Workplace and Religion in America
- Lake LambertLake LambertHanover College
Through workplace spirituality, individuals and organizations express, share and impose faith-based commitments in normally secular work environments. The faith-based commitments vary from New Age to Christian evangelical and can be manifested in a wide variety of organizations, including publicly traded corporations, government offices, and small family-owned enterprises. Although the early 20th-century work environment was largely secular, workplace spirituality has deep roots in the Protestant teaching on Christian vocation and calling, and numerous movements have sought to revive it, including efforts by the World Council of Churches immediately following World War II. Changes in the nature of work, most specifically the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of “knowledge work” and the increasing importance of the service sector, created a new opening for faith expression in the workplace and for the use of faith-based symbols and practices. The rise of evangelical Christianity and its more vigorous public expression in the late 20th century also emboldened these believers to live out their faith at work and to manifest or impose it on organizations they owned or controlled. Responding to employee interest and First Amendment concerns, the United States government adopted its own policy on workplace religious expression in the 1990s. When organizations have difficulty recruiting and retaining talented individuals, a holistic work environment—including different forms of spiritual expression and exploration—has become an employee benefit that individuals value and seek in a workplace. Other organizations have adopted a model of workplace chaplaincy similar to the military or a college campus where religious professionals are available to minister and lead worship or religious instruction, and a number of “Christian companies” follow business practices such as advertising their religious identity, closing on Sundays, or proselytizing customers.
Workplace spirituality is not without controversy as employers must follow the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of religion. An employer cannot hire, fire, promote, or demote an employee based on religious belief, but the courts have varied in the level of accommodations that an employer must provide for religious practices in the workplace. Certain types of religious dress and observance of religious prayers or holidays have been a frequent source of conflict. Moreover, an overtly religious or spiritual work environment imposed because of the faith commitments of a business owner (or even zealous employees) can be faulted for creating a hostile work environment for those of other faiths or no faith. Claims of religious discrimination have been one of the fastest-growing civil-rights complaints in the United States for the last twenty years. Even with these concerns, the desire to express religious faith and spirituality at work continues and will likely grow with evangelical Christians and followers of non-Christian religions at the vanguard.