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date: 12 November 2019

Workplace and Religion in America

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: vocation, business, spirituality, evangelicals, discrimination

Theological Roots

Through the doctrine of vocation, the Christian tradition made a connection between work and spirituality, and the concept of a “calling” is rooted in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Theological understandings of vocation began to develop in the 4th century when orders of monks and nuns began to cloister themselves for lives of spiritual devotion. Those working outside the monastery were said to preserve creation and propagate the human race; those inside were “called out” to give thanks for Christ and to pray for the world’s salvation. While this offered an affirmation to many forms of labor and activity, spiritual life was soon seen as superior to material life. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was increasingly clear that a calling was reserved exclusively for bishops, priests, monks, and nuns.1

It was against the clerical monopoly on vocation and spiritually meaningful work that Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers sought to reaffirm the labor and calling of all Christians for a ministry in everyday life. After a long period of trying to be faithful and obedient as an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther came to the conclusion that the foundations of monasticism were mistaken. Luther repeatedly affirmed even the lowest occupations of his day as places of spiritual meaning because they served God by serving others. Following their forbearers, Protestant churches have frequently invoked vocation as a means to relate faith and work.2

In 1954, the newly formed World Council of Churches (WCC) devoted special attention at its first two assemblies to the significance of the laity in the life of the church. In particular, they began to use the phrase “ministry of the laity” to describe the important service done by Christians in their work and in all other areas of life. The WCC asserted that all Christians had the power to transform the world through their daily work, and the church must be with the laity so that “the laity in their turn (will) become genuine representatives of the Church in areas of modern life to which the Church has no access.”3 Over the next fifty years, an emphasis on vocation would episodically reemerge as an interest for mainline Protestants in the United States, and this has included a concern for integrating faith and work. The modern Roman Catholic social tradition has similarly affirmed the sacramental character of work in the world. This can be seen beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum: The Condition of Labor (1891) and continuing in the more recent work by Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens: On Human Work (1981) and Centesimus Annus: On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (1991). American denominations have issued statements, and church publishing houses have prepared resources, but the recurring theme in surveys and studies has been that churches do not do enough to connect spirituality and work.4

Changes to Work in America

When the Puritan divine Richard Steele wrote his treatise The Religious Tradesman in 1684, he too was claiming a connection between business and spirituality in the Protestant tradition of vocation and calling. Steele praised business as worthy work for a Christian, and he hoped that parents would “be persuaded to educate their children for a life of business and usefulness.”5 Offering careful advice for discerning if business was one’s appropriate vocation, Steele suggested self-examination as to vocational fit, consultation with experienced businessmen, and prayer to God for direction and assistance, and for the remainder of his book he described in detail the virtues that were necessary for a Christian in business, including prudence, justice, truth, and contentment. Steele did not worry about business as a potential challenge to faith as much as he feared sloth—a sin that an industrious businessman was sure to avoid. The great English hymn writer and fellow minister Isaac Watts found the work so inspirational that he wrote an introduction to a new printing in 1747.6 For Steele and his admirers, the justification for Christians in commerce was biblically derived from fusing the economic division of labor with the gifted diversity of the body of Christ, making some Christians called to business.7

It was from his study of Puritans specifically and Calvinists more generally that the great sociologist Max Weber developed his famous “Protestant ethic” thesis on the origins of capitalism and modern business practices. In looking at the development of business life and capitalist systems at the end of the 19th century, Weber was struck by how overwhelmingly Protestant everything was. Why, he asked, were business owners and capitalists more often Protestant, and why were Calvinists even more prevalent? In particular he was struck by the Puritans and their rigorous piety in all areas of life coupled with the successful commerce they developed in New England. His conclusion was that these religious traditions and the forms of economic organization known as capitalism had an affinity for each other. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber also offered a definition of capitalism that still deserves attention. He argued that capitalism is not about the maximization of wealth or even its pursuit. Long before the rise of capitalism, humans sought money and riches, but greed has “nothing to do with capitalism.” Rather, Weber argued, capitalism is an economic system with inherent values, including self-discipline and rationality, that result not in profit but “forever renewed profit.”8

While work in the colonial era and early American republic included faithful farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans, the 19th century brought in a new form of workplace, the factory, and while the theological influences remained significant, these changing forms of economic organization created opportunities for new affinities between faith and economic life. In the industrial organization of the 19th century, there was an increased effort to break work into several unskilled parts so that anyone could do the work with only limited training and so that the overall work processes could be streamlined. The problem with such efforts was that any creativity exercised by workers in accomplishing a task was taken away. The assembly line was born. Industrial work increasingly became monotonous with no use for the intellectual (and some would say spiritual) contribution of the worker.

