it bluntly) that make money, “outreach activities” those that do not contribute directly to this economic purpose (except by way of public relations). I will just make one modest suggestion here: The first category of activities is far more important than the second.Of course there are predatory businesses—using coercion against competitors, exploiting labor, marketing unsafe products, degrading the environment. One does not have to be a flaming leftist to believe that law and government are needed as correctives against such violations of the common good. However, the main contribution made by business to the common good is, precisely, its “core business activity”: It is that which produces wealth and (despite often glaring inequalities) reduces poverty. Even in the age of the most brutal capitalism the standard of living of the working class improved—and the poor voted with their feet, toward the “dark satanic mills”, not away from them. What is more, some of the brutal capitalists (the Rockellers, the Vanderbilts), for whatever motives, created charitable “outreach” enterprises, some of which have survived to this day. China, still supposedly ruled by a regime committed to socialism, is the best contemporary example of this. Since the onset of economic reforms of the late 1970s, China has experienced a capitalist revolution of the most robust sort—without a significant welfare state, labor unions, or effective income taxes—just what Pope Francis denounced as “unfettered capitalism.” The Chinese economy still suffers from the remnants of socialism—unproductive state enterprises, an unreliable legal system, pervasive and counterproductive government interventions, and the rampant corruption endemic to one-party regimes. Nevertheless, despite these “fetters”, the capitalist wealth-generating engine has been roaring on—with the consequence that millions of people have been lifted from the most grinding poverty to reasonably decent levels of material life. The charitable “outreach” of Chinese business is negligible, but its contribution to the common good has been enormous. Ironically, this has taken place under the banner of a party that still calls itself “Communist” and with a business community very largely unaffected by the currently fashionable (in the West) ideology of “corporate social responsibility.” (I cannot go into this here, but let me just refer to the magisterial 2010 book by the South African policy analyst Ann Bernstein, The Case for Business in Developing Economies. If you read nothing else, read chapter 7, which has the great title “If global poverty is the issue, CSR is not the answer.”)I would draw two lessons from these considerations: The most important consequences of business activity, like that of other institutions, are unintended and often unperceived. And: If you want business leaders to do what you want them to do, appeal to their interests rather than to moral principles (which they may or may not agree with). Max Weber understood unintended consequences to be one of the great forces of history. His most famous case in point: The “Protestant ethic”, which played an important role in the genesis of modern capitalism, was not intended to do this by the Protestant Reformers. The second lesson was succinctly stated in the most frequently cited passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest.” These two lessons were taught to me by two experiences in my biography, both involving a significant moral victory achieved with the help of some churches and some elements of the business community. Both were radical social changes that I was able to observe at close quarters: The ending of racial segregation in the American South, and the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa.My first full-time teaching job was in a college town in North Carolina. The Civil Rights Movement had begun, indeed I had listened to Martin Luther King speak at an NAACP rally, but the system of public segregation was still extant. So was the traditional racial etiquette, by which white people were addressed as “Mister” and “Miz” (this was the old-fashioned Southern “Miz”, not the feminist “Ms.” invented later by Gloria Steinem), while black people were addressed by whites by their first names. One morning, out of the blue, one of the two department stores in town announced that the (all-white) sales force was instructed to address all black customers as “Mister” and “Mz.” Within days sales rose steeply. As I recall, the other department store soon followed suit. Another incident took place about the same time in a large city in the Deep South; I was not there, but was told the story by someone who was. A meeting of the then all-white Chamber of Commerce was addressed by an (also white) young member. He said that it made no business sense that there was a white and a black Chamber; he proposed that the two Chambers should merge. At the time this was a radical proposal. Most in the audience did not want to voice an opinion; they wanted to wait for the CEO of the most important corporation in town (another white of course) to react to the brash young man. The great man pondered for a while, then said “The boy has a point.” Then everyone applauded.In those years the South lived through a fundamental, almost bloodless social transformation. To be sure, religious “outreach” was an important factor. The Civil Rights Movement, from King on down, was fundamentally a religious movement led by mostly black clergy. It could deftly appeal to the egalitarian “benevolence” enshrined in what Gunnar Myrdal had called “the American Creed.” In its wake came the morphing of the conservative Bible Belt into the economically dynamic Sun Belt. I think there was another religious factor, the hegemony of Evangelical Protestantism among white Southerners, with its deeply ingrained narrative of guilt, repentance and salvation. To be sure, as nearly always, there were other, non-religious factors in the emergence of the Sun Belt—business-friendly state governments, weak unions, and air conditioning (which made the notion of living in the South more thinkable). More directly attributable to the Civil Rights Movement, the breakdown of many racial barriers had the effect of energizing the economy by the inflow of large numbers of new workers and new consumers.In 1985 I was asked to chair an international working group on the future of South Africa. Our mandate was to explore the views about the future by all significant actors in the country, from the “bitter enders” defending apartheid come what may to the “comrades” in the black townships—what they thought that the future would be and what they hoped that it would be. Our report was published in 1988; it created a good deal of attention. Within a year it was obsolete, as the whole system was beginning to fall apart, in a rapid way that no one foresaw. It was a fascinating experience for me—a unique opportunity for a social scientist to try to understand an entire society undergoing fundamental change. The project was funded by Harry Oppenheimer, the mining tycoon, and other business people. Oppenheimer had been opposed to apartheid from the beginning, on moral grounds, and he supported a big part of the non-violent resistance. Most of the business community was not so engaged. Just about the time that our project got going there was a big change: Much if not most of the business community, both its English- and its Afrikaans-speaking components, decided that the status quo had become untenable. And business played an important role in the (largely peaceful) transition to non-racial democracy—by making early contacts with the African National Congress and then by funding much of the costs of the ensuing negotiations.As in the American Civil Rights Movement, the English-speaking churches, both white and black, were visible in the struggle against apartheid. Desmond Tutu, the black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, was representative of this religious opposition to the regime. A very interesting development (about which much is yet to be learned) was the 180-degree turn of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa as of the mid-1980s—from a principal legitimator of apartheid to silence about it to the public statement that it was a sin. As far as I know, we don’t yet know in which way this influenced the government, most of whose leaders and adherents belonged to this church body. Nor do we know how many business leaders were influenced by anti-apartheid sermons they heard. There were other factors in the demise of apartheid—the increasing ungovernability of the country, the bite of sanctions (their role is still disputed), the collapse of the Soviet Union (which undermined the government-sponsored paranoia about blacks and Communists taking over), and the psychological effect of being an international pariah nation (it is unclear what hurt Afrikaners more—being kicked out of ecumenical Protestantism or of the world rugby league). Yes, religious forces were involved—falling, I suppose, under the category called “benevolence” by Adam Smith. I am sure that Harry Oppenheimer was not the only “benevolent” businessman. But it is plausible to think that what motivated most of the business community to jump ship was very realistic self-interest.
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Published on: September 3, 2014
Religious FreedomCoca-Cola and Interfaith Understanding
If you want to get businesses to support your cause, appeal to their interests rather than moral principles.