A Sunday kind of crook

800px-aig_protester_on_pine_streetIt doesn't matter whether you are a Methodist, a Reform Jew, or a Roman Catholic. When somebody in your denomination is convicted of a crime, or behaves in a scandalous manner, it seems that the question often arises: what's the point of belief if it doesn't keep a John Edwards or an (ex-Catholic priest) Alberto Cutié * from betraying their vows or a Bernie Madoff from cheating people out of millions of dollars? And sometimes the faithful ask each other: what's the point of belief if it doesn't make you a more ethical person?

The ethical and religious dimensions of morality are addressed in a sometimes frustrating but practical article by Helen Gray of McClatchy Newspapers. While it's wonderful that Gray examines issues that affect ordinary people in the workplace as well as Wall Street pirates, the story doesn't dig hard enough below the surface to analyze why some congregants (and non believers) are ethical giants and some are cockroaches.

The first part of the article seems to work better than the second, possibly because thosed quoted address the morality question directly -- according to DePaul University professor Scott Paeth, we shouldn't assume that being religion makes one moral.

"After all, Ken Lay (the late Enron chairman convicted of fraud and conspiracy) was very proud of his involvement with his church, while (convicted Enron CFO) Andy Fastow's rabbi called him a 'mensch,'" Yiddish for a person having admirable qualities.

Mere affiliation with and even regular attendance at church or synagogue or mosque does not guarantee a commitment to ethics, said Robert Audi, business ethics professor of the Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame.

"But internalizing, say, the ethics of 'Love thy neighbor' and the ethics of the Ten Commandments will yield strong motivation to be moral," he said.

Audi goes on to assert that "there is some evidence" certain religion commitments impel ethical actions. What is that evidence? I wish the author had gone into some detail -- and perhaps found a theologian or ethicist to talk about the moral implications of loving God as well as loving neighbor.

I do like the large canvas Gray works with here, viewing workplace misbehavior in the context of a lack of ethical moorings, and her willingness to take a look at workplace ethics in from a nonreligious as well as from a religious perspective -- and quote those who identify deficits in the way secular organizations present ethical values as well as the way that religious organizations may embody them.

The best "application quote" comes from the life of Abrahama Lincoln, apparently an inexhaustable source of quotable stories.

Green, of Dartmouth, told a story of President Abraham Lincoln being visited by the wives of two Confederate soldiers who were Union POWs and who had supported slavery.

"The wives asked for their husbands' release and added, 'They are religious men.' Lincoln replied, 'I don't see how someone who thinks one man should earn his bread by other man's forced labor can be called religious.'

Although I have no idea of whether its true or not, it's a great story. I'd like to see more stories on how congregations or denominations are finding ways to address the issues around workplace behavior and how it connects to faith. Let's not cede this territory to "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times.

* Yes, we are aware that Cutié has been received into the Episcopal Church -- all part of its attempt to bolster its membership by reaching out to the Hispanic community in Miami and bidding for a spot on the late night comedy shows.

Picture of AIG protester from Wikimedia Commons

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