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What Responsibility Do Churches Have for Worldcom?

CEOs, politicians and pundits are scrambling to explain the ethical collapse of big business. They blame compromised auditors, dishonest executives, weak board directors and lax law enforcement officers.

Charles Colson blamed secularism, especially the fountainhead of postmodernism—academia.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministry and former Nixon aide, is an active leader among conservative evangelicals.
 
“Enron’s collapse exposes the glaring failure of the academy,” Colson wrote in Christianity Today. “Ethics historically rests on absolute truth, which these institutions have systematically assaulted for four decades.”
 
When one of his friends donated $20 million to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Harvard University to teach ethics, Colson argued that “Harvard couldn’t teach ethics because it was committed to philosophical relativism.”
 
Colson’s charge resulted in an invitation for him to lecture at Harvard’s business school. To his regret, none of the students showed much interest in his talk. Jeffrey Skilling, a former Enron executive, was a Harvard student at that time.
 
If only Harvard had rejected postmodernism and Skilling had showed some interest in Colson’s lecture, then the second-largest bankruptcy in U.S. history would not have happened, so Colson seems to reason.
 
But then the nation’s largest bankruptcy occurred—Worldcom, a corporation led by Bernie Ebbers, a Baptist church member, Sunday School teacher, deacon and graduate of Mississippi College, a Baptist school that is hardly the seat of secularism.
 
His church’s only Web site ad is for the evangelistic ministry of Bailey Smith, a former Southern Baptist Convention president, who serves on Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University board of directors.
 
Ebbers is surely no postmodernist. By all accounts, he is a faithful Baptist. Moreover, some of his corporate directors are church people.   
 
Take Carl Aycock, a member of Worldcom’s board of directors since 1983. He belongs to Faith Presbyterian Church in Brookhaven, Miss.
 
Faith Presbyterian is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). PCA “is the largest conservative Presbyterian body in the USA. It remains loyal to Biblical Christianity and historic Presbyterianism,” according to the church’s Web site.
 
The depth of Aycock’s church involvement is seen in his June 2002 leadership of a summer mission trip to Trujillo, Peru.
 
Ironically, one of the links on Faith Presbyterian’s Web page is to the conservative World magazine which has a cover picture of Bernie Ebbers. The cover story’s headline: “Reaping the Whirlwind.”
 
The article’s introduction says: “The wave of corporate fraud did not emerge in a vacuum. It’s in part a consequence of a society that refuses to recognize absolute standards of right and wrong.” World magazine also points a finger at academia.
 
Another Worldcom board member is James C. Allen. Allen is an elder at Destin Church of Christ in Destin, Fla., according to the church’s Web site.
 
Allen is a graduate of Nashville’s David Lipscomb University, a school affiliated with the Churches of Christ. He also serves on the university’s board of directors. His $13 million gift enabled the school to build the 5,000-seat Allen Arena, obviously named after him.
 
According to the Tennessean, Allen put on hold this week a school pledge because of the stock market’s downturn. His delayed pledge and that of others resulted in the university holding off on the construction of a new Bible building. 
 
Allen’s church involvement also appears in his service on the board of Family Dynamics, a Christian pro-marriage and family organization.
 
Like Mississippi College, Lipscomb University can hardly be called a liberal university awash in secularism. And like Baptist churches, Churches of Christ cleave to a conservative reading of the Bible and individual piety.  
 
A third director is Judith C. Areen, dean of the law school at Catholic-affiliated Georgetown University. Areen, a Worldcom director since 1998, is also a senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, “which houses the most extensive library of ethics in the world.”
 
The Worldcom crowd can hardly be accused of being value-free postmodernists. So blaming the ethical collapse of big business on postmodernism is simply “a dawg that don’t hunt.”
 
Moral relativism does cause corrosive damage to our society. Yet blaming secularism, postmodernism and the academy ignores the biblical witness and shields Christianity from its own role in the current corporate scandals.
 
The biblical witness tells us repeatedly about marketplace corruption, injustice, greed, lying, deceit and hiding wrong behind the veil of religious piety. These sinful realities flourished in a theistic society, long before the emergence of secularism.
 
In addition to the prophetic tradition about right and wrong, justice, fairness and integrity, the Bible points out that Hebrew culture knew that social structures were required to protect the poor.
 
With such a compelling and consistent economic message in the Bible, why have we taken the wrong path?
 
For too long in many Christian quarters, the biblical message has been individualized and privatized, robbing it of its original social message.   
 
The individualization and privatization of Christianity keeps us off track. For example, when many Christians think about greed, they think about a greedy individual. They do not think in terms of a culture of corruption, a corporation based on deceit and an economic system that encourages and rewards greedy practices.
 
When we focus on the greedy individual, the solution is conversion—CEOs with better hearts. When we focus on the systemic problem, what Alan Greenspan called “infectious greed,” then the solution is social reform.
 
Catholicism and liberal Protestantism have historically offered a vigorous critique of capitalism—with its social Darwinian belief system—and worked diligently at reform. Conservative Christianity, on the other hand, has promoted the free-market system as divinely inspired and biblically mandated. It has virtually morphed Adam Smith’s invisible hand into the Holy Spirit.
 
Harold Lindsell, a former editor of Christianity Today, even wrote a book, Free Enterprise: A Judeo-Christian Defense, in which he argued that Jesus and the Apostles endorsed free enterprise.
 
Evangelicals have generally skirted a moral critique of the American market and abstained from corporate criticism, save those corporations believed to peddle pornography, homosexuality and alcohol. But then the criticism is about the product, not the economic system itself.
 
When Colson blames academia and opposes new corporate regulations, he misdiagnoses the problem and helps evangelicals stay aloof from the solution.
 
In theological terms, the problem is the sinful nature of the corporate structure, one of the powers and principalities of this age. The solution is far more than CEOs with pure hearts and absolute values. The solution is Christian realism—we need forces that counterbalance the power of corporations.  
  
Some Christians contributed to the end of slavery, child labor, apartheid and Soviet communism. Another generation of Christians can play a constructive role in corporate reform, beginning with the recovery of the prophetic witness within churches and public support for a system that pursues social fairness and justice. 
 
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.
 
Also read “Where Do Worldcom Execs Go to Church?”