A Worthy Calling

An acquaintance recently told me why his father, a hardworking small-business man and lifelong believer, had stopped attending church.

Faced with demands from his workers he did not feel he could afford, the entrepreneur had taken a strike. One Sunday in church this entrepreneur listened in distress as his pastor told the congregation it was “morally imperative” that none of them cross the picket line. The pastor had not taken the trouble to learn anything about the strike or about business conditions. He had simply assumed that labor is right and business wrong.

Another businessman received a note from his pastor telling him he was committing a sin by failing to yield to the demands of a striking union.

I could fill a substantial part of this magazine with similar stories. Many business people have stopped active participation in their religious communities because they are tired of the ministers' or priests' open and usually ill-informed hostility to free enterprise.

It is unfortunate that many priests, ministers and rabbis seem to believe that business people sin more than the rest of us. How? By owning, controlling or manipulating a disproportionate percentage of “society's” wealth.

Is it surprising that so many business people have decided to sleep late on the Sabbath?

Religion must begin to treat entrepreneurship as a vocation. All lay people--business people included--have a special role to play in the economy of salvation. They share in the task of furthering the faith when they use their talents in a way consistent with their religion. They have their own assignment in the mission of the people of God. Everyone has talents, and God wants us to cultivate them and treat them as gifts. If the gift happens to be for business or stock trading or investment banking, its possessor should not be condemned because of his or her trade.

Much of the problem arises from economic ignorance among the clergy. Just look at seminary curricula. You will search far and wide to find a single course in the basic dynamics of how an economy works.

At the same time, certain assumptions are adopted in the courses that seminarians do take. Many graduates leave seminary with the view of the market economy as a means for dividing the economic pie and think that people who get a big piece are taking away from someone else. That is a childish view. A market economy is about expanding the pie, providing people with jobs, services and investment opportunities.

Every clergyman should read and think about George Gilder's extraordinary book, Wealth and Poverty, written a decade ago. Gilder made an eloquent case for infusing moral legitimacy to entrepreneurship. It is a mistake to associate capitalism with greed, he said. When people accept the entrepreneurial vocation, they must begin to focus on the needs of others. They must give the public what it needs and wants, and even discover needs and wants so subtle they are imperceptible to others. Business people in a market economy cannot be self-centered and be successful.

Before Gilder, an entire school of economics grew up around an insight of Joseph Schumpeter. It is entrepreneurship, Schumpeter said, more than any other economic institution, that prevents economic and technological stagnation. Entrepreneurs, as agents of change, prod the economy to adjust to population increases, resource shifts, changes in consumer needs and desires. Without entrepreneurship, we would face a stagnant economic world, mired in economic swamps like those socialism created in Central Europe, where entrepreneurship was declared immoral and made illegal.

Many clergy have focused too much on the gains of entrepreneurs, as if wealth itself is somehow unjust, but lost sight of the risks they take. Long before entrepreneurs see a return on their ideas or their investments, they must give up their time and property. They pay out wages even before they know whether they have accurately forecast the future. They have no assurance of profit. When investments do return a profit, much of it is reinvested and some goes to charities and religious institutions. Is that immoral?

When economic risks prove to have been a mistake, are priests and ministers there with words of comfort? Unfortunately, all too often they see the economic losses that fall on capitalists as punishment for greed. But the truth is that whether entrepreneurs win or lose, they put themselves on the line, and make the future a little more secure for the rest of us.

This is not to underplay a pastor's proper function of giving spiritual direction. Clergymen must remind people of the seriousness of sin and call them to virtue. They must challenge those in the business vocation when they go astray. But this spiritual direction should be based on sin as traditionally understood, and not on misguided views of economics.

Religious leaders must learn something about economics. Then they will come to understand that the entrepreneurs often are the greatest men and women of faith among us.