Prophets, Profits, and Peace: The Positive Role of Business in Promoting Religious Tolerance

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This groundbreaking book investigates the religious issues that businesses confront as they expand their global activity and proposes that corporations can become instruments of peace. Timothy Fort discusses the newly emerging idea of “peace through commerce,” and he argues powerfully that today’s businesses have the capacity to foster both peace and religious harmony.

Fort asks and answers important questions: How might businesses integrate spirituality into corporate affairs? How can spirituality contribute to the production of high-quality goods and services? What can be done to promote a spiritual connection between employees and their work? Can this be done without provoking religious animosities? What business practices might encourage an atmosphere in which constructive dialogue among spiritual traditions could proceed? The author concludes that by implementing the peaceful practices advocated by religions at their best, businesses can both nurture religious harmony and strengthen their communities.

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Editorial Reviews

Joshua D. Margolis
“Tim Fort dares to examine the taboo relationship between religion and business, and he does so with care and rigor. After unearthing their inevitable and often ineffable relationship, he suggests that a more explicit connection would strengthen each as a constructive force in society.”—Joshua D. Margolis, Associate Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
Patrick E. Murphy
“Tim Fort’s latest book insightfully proposes a new 3 Ps for the twenty-first century. He provides a compelling argument for religion’s increased role in business, drawing on such ethical precepts as meaningful dialogue, trust, international common good and reciprocity.”—Patrick E. Murphy, C. R. Smith Co-Director, Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide, Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
". . . A well-crafted introduction to a small but growing area of scholarly research and a worthwhile acquisition for libraries that serve liberal arts programs hoping to integrate social and political philosophy, religion, and business. Recommended."—Choice
Journal of Ecumenical Studies - John T. Pawlikowski
"Fort's book makes for interesting reading for those working in interreligious dialogue."—John T. Pawlikowski, Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300114676
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Timothy L. Fort is executive director of the Institute for Corporate Responsibility, coordinator of The Peace Through Commerce Program, and Lindner-Gambal Professor of Business Ethics at George Washington University.

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Read an Excerpt


By Timothy L. Fort

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11467-6

Chapter One


Several years ago, a colleague posed a question to me via e-mail: Did I really think that multinational corporations offered the best hope for a revitalization of spirituality worldwide? I was puzzled by the question because I had never argued that corporations might provide such a tonic. My colleague, though, had read an article in which I argued that corporate leaders could better accommodate religious preferences and respect religious reasons for making decisions in business. I had argued that whether managers liked it or not, religious belief was a fact of life and that in a global environment, responding to that fact was important. My colleague, however, misconstrued my argument and thought it a bit, well, daffy that corporations would be in the vanguard of spiritual revitalization. To his credit, he checked with me first about what I had proposed. Unfortunately for him, my answer robbed him of a foil against which he could make an argument.

My colleague's question, however, keeps coming back in my mind: Might corporations be a constructive force for spirituality? As business currently is structured and motivated, itis hard to see how corporations would foster a spirituality sensitive to the needs of a variety of corporate stakeholders. That's true for a full-blown stakeholder model that suggests that managers consider the impact of their actions on any constituent. Such a model seems idealistic and impossible. Even limiting the possible stakeholder group to employees seems to be a stretch for a capitalism ready to terminate employees as costly "labor inputs" rather than see workers as flesh-and-blood spiritual beings. Yet the possibility of corporations fostering spirituality provides the opportunity for a thought experiment: What would a corporate-led-or at least corporate-encouraged-spiritual renaissance look like?

Religion and business have had an uneasy relationship throughout history. Religious belief may sanction economic activity, but it may also condemn it. Followers of Confucius and readers of Luke would have good reason to be highly suspicious about the merits of integrating profit seeking and virtue. On the other hand, the insights of Arjuna or Abraham could see material blessings as divine blessing. The relationship between money and virtue tends to be ambivalent.

Yet there may be curiosity, even thirst, among managers for an understanding of religion. In the international business-ethics class I taught for nearly ten years, I provided an introductory survey of the major world religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese thought-both Confucianism and Taoism-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). I was always amazed at just how curious students, MBA students mind you, were about comparative religion. Many colleagues told me that my course was impossible, that fistfights would break out. Students were a little more reasonable. I never once had anything but respectful dialogue among sincerely curious MBA students thirsting to understand the religious dimensions of cultural differences.

