The Common Good

Barack Obama's Spiritual Advisor Turns His Attention To Ethical Business

Source: Guardian
Date: September 3, 2013

Jim Wallis is the kind of religious leader that secularists quite like. A spiritual adviser to Barack Obama and regular on the podium at the World Economic Forum (WEF), the US Christian writer and activist quotes Adam Smith and Josef Schumpeter as readily as he does Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul.

Associated with the political left of the US evangelical movement, Detroit-born Wallis has campaigned on issues as diverse as the death penalty and global poverty to climate change and immigration. Now he's turning his attentions to the business community. He'd like to see a "moral economy" ushered in – a desire that he believes many corporate leaders, religious and non-religious, share with him.

Sermons on Mount Davos

Wallis has become a regular attendee at the annual Davos business summit in Switzerland, where he notes an escalating interest in values and ethics. For years, he'd be assigned a slot at 7am on the fourth floor, he says. "Now we're on the plenary session at 10:30am." As well as issuing an ethical call-to-arms, 65-year old Wallis also co-chairs WEF's Global Agenda Council on Values, which seeks to promote a more principled approach to capitalism.

Religious leaders speaking out on ethics is hardly a surprise. After all, ideas of social justice and environmental stewardship crop up throughout the Christian scriptures, as they do in the tenets of the world's other major faiths. The Archbishop of Canterbury's recent jeremiad against payday lenders marks a topical case in point.

Less expected is for corporations to start trumpeting morality. Yet Wallis sees no contention here. It plays to one of his favourite dictums: "Religion has no monopoly on morality". Big business has not had a Damascene conversion. Morality, or, more accurately, the trust that moral behaviours engender, makes economic sense. Trust between brand and consumer, buyer and supplier, investor and director is what makes the market tick. "When there are no ethics, the market ends up devouring everything, and finally ends up devouring itself. And that's what we saw in 2008."

Yet Wallis succeeds where many other religious-minded folk fail: that is, he manages to translate what he sees as divine truths into down-to-earth concepts that even hard-nosed business folk can agree with. Take environmental conservation. The question for the Bible-believing Christian, he says, is "Why are we destroying the planet that God gave to us as a gift?" For the chief executive, it's more to do with future-proofing his or her company or protecting brand reputation. A different motivation, for sure, but the same outcome.

New Social Covenant

Wallis is not averse to actively secularising his message. As part of the run-up to the next Davos meeting in 2014, for example, he's currently travelling the world drumming up support for what he terms the "New Social Covenant". Designed to replace notions of a social contract, which Wallis describes as "broken", his proposed covenant commits individuals and institutions to champion three guiding principles: human dignity, stewardship, and the common good.

He hopes the idea of a social covenant will kick off a debate within the business community that will move us away from "metrics of quarterly profit to long-term sustainability". The wider the net of discussants, the better, he argues: "It's a conversation that can be inclusive of everybody, and it's about being articulate about the values that we want to shape our economy." The fact that the precise details of his covenant are disputed, especially as to what may and may not constitute the common good, is "exactly the point". An open debate, he hopes, will eventually lead towards consensus.

Wallis acknowledges that significant barriers stand in the way. One big problem as he sees it is the finance community. Until mainstream investors shift from short-term, speculative profit making to the pursuit of long-term sustainable returns, the moral economy will always be on shaky ground. The vast remuneration gap between corporate bosses and everyday workers is another crucial obstacle that needs crossing.

At present, what we have is not a global economy but a global "un-economy", according to Wallis: "It's unfair, unstable, unsustainable and making people unhappy. So from a business point of view, things aren't working." That clearly needs changing. Wallis, who heads up a Washington DC-based Christian community called Sojourners, believes faith groups can use their buying power and entrepreneurial power to push forward a more ethical approach to business.

By their fruit, you shall recognise them

Ultimately, however, he's aware that faith groups lack the inside track where the real power for change lies. Religious leaders "can ask the right questions [and] challenge things that need challenging", but their power to implement is weak. This is where the leaders of the world's largest corporations come in. "Davos can't just be a values seminar", he argues. "We have got to get changes in results, in decisions, in metrics: we haven't seen very much of that yet."

Wallis' brand of common-sense rationalism and gentle persuasion make him a popular choice on the global conference circuit. Stripped to its essence, however, his call for a moral economy has radical implications for modern-day global capitalism. Business leaders should be persuaded to take a long, hard think. Hopefully, the bravest of them will go on to act as well.