George Pullman was one of the many industrialists reshaping the very nature of modern enterprise in the 1800s, and his Pullman’s Palace Car Company had brought about a revolution in transportation that for the first time made it enjoyable to travel long distances by train. Pullman’s industrial success exemplified the changing character of work in the industrial era, including the large-scale industrial factory that combined many men and multiple trades in one central location, the use of more sophisticated technology and machinery in that production, and a new form of bureaucratic management, which provided a sophisticated means to control acquisition, production, distribution, and capital formation in newly emerging business corporations. For Pullman, who was anxious to consolidate his growing manufacturing operations, it also involved the design of an entire city around his factory that would include a hotel, shops, parks, and a combination of single-family homes and apartments serving a population of 8600 in 1885.9 Included in plans for Pullman’s new city was a single church located near the town’s center. With little concern for doctrinal differences, Pullman saw no need to provide more than one church for the multiple religious traditions that might be present among workers. Moreover, a large church was deemed more aesthetically pleasing and a better fit for the town overall.10

Known as “welfare capitalism,” corporations themselves offered a variety of responses to industrialization. By 1916 approximately 3 percent of the U.S. population lived in company-owned housing and “company towns.” Companies also built and supported churches in many of these towns with pastors as part of the regular corporate payroll. Together with recreation opportunities, schools, company-employed social workers, and various provisions for medical care, American businesses during this period showed a growing attention to the overall well-being of employees by meeting a wide scope of human needs as part of the business enterprise. Included in welfare capitalism was a concern for the morality and religious practices of employees since, in the long term it was thought, this would lead to more stable, loyal, dependable and productive workers. One of the most common practices of the time was for companies to organize YMCA-led bible studies among employees; in 1904, the YMCA reported that the organization was working in 175 factories in 115 cities with an average attendance of 25,000.11 Overall, welfare capitalism was an industrial form of enlightened self-interest that drew upon communitarian ideals and themes from the social gospel to emphasize the importance of sharing wealth and respecting workers as more than mere cogs in the industrial machine. It also sought to mitigate against union organization and rising socialist sentiments.12

The most important case study of religion and American industrialization was Liston Pope’s Millhands and Preachers. Published in 1942, the book analyzed the role of religious leaders in the cotton-mill strike that gripped Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929. Most of Gastonia’s cotton mills had company towns surrounding them that included employee housing and on-site churches with mainline denominational identities often reflecting the denominational loyalty of the mill owner. In what became a groundbreaking book in the sociology of religion, Pope was able to document how the community’s ministers aligned their preaching and teaching with either the mill owners or workers. Ministers in company-town churches—the ministers most vulnerable to the owner’s power—aligned clearly with management and against the strike, using the pulpit to make their case that striking mill workers should return to the job. Ministers of churches outside the company towns and especially the ministers of congregations outside the Protestant mainline (e.g., Baptist, Holiness, and Church of God) were more likely to align with the strikers and their demands for better pay and working conditions.13 Pope’s analysis was a highly cautionary tale of the consequences possible when religious life was subordinated to business interests.

As welfare capitalism developed further, it was the social sciences that became the primary resources. New “personnel managers” began to rebel from the rigid orthodoxy of industrial production. Professional industrial psychologists and personnel directors used interviews to gauge employee attitudes and morale, and foreman were trained to be more sensitive, appealing to an employee’s feelings rather than using harsh disciplinary measures. Management theorists and organizational psychologists increasingly emphasized the social dimension of work as well as the human needs of workers beyond a wage. “Primitive” forms of external motivation, by either economic incentives or fear, were supplemented or replaced by corporate efforts to create internal incentives for hard work based on the employee’s desire for relationships, creativity, recognition, and inherent meaning in work.14 This was the hallmark of the “human relations” school of management that emerged after World War II.