Maybe the reason for the students' interest is that religion is all too often buttoned in "do-nots," and so they never get a chance to learn about different faith traditions. Don't talk about it. Keep it quiet. It's private and personal. Don't say anything about anyone else's religion either. Don't make it part of your work life. It's separate. Compartmentalize, don't integrate. I'll have some things to say about these views-not much of them good-but even if one thinks that "nots" are good ideas, they aren't very realistic. Religion begs to be public, not private. If you believed that you had had an insight into the will of the creator of the universe, why wouldn't you want to share it? Globalization brings with it its own set of complications. It forces people of different religions to bump up into each other. Where once a Midwestern Protestant might never have been exposed to a Japanese Shintoist, now a Mitsubishi manufacturing plant in Normal, Illinois, can make things decidedly un-normal. Many positive experiences may result from such encounters. So too-as in the Mitsubishi example-can a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, as cultural norms collide. The friction in such an encounter is likely to pale, however, next to the friction that results when a Muslim sees a wholly different understanding of the role of women, freedom, and sexual mores being introduced to his country. In those kinds of instances, the believer may well feel that Allah himself is under attack. These examples, keep in mind, do not come from governmental or political sources-they come from business. Like it or not, business is in the business of finding markets, and what it finds there and who it comes into contact with may not be receptive to the ways of life that come with globalization. And so corporations do end up encountering religious sensitivities, even when they may not expect to do so.

In the short term, a corporation that is not prepared for the importance and variety of beliefs can run into workplace-discrimination lawsuits, marketing disasters, cultural resentment, and even illegalities. These short-term confrontations require business managers to have far more refined knowledge of world religions than they currently possess. Ignoring religion and spirituality simply camouflages or defers the tension. Moreover, the evolutionary propensity of human beings to embrace spirituality suggests currents of conflict that will not resolve themselves any time soon. No manner of economic logic will turn human beings into nonspiritual beings.

In the long term, how might business integrate spirituality into corporate affairs? How can spirituality exemplified by, but not limited to, traditional faiths contribute to the production of high-quality goods and services? How might the workplace be constructed to provide human beings with a spiritual connection to their work? How could corporations do so without engendering the kinds of religious animosities that frequently arise when religions interact? Are there goals that differing religions might embrace within a corporate context? Or perhaps most importantly, even if corporations do not directly foster religious and spiritual expression, could business practices be implemented that would create the kind of peaceful atmosphere in which constructive dialogue among spiritual traditions could proceed?

This book addresses these kinds of issues. In this book, I look at contemporary issues with a religious dimension that arise for today's managers; I consider larger implications for addressing the contradictory dimensions of religion and business; and I discuss how business can integrate religion in the long run, emphasizing the role of corporations as communities that foster commitments to sustainable peace.

The sustainable peace that I have in mind will require a more harmonizing relationship between religion and business. The essential dimensions of the relationship are (1) the creation of sufficient managerial knowledge of many different faiths in order to find actual common ground among people of varying religious beliefs, (2) the integration of the hardwired dimensions of communal identification in order to constructively engage spirituality, and (3) the commitment to a clear teleological goal of sustainable peace.

Nowhere in this book do I argue that business has an obligation to foster religious harmony and contribute to sustainable peace. I leave it to others to specify such an imperative. Nevertheless, ethical business behavior does have an unexpected payoff: it may reduce violence and elicit the better parts of both business and religion. As our world contracts at alarming speed, it is time that we face a few essential facts and embrace new social realities: (1) religion and business interact; (2) religious and spiritual wisdom have something to say about the self-interest of business; (3) business might benefit from listening to religion and spirituality; (4) a model for accommodating spirituality can be provided; (5) human beings can benefit from this model; and (6) when business might become an instrument of peace is pretty much up to us. These six points form the basis for the six chapters of this book.

The manager who lacks sensitivity to religious obligations and norms may be at a disadvantage. The events I discuss in the following section represent a small subset of what the global manager is up against.

Examples of Conflict

It may seem that religion and business operate in separate spheres of social and personal life. The separation thesis-that one compartmentalizes the personal (for example, religious belief) and the professional (for example, one's role in business)-seems to neatly keep these two powerful dimensions of human life apart from each other, each having its place and time. Yet in the few years since the turn of the millennium, one easily finds media coverage of stories in which it is clear that religion and business continue to bump up against each other.

Over a period of five years, I assigned students in my international business-ethics course a paper in which they were to look for media stories about the interaction of religion and business. They did not have much difficulty finding such stories. Although the following stories are not presented as the result of a carefully controlled empirical study, the students did find a bounty of contemporary stories that illustrate the mix of religion and business. The stories can be broken into area four areas: (1) religious beliefs in the workplace, (2) customers' religious sensitivities, (3) special issues of religion in banking, and (4) antibusiness religious sentiment. So sit back and get ready for nearly sixty examples of the collisions between religion and business.

Business Accommodating Religious Beliefs

The first set of interactions concerns the times and places, as well as the challenges, opportunities, and problems that arise, when corporations are faced with a need or a demand to accommodate religious practices at work. This is probably the easiest confrontation to observe because there are open and direct conflicts between a religious or spiritual practice and an employee's duties. Time for prayer and time off for religious observances provide specific examples.

