Does Going to Church Influence Our Business Ethics?

Article / Produced by Individual TOW Project member
Going to church affects business ethics

The church is designed to be a community that expresses the character of the God we worship through the way we are and act. Stanley Hauerwas talks about growing a community of character 1. Baumann talks about the growth of the church as an ethical community 2. Sometimes we feel that we are part of such a minority in a powerfully media driven and materialistic culture that we wonder if we can influence values significantly anymore. We wonder if we are being effective in influencing the values of our own children let alone those of the culture around us.

A study by Robin Gill, Churchgoing and Christian Ethics 3, makes some interesting observations about this. This study examines recent evidence, gathered from social attitude surveys, about church communities, particularly their views on faith, moral order, and love. It shows that churchgoers are distinctive in their attitudes and behaviour. Some of their attitudes change over time, and there are a number of obvious moral disagreements between different groups of churchgoers. Nonetheless there are broad patterns of Christian faith, hope and charity which distinguish churchgoers as a whole from non-churchgoers. This is not to suggest that the values, virtues and moral attitudes and behaviour of churchgoers are not shared by many other people as well (for example both churched and unchurched people think that parents should teach children unselfishness), but it shows that churchgoing does influence the shaping of peoples values and behaviour. The distinctiveness of church communities in the modern world may be relative, but it is still real, and crucial.

When it comes to churchgoing and ethics it has often been said “You do not have to go to church to be a good Christian” and also “Churchgoers are no better than anyone else”. And according to the polls that’s what most people believe 4. Most people assume that no perceivable moral improvement arises from churchgoing, although churchgoers themselves believe that their involvement in church does make a moral difference. And more recent sociological studies seem to confirm that churchgoing does make a difference.

For example, Values surveys in 10 European countries in the early 1980’s and Britain in the early 1990’s both noted a number of significant differences between churchgoers and non-churchgoers in both beliefs and moral behaviour, with the British survey showing how these increased even more among people who attended most frequently. And further research among adults in Australia 5 and teenagers in Britain 6 confirms and expands on these findings.

New Zealand research reaches similar conclusions. Webster and Perry’s 1992 summary of findings for the New Zealand Values Survey 7 concluded “There are only a few differences between believers and the general pattern regarding economic principles. Believers are more fervent in opposition to dishonesty, compared with No Religion and non-believers. And they favour free enterprise more. Environmental protection, by contrast, is more strongly favoured by No Religion, non-believers and Life Force believers, with believers reflecting the national average on environmental matters…..Inequality meets with no homogeneous response. Anglicans see little wrong with it; Baptists are most critical of it and are the most likely to believe that injustice is the root problem. Accordingly Baptists are by far the least likely to agree that people are in need because they are lazy and lack will-power. With Methodists, the Baptists favoured policies of equalisation and heavier taxation of the rich. Belief in a personal God was not reflected in a more compassionate view about poverty or inequality. The most characteristic viewpoint of believers was that people should help themselves more. 8

This survey also showed that Believers were more likely than Unbelievers and Non-Religion to support the work ethic (with Methodists and Baptists highest) and had higher job satisfaction than unbelievers 9. And Believers demonstrate much more concern about sexual and property transgressions and personal dishonesty than the No Religion group. Webster and Perry conclude; “If an expedient justification for religion were to be sought in comparison of ethical standards, it appears to exist in the greater concern of religious people about lust and greed. Certainly the rhetoric of conservative churches would reflect a belief that it is in these areas of personal morality that religion should make a difference.” 10 Webster and Perry do not find the Religious group demonstrating a significant difference to the rest of the population on many issues other than sexual morality, covetousness and personal honesty 11.

Clearly churchgoing does make a difference. Webster and Perry’s conclusions can be compared with Gill’s summary of the results of several different British surveys 12 which suggest that those who go regularly to church do appear to be more honest and altruistic in their attitudes than other people and more likely to be involved in voluntary service and overseas charitable giving. They are also more likely to place an emphasis on the importance of ‘helping others’ as a factor in choosing a new job. And they are more likely to feel that children have a responsibility to look after their aging parents. They also have distinctive moral perspectives on such issues as medical ethics, euthanasia, capital punishment, and are more concerned about the family and civic order than other people. This is not to suggest that the values, virtues, moral attitudes and behaviour of church-goers are not also shared by many other people too. While the distinctiveness is real it is also relative.

What all these surveys seem to suggest for the purposes of our discussion of business ethics is that religion appears to have more influence on evaluations of everyday personal transactions than it does on judgements of more distant relations in business and government. And this has also been tested. For example in one British survey these personal situations included examples of employees fiddling expenses to make an extra 50 pounds, a milkman overcharging customers by 200 pounds, an antique dealer concealing woodworm in furniture to make 50 pounds, and a householder over-claiming on insurance by 500 pounds. Churchgoers were much less likely to condone this behaviour than non-churchgoers 13. And this also fits Australian evidence about the distinctive levels of honesty found amongst churchgoers 14. At the same time issues such as expensive entertainment for business managers or council officials, show little or no influence by church involvement.

What this demonstrates is that churches do shape the attitudes and ethics of regular attenders. But which values are influenced depends to a significant extent on which issues churches are willing to open up for discussion and comment. And at the moment in this regard the survey work we have already previously referred to makes plain that apart from some general observations about the need for personal honesty and sexual integrity, churches do not often address specific marketplace issues. Nor do they often tell stories based on the examples of contemporary marketplace figures. Nor are Bible stories often interpreted from a marketplace perspective, even when they are the stories of marketplace characters. Nor are prayers prayed or songs sung that pick up on marketplace-related issues or themes. Even when many would suggest that people take more theology and teaching away with them on Sundays from the songs they take home with them than from the sermons that are preached. But if these are things that don’t often happen in the congregational setting then where are there signs of Christians engaged in activities that may have a greater impact on shaping business ethics?