The move into psychology set the stage for corporate-sponsored personal-development programs that emerged in the 1960s and continue today. Designed for and appealing especially to white-collar employees, personal-development programs seek to foster personal growth and increase personal effectiveness. They tap into a desire for self-improvement and success that are part of American culture broadly, but they do so with the assumption that the personal improvement of employees will benefit the business. Usually offered by training departments or outside consultants, personal-development programs can include challenging outdoor experiences like white-water rafting or a ropes course, and they can also be conducted within the corporate office involving techniques such as meditation and visioning.15 White-water rafting or meditation may not have a direct tie to the corporate mission, but the teamwork and confidence it inspires may have measurable effects at work.

Use of the behavioral sciences also led managers and scholars to think of corporations as having distinctive cultures that affect how work is done and how decisions are made. These theories argue that corporations are communities with their own rules, policies, procedures, and etiquette, and the reality of corporate culture has led managers and management theory away from seeing corporate leadership and institutional change as strictly a rational process. Cultures are often highly irrational even though they may intend to be efficient and well structured. Different processes of decision making, perspectives, and values often influence results more than the facts and problems themselves. By focusing on the “organized anarchy” of corporate institutions, culture becomes central, and attention has been given to activities and relationships that can be understood as mythic and ritualistic. Knowledge of these spiritual characteristics of the corporate organization as well as the norms that the organization seeks to propagate helps workers to become part of the workplace community, but they also can be forces to harness, manipulate, and control.16

Old-style welfare capitalism has also re-emerged in recent years with a new set of workplace benefits. There is now corporate interest as well as employee support for benefits that harmonize one’s work with other areas of life as well as corporate organizations that respond to deep psychic needs and desires. Through new corporate campuses and growth in nontraditional benefits, a new form of the company town has emerged that appeals to white-collar employees and employers who are increasingly strained for time and talent. The new company town tends to be more like a shopping mall than an old-fashioned city, and housing is no longer the centerpiece. Instead, the realities of dual career families and longer hours have come together. Time is the most precious commodity for both worker and employer, and the convenience of multiple services and opportunities means that employees do not have to leave the office to meet other needs, allowing energy and think time to be devoted exclusively to the enterprise and away from personal concerns. As with the old company town, these benefits help to recruit and retain workers by providing services that meet basic needs, inspire loyalty, and promote increased productivity. One area of growth is in health-related services produced by companies in addition to traditional health-insurance benefits. Wellness programs as well as “employee assistance programs” that provide counseling and assistance with substance-abuse problems have been added by many firms.17

Workplace Spirituality

The diverse services provided by American corporations (everything from child care to personal-development programs to fitness centers) seek to re-create holism in an employee’s life but at work, and so the move from later forms of welfare capitalism to an explicit concern for spirituality has not been a major leap. In many ways, it has simply been a matter of semantics as certain benefits have been repackaged and reinterpreted as being part of an employee’s and employer’s spiritual identity.18 But this change in language has also required some precision in words as well. Most companies focused on “spirituality” (except for the evangelical Christians described below) actively avoid direct connections to “religion” and religious traditions in order to be more ecumenical, engaging, and noncontroversial. Since employers and employees want to maintain a clear distinction between religion and spirituality in the workplace, the result is a very general definition of spirituality.

Within the corporate organization, the manifestation of spirituality most often occurs through a set of shared values and practices that are understood as spiritual in character. An interest in spirituality will lead corporate leaders to talk about creativity, inner wisdom, happiness, relationships, service, and ethics as a seamless unity tied to an eternal (or deeply personal) source. Openness to the language of spirituality itself is an important step in the process since many business organizations, business education, and the rationality of the business ethos influenced by industrial management have been resistant to such terms.19

An often uplifted practice of spirituality in corporate life is storytelling. This can take a variety of forms, including reading and discussing existing stories from a source outside the group or telling personal stories and engaging in dialogue about them. Many of the books written about and for workplace spirituality are now sources for the practice of storytelling. By far the most well-known example is Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work (1996), a collection of 101 stories about life at work. The authors of this Chicken Soup book (one of a growing collection on almost every conceivable topic) even developed a guide for readers to use in establishing a “Chicken Soup Group” in the workplace. The steps focused on group organization, but they also prompted personal reflection and awareness of feelings as stories from the book are read in the group.20 Other books and essays affirm the value of storytelling or provide a forum for the author to share his or her own story of triumph, failure, and enlightenment. Still another genre of books are those that use fables to communicate a message about business management.

