Money and faith

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We have heard about Tim Tebow and the merging of faith and sports. Is he going too far? Did Jesus really help him win games for the Broncos? What will happen now in New York?

We have heard about the religious views of politicians and the merging of faith and politics. Should we care if Romney is a Mormon? Should we worry about a Catholic president being beholden to the Pope rather than the Constitution?

But we are not hearing much about faith and business: isn’t the marketplace secular? Do you care if your partner is Mormon or Catholic? What if she’s Muslim or Jewish?

Morality provides the foundation for the marketplace, from small exchanges to major contracts. When you buy a 500-page packet at OfficeMax, you assume that indeed there are 500 pages inside. Would you waste your time counting them?

Why wouldn’t the company put only 490 pages in each packet and increase its profits by 2 percent? There is basic trust associated with these kinds of transactions, a moral code we all abide by: the golden rule.

When we follow it – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – we save ourselves the trouble of counting 500 pages. Trust and integrity also mean honesty, consideration, accountability, and transparency; values you find in mission statements that large corporations post on their websites. Moral conduct also equates to efficiency.

But is this trust shared across religious beliefs? Are Mormons as trustworthy as Muslims? What about the Jews who have been maligned for centuries? Is one’s religion a moral indicator of one’s business behavior? Does religion teach these values?

The German sociologist Max Weber had the following observation regarding American salesmanship. He suggested coming to a new town on Saturday, going to church with the locals on Sunday, and then making sales-calls on Monday. Gain their trust through religion before attempting to sell anything.

This advice is still followed in some mega-churches where congregants are encouraged to do business with each other, and frequent each other’s places of business. Is there a necessary connection between worship and moral conduct?

Some argue that because God sees all, even if you get away being immoral in this life, you’ll be punished in the afterlife. For many, this idea of heaven and hell keeps them within moral boundaries in the here and now.

What if your faith doesn’t include the idea of an afterlife? Does that mean you necessarily don’t care about morality? Plenty secular businesspeople are moral while being nonbelievers. The marketplace is irreligious. But aren’t our worldly activities an expression of our inner core of beliefs? Isn’t there a direct line between one’s honesty and integrity and one’s conduct in the marketplace?

It’s odd, then, that we demand to know a candidate’s detailed belief system and relation to God — “born again” comes up as a significant statement of faith — when we are willing to ignore it in the marketplace. Do you demand prayer before signing a contract? Do you expect God’s blessing to succeed in business?

What’s going on in the marketplace, as Adam Smith already reminded us centuries ago, is a tacit commitment to moral behavior: we assume everyone is honest, until proven otherwise; it’s a more efficient system than suspecting everyone (and counting 500 sheets of paper).

So, are we moral in the name of efficiency? Is efficiency as powerful as the watchful eye of the Impartial Spectator to keep you honest in the marketplace? Perhaps it’s also common sense: you are bound to encounter the same people over and over again; they’ll remember if you cheated them in the past.

So, efficiency plus memory equals moral behavior in the marketplace. Add to it cost and convenience — do you want to do a background check on everyone? — and you are getting closer to the recipe for marketplace morality. Is religion then necessary?

If by religion we mean moral sentiments, then religion in general and religious mandates and institutions in particular are helpful. But when religion divides, it may interfere in the marketplace.

I recall growing up in Israel and half our family business’s clients were Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. The Intifada was a financial nuisance, not a political matter. Christian, Jewish or Muslim, all they wanted was to make a living and support their families — hostilities ruin the marketplace, they all admitted.

We all count on the marketplace to even the odds — when it isn’t manipulated by Wall Street — among moral businesspeople who are trying to prosper under conditions of personal liberty and equal opportunity.

One’s faith is a private matter we can neither buy nor sell. Let’s keep it then out of the marketplace.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com