Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Faith and Corporate Social Responsibility

Michael MacLeod


November 30, 2012

By Michael MacLeod 

What role does the Christian church have in holding accountability those who have economic power in society? How do we encourage sustainable development and more responsible behavior on the part of the entities that are the economic engines of the global economy? The present era offers unprecedented opportunity – indeed, a requirement – for people of faith to mobilize and have an impact on the direction of our economic future.

Historically, we know that Christianity is deeply ingrained with the emergence of the capitalist economic system, with Protestantism playing a particularly important role (as Max Weber and R.H. Tawney noted in their classic arguments). Yet Christians have also voiced profound criticism of the negative effects of capitalism, including the behavior of corporations, on society and spirituality.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, warned against industries that pollute the environment (tanning) and those that pollute the soul (alcohol). The 1768 Quaker Meeting in Philadelphia mandated that members disengage from investing in trading slaves. And in 1928, Christians created the first socially responsible investment fund, designed to avoid industries that promoted vice, such as alcohol, gambling, and tobacco.

In the 1970s, faith-based activism took a new emphasis with the creation of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), an organization whose membership includes many Protestant and Catholic investment funds with collective assets of over $100 billion. The ICCR helped establish the modern socially responsible investment movement, using shareholder activism to influence corporations on issues as diverse as the marketing of infant formula in developing countries to apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. In the past two decades, the organization has been a leader in attempting to influence corporate responsibility on subjects from climate change to the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) to human trafficking.

Today, the world is torn between creating a positive milieu for global businesses to grow, earn profits and re-invest capital (thus creating jobs), and making sure corporations respect changing standards on human rights and the environment. To be sure, these are not new concerns but there is a growing urgency to find the proper balance, especially as countries struggle in different ways to overcome the present economic crisis. “Corporate social responsibility” has been assailed on the left (as a public relations exercise, “green-washing”) and on the right (a “misguided virtue” that stifles capitalism). But it has nevertheless grown into a global social movement, manifest in the proliferation of corporate codes of conduct that many businesses voluntarily adhere to, including the innovative United Nations Global Compact. The Compact was established in 2000 as a set of broad principles and standards on corporate behavior and now boasts about 7,000 multinational corporations (MNCs) as members (or nearly one in 10 MNCs in the world today). 

How should Christians view the responsibility to encourage responsible corporate behavior in a global economy? In the 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI said that businesses have a greater responsibility than ever to ensure their activities consider the impact on people and the environment. He argues that the very success of the global market economy depends on this transformation. Amy Domini, one of the pioneers of socially responsible investment in the United States, argues that the decision to invest responsibly allows us to define the role of the corporation in society. In a speech she made in 2007 at Yale Divinity School, Domini, a life-long Episcopalian, said, “for me, finance and capitalism are not exempt from God’s will. Investors are not innocent in the actions of [what] they enable. Right is right and wrong is wrong.” 

Of course, Christians can and do disagree profoundly at times on what exactly constitutes proper corporate social responsibility, and these divides often mirror deeper political battles in American society between liberals and conservatives. For example, some faith-based activists prioritize climate change as an urgent challenge for society and the church, while others in the church see is it as hoax at worst or exaggerated at best.

The role of the faith community in influencing the activities of business has never been an easy task, but it remains critically important to our larger societal influence. Christians have long been involved in influencing the corporation and its impact on the world, and people of faith are critical to the emergence of the new ethos of corporate social responsibility. We should embrace greater—not less—dialogue in the church on this issue, and look for common ground in promoting a sustainable and healthy global economy.

—Michael MacLeod is Associate Professor of Politics and Director of International Studies at George Fox University in Oregon.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”