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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Tuesday, Nov. 30 - 4pm to 8pm

With the onset of the financial crisis and economic downturn, there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the free economy in this country. Scandal and corruption among executives and financial institutions has of course played a significant part in fueling the discussion. While paying tribute to the free economy and the wealth it has created, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch also looks to reinforce and renew the foundations of virtuous business in Spiritual Enterprise. Malloch agrees that businesses and entrepreneurs that embody those spiritual traits played a substantial role in leading the United States in its rise as an economic power second to none. A key driver of this ascendancy was that so many business leaders and the people who made up those institutions had a deep well of spiritual might and heritage to draw from. “I do not deny that people, and companies, can be virtuous if they lack faith. But, as I argue, virtue endures and spreads because it is sustained by and through faith,“ says Malloch.

A central strength of Spiritual Enterprise is that it offers a legitimate critique of capitalism’s ability to be uplifting and em- powering when there is an absence of moral foundations and influence. According to Michael Novak, who wrote the book’s introduction, Spiritual Enterprise is “capitalism in its most profound and important form.“ Without virtue or some form of spiritual capital on a company’s balance sheet, its priorities and decision making could degenerate into the Randian mantra Malloch himself references: “the purpose of wealth is to put oneself on a pedestal.“ This is a character trait that would indeed be a cause for alarm for most people of faith, if not the wider business community.

Spiritual capital refers to the kind of capital that is linked to our spiritual life. Malloch cites William Wilberforce’s life long struggle and ultimate triumph in abolishing the slave trade, as well as Max Dupree’s leadership model as the former CEO of the furniture company Herman Miller as stellar examples.

But while spiritual capital looks beyond the bottom line, Malloch argues that in actuality it makes businesses and companies more successful. Simply put, they outperform their competitors. He offers plenty of examples of business leaders and entrepreneurs ignoring spiritual capital or values to their own detriment.

An especially vibrant example of virtue comes from Chick-fil-A founder and CEO S. Truett Cathy. Cathy has remained faithful to his Southern Baptist tradition, and the core statement of his business is reflected by his faith: “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.“ Cathy has recorded forty consecutive years of profit and growth. One of his most visible examples of spiritual capital is his decision to keep his restaurants closed without exception on Sundays, bypassing 15 percent of the selling week. The policy serves as a reminder for his employees to direct their attention to things that matter more than business.

Malloch points out that business people attend worship services every week more than nearly any other professional class, save church professionals and military officers. “Business is the real test of the moral life, and those who engage in it are putting themselves in a position where trust in God’s goodness is the surest guarantee of success,“ says Malloch. Additionally, more businesses and corporate organizations understand that their employees are yearning for a spiritual satisfaction within their work and not striving after profit for material accumulation alone. If this is the case, and there is a lot of evidence out there that says it is, then the enterprise sector could be ripe for greater renewal.

Malloch’s book, while a good commentary on the long-term viability of capitalism, is also thoughtful and fair in dealing with skeptics. Those who have concerns about people of faith obtaining success in business and acquiring wealth, and those who are skeptical of faith playing any role in business at all, will find thoughtful answers and reflection in Spiritual Enterprise. This book places tremendous value on the connection between a free economy and religious liberty, and, even more importantly, it expands that connection for an evolving global market.

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Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Acton Institute.  He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and the history of economics, and is the author or editor of five books, including One and Indivisible: The Relationship between Religious and Economic Freedom; and Merchants and Ministers: A History of Businesspeople and Clergy in the United States. Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University of Steubenville.