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July 28, 2002
'Cheap Grace': Are Churches Giving Corporate Execs Free Moral Ride?

by William Bole
Religion News Service

When Bernard J. Ebbers felt he had some explaining to do about his part in the WorldCom scandal, he did not look to argue his case before any political or regulatory authorities. Actually, the former WorldCom chief executive refused to answer an onslaught of questions from members of a House committee, instead claiming his rights under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

But a few days earlier, Ebbers did stand before another social body: his Baptist church in Brookhaven, Miss., where he teaches Sunday school. "I want you to know you aren't going to church with a crook," he told the congregation at the end of a Sunday service in late June.

Members of Easthaven Baptist Church vouched for his integrity and good faith -- which led some reporters on the scene to suggest the congregation had proffered forgiveness to the corporate chief. But that is not quite right, since forgiveness implies a moral judgment that an act was wrong. The congregants did not seem to think there was anything to forgive.

Which raises a disquieting question: Did Bernard Ebbers go before the faithful because he knew they would go easy on him, easier than secular authorities would?

One could further ask if religious communities, from Baptists to Baha'is, have any wisdom to share on the question of corporate malfeasance. Do religious traditions have anything to say about executives like Ebbers in the dragnet of recent corporate accounting scandals?

As a legal scholar who specializes in business law, Mark A. Sargent is amply versed in issues of corporate governance. As a believer who subscribes to his church's social justice teachings, he is also privy to certain understandings of human nature and the need for social structures.

"I've always said that one of my reasons for belief in God is that the human capacity for rationalization of its own wrongdoing is so infinite that there must be some Prime Mover," said Sargent, who is dean of Villanova University School of Law, a Roman Catholic institution in Villanova, Pa.

He suspects very few of these executives believe they did anything genuinely wrong.

"And it's not just because they're unusually ethically challenged, although that may be true as well. I think many of them feel they were doing things that had become normative in the business, that they were really doing what everyone else was doing," he said, pointing to accounting practices at WorldCom as well as Enron Corp., which collapsed late last year.

"I'm not minimizing the culpability. They're completely deluded, but I think this is the way they rationalize it for themselves."

It would be morally presumptuous to look into the soul of Ebbers, but fair enough to note that he speaks in the passive voice of someone who accepts little personal responsibility for what has happened.

"I don't know what the situation is with all that has been reported. I don't know what is going to happen or what mistakes have been made," he reportedly told his congregation.

In his case, Ebbers called the shots at a company that allegedly began cooking the books as far back as 1999. He resigned earlier this year, after landing a $408 million loan from the now-bankrupt telecommunications giant to cover stock losses.

Ebbers also told his fellow Baptists, "No one will find me to have knowingly committed fraud."

What could members of Easthaven Baptist say to Ebbers that would cause him to reflect more openly on his business life, if he hasn't already?

For starters, a religious community can say that part of being faithful is to rigorously examine your motives, Sargent points out.

"We constantly have to ask ourselves if we're acting in such a way that's consistent with our values. It's a question of integrity as well as wholeness. When I use the word 'integrity,' I say it's a person who not only has values but also examines those values and then acts consistently with them, even though it may be difficult under some circumstances. And that kind of integrity is implicit in a religious vision of life," he said.

Still, as a law professor, Sargent doesn't think spiritual suasion is enough. And that's where religious social teachings enter the boardroom picture.

While there are some legal fixes, like tougher accounting standards and re-regulation, Sargent sees the need for a new conception -- beyond the legally enshrined notion that a corporation exists solely to maximize profit and shareholder value.

"There is an alternative vision of the corporation," he said, citing as one example the tradition of Catholic social thought, to which he subscribes. "It's expressed in the notion that a corporation has to exist not just to generate wealth for the managers and the shareholders. It has to serve another, broader purpose, subsumed in the notions of community, which requires relationships of trust and reciprocity. It has to (aim for) a common good that lots of people, employees and communities, can share in," he said.

"And if this were the conception of the purpose of large corporations, then this kind of behavior, which is endemic, would be more constrained."

Chances are that Bernard Ebbers did not hear this from the pulpit on many Sundays, but maybe some other executives in the pews will.

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