For instance, a human relations commission is mediating a case between Dell Inc. and a group of thirty Somali Muslims who were fired from their jobs for leaving their workstations for a five-minute sunset prayer. U.S. production styles involving quotas, schedules, and time clocks can conflict with Islam's requirement that adherents pray five times a day. What happens then? Although employees may indicate a willingness to be flexible regarding some of the five daily prayer times, Islam requires adherents to pray at sunset. A local imam points out that "Islam is a religion where there is no separation between faith and life.... In Islam there are specific times when you must pray. For Muslims, not to pray is to disobey God. And people feel that if you disobey God, you will go to the hellfire." But the sun does not set at the same time each day, and that creates a problem with work schedules.

In a similar case, Whirlpool Corporation won its argument that the sunset-prayer requirement placed an undue hardship on its plant production schedule. Both Dell and Whirlpool claim that they have changed practices to accommodate religious requirements, including establishing quiet areas for prayer, implementing a tag-out procedure that allows employees to take turns leaving the production line to pray, adjusting menus in the company cafeteria, and permitting women to wear traditional clothing as long as safety guidelines are met. However, the companies argue that granting time off during a shift on a manufacturing line would disrupt business operations.

Such challenges do, sometimes, have happier endings for the plaintiffs. Tyson Foods has found a way to resolve this issue by posting daily prayer times and rotating workers off the production lines every evening when the sun goes down. "Yes it's a challenge for some of our managers because they have to move some folks around," said Tyson's Gary Denton. "The way we look at it, we're a company of diverse people."

Many corporations are creatively designating ways for employees to take time off to observe their non-Christian holidays. Not only Christian but Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Muslim, and Baha'i employees are legally entitled to take personal time off to celebrate their holidays, albeit often with less understanding of their traditions. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires an employer to accommodate the religious beliefs of an employee or an applicant unless doing so imposes an "undue hardship" on the conduct of the employer's business. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suggests accommodations such as using voluntary substitutes, swaps, flexible schedules, lateral transfers, and changing job assignments. If an accommodation will result in a more than de minimis cost, it is considered an undue hardship. (This standard is different from that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires an employer to show that an accommodation would result in a significant difficulty or expense for the accommodation to be considered an undue hardship.)

Does going beyond the law in accommodating religious beliefs make good business sense? Some argue that being proactive in accommodating religious requests and responding to the growing ethnic and cultural diversity of the workforce bolsters individual identity and fosters employee loyalty and a more positive and productive work environment. This can make a company stand out as the employer of choice. But it is hard work and fraught with all kinds of dangers and details, such as keeping track of the exact time of sunset each day.

On occasion, rather than asking how a business can accommodate religion, one must ask how religion can accommodate business. Jewish rabbis, for instance, issue rulings that determine how laws prohibiting Jews from working on the Sabbath can be adapted to the high-tech world. One rabbi has ruled that vending machines owned by Orthodox Jews must be turned off on the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Following this advice, one particular cleric, Rabbi Heinemann, determined that Web sites owned by Orthodox Jews likewise must be shut down on the Sabbath. After an appeal, an amended ruling allowed a Web site to remain open provided that the shopping cart on the Web site is shut down and prevents shopping on the Sabbath. After a protest from merchants, the rabbi reversed himself on the grounds that credit-card payments for merchandise would not be processed over the weekend, ruling that shopping could therefore still occur on Saturday.

Religious Sensitivities and Marketing

Whereas employment issues raise concerns about the freedom to practice one's faith, marketing issues provide some of the more egregious examples of how offensive business practices can be for religious adherents. Flashpoints include the depiction of sacred figures, often in a sexually suggestive context, as well as food and issues of corporate identity. Some of these examples are simply weird. Why would supposedly "rationally, self-interested business people" do some of these things?

Victoria's Secret, for example, has been criticized for placing images of Buddha and a bodhisattva on a bikini. It is considered disrespectful to Buddha and an insult to practitioners of Buddhism. Government officials and clergy have protested and requested suspension of worldwide sales of the swimsuits. Likewise, Hindus have protested against the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli and London's Harrods department store for selling underwear bearing images of Hindu goddesses. American Eagle Outfitters apologized for using an image of the Hindu god Lord Ganesh on flip-flops. The offending shoes were removed from stores.

The Thai foreign ministry protested promotional photos for the American film Hollywood Buddha that showed an actor sitting on the head of a statue of Buddha. In Buddhism, the head is the most sacred part of the body and should not be touched. Furthermore, in the photos, the actor's feet are dangling before the eyes of the Buddha, which is offensive because the feet are the least holy part of the body and should not be pointed at anyone. The writer and director of the film publicly apologized and withdrew the image.


Excerpted from PROPHETS, PROFITS, AND PEACE by Timothy L. Fort Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I Tied Up in Nots

Ch. 1 Globalization's Flashpoints 3

Ch. 2 Religion's Good, Bad, and Ugly Sides 29

Ch. 3 Business's Credibility Problem 56

Pt. II Corporate Instruments of Peace

Ch. 4 Whose Religion? Which Spirituality? 87

Ch. 5 Religious Republicanism and Right-Sized Communities 117

Ch. 6 The Company ofStrangers 149

Notes 177

Index 199

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