Storytelling as a practice affirms many of the values named as attributes of workplace spirituality, and it also demonstrates the close tie between forms of spirituality and theories of corporate culture. Telling stories creates an intimacy, fosters stronger relationships among the conversation partners, and socializes new employees into the group. It also affirms the holistic character of life since many of the stories may not be directly work related. However, telling about a sick parent, a divorce, or some other seemingly personal matter at work affirms the workplace as a space and set of relationships where the whole self is welcomed and valued. Management theorist Peter Senge has also argued that dialogue fosters creativity and builds relationships of trust that enable further dialogue to take place. Development of skills for dialogue is essential, according to Senge, because it allows the work group to access a higher level of thinking and creativity than can be done individually.21

Others have identified and used methods and practices besides storytelling for similar purposes. At Xerox Corporation, three hundred employees were involved in a Native American “vision quest” that included twenty-four hours of isolation in remote environments. In 1999, BusinessWeek reported that Xerox employees “from senior managers to clerks” participated in the program as a means to spark new ideas and creativity for product development. Such activities seek to make a connection to “inner wisdom” that can only be heard when much of the “noise” of our modern culture has been silenced or escaped. To promote creativity through dialogue, Xerox utilized Native American talking circles to facilitate meetings. In these events, a “talking stick” is shared among participants to encourage deep listening to the one person speaking. BusinessWeek also reported that the results of these practices were a highly profitable new copier-fax-printer as well as inquiries about similar programs from corporate giants like Nike and Harley Davidson.22

A smaller company seeking to embody forms of workplace spirituality was Tom’s of Maine. Founded by Tom Chappell, Tom’s of Maine is a personal-care-products company that specializes in natural and environmentally friendly products. As the CEO and majority owner of the company, Chappell singlehandedly transformed Tom’s of Maine into a company with a spiritual focus. Facing a spiritual crisis of his own, Chappell enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, and he was soon bringing Harvard professors as well as the books they assigned to corporate board meetings and employee gatherings. Chappell understood workplace spirituality to be a deep sense of connection, service, and commonality. As the owner and CEO, Chappell also sought to let people engage the company’s spirit on their own terms and with their own language. This means that biblically rooted terms like “tithing” were replaced by alternatives like “giving back” to the community and the environment.23

A whole collection of new entrepreneurs like Chappell sought to create a similar spiritual ethos in their businesses. The well-known Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream founded their company as a socially responsible organization that refuses, in their words, to operate under the “absurd” belief that “because spiritual connection is intangible or quantifiably immeasurable, it does not exist.”24 Howard Schultz has told a similar story about the values, spirit, and explosive growth of Starbuck’s in Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (1997) and then later Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul (2012). Chappell’s The Soul of a Business (1993) has made him a popular speaker on the subject of integrating spirituality and work, and Cohen and Greenfield wrote Ben and Jerry’s Double Dip (1997) to advance their business philosophy and spiritual vision. Other self-proclaimed spiritual or enlightened entrepreneurs who have told their story in a book include David Green’s The Invisible Hand: Business, Success and Spirituality (2012), Mel and Patricia Zigler and Bill Rosenzweig in The Republic of Tea: Letters to a Young Zentrepreneur (1992), and furniture maker Herman Miller’s Max DePree, who wrote Leadership is an Art (1989) and Leadership Jazz (1992).

A further step in the direction of spirituality and religiosity has been companies hiring corporate chaplains. Often as part of an organization’s employee assistance program (EAP), corporate chaplains complete the link back to the company towns of a century ago. Through an EAP, a company might make a psychologist or counselor available to employees for personal or workplace concerns, and similarly corporate chaplains are paid by the business to be available for the employee’s consultation and perhaps to lead bible studies or worship at the workplace. If an employee feels uncomfortable talking to a company-provided “secular” counselor, a workplace chaplain may be a good alternative, but there is no guarantee that a company will provide either or both, leaving some employees without the option of a spiritual counselor and others with a pastor as the only choice. The motivation of managers to enlist the services of workplace chaplains may vary. Some managers are influenced by their own religious commitments while others recognize that, although almost all Americans profess some sort of religious beliefs, not all are members of a church or religious community.25 Even more, religious leaders are seldom found visiting their congregants’