Business Ethics of Believers
"If you are doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch GET IT IN WRITING. His word isn't worth shit - not with the good Lord telling him how to fuck you on the deal." - William F Burroughs
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The top business news in most newspapers today (27 June 2002) is the accounting scandal at WorldCom which created an overstatement of profits of nearly four billion dollars. The company has been charged with fraud. In a background article in my daily paper on Bernard Ebbers, the founder of WorldCom and CEO at the time of the false accounting, I found the following: "According to a recent profile in the Clarion Ledger, he is a Sunday School teacher and ordained deacon at his local Baptist Church."
Should we be surprised that this pillar of his religious community is at the center of a financial scandal?This scandal may be even larger than the one that brought down Enron, the previous major financial scandal. Are there any parallels? In a web search on Kenneth Lay, former Enron Chairman, I discovered the following item about Lay's visit to a Baptist church with a Billy Burge: "Lay, Burge said, never felt more at home than in a Baptist Church." Standing next to each other, they prayed and sang Baptist hymns. "The event opens a window into Lay's character," he said.
Surely this is just coincidence that the two latest major financial scandals in the US revolve around these two public Christians?
Look back to a previous round of major US financial scandals - the crisis in the Savings and Loan industry of the 1980s. At the center of this scandal was one Charles Keating who in addition to being implicated in one of the most massive frauds in history, was also a very public Christian in his campaign against pornography (According to Mother Jones, one of Keating's companies held the mortgage on Jerry Falwell's church - and we could probably add Falwell to this list, but his financial misdeeds are relatively small time.).
And while we are remembering the '80s, there was a another financial scandal - Heritage USA - involving the televangelists Jim & Tammy-Faye Bakker, a fraud inextricably linked to their television Baptist ministry, the PTL Club.
There has been no serious indication that any of these individuals were just token Christians, adopting a cloak of piety to disguise their intentions. As best as can be determined, they were true believers. And yet, in each of these cases we see profound ethical shortcomings in business dealings. Do they really believe faith is everything, and works means nothing?
If you want to suggest this represents only four scandals in 20 years, that's only because I have only briefly researched cases I remember. But anyone who wants too look further can find Keating's links to Covenant House, with its questionable finances (among other ethical issues,) links from Keating to Arthur Andersen (auditors of Keating's S&L) who later audited Enron and WorldCom, and coincidently also audited the Baptist Foundation of Arizona (BFA) - another recent bankruptcy costing small investors millions - and check out the religious affiliations of the individual auditors, not to mention the obvious affiliation of the officers of BFA. There are a lot more than four worms in this particular can.
I don't believe that all Christians act this way, this is only representative of a minority. But don't rely on a profession of faith to guarantee an individual's ethics or morality. And don't allow a person's lack of religion to cause instant distrust.
And as for the quotation I used to open this piece - William F Burroughs understated the problem. Getting it in writing is nowhere near enough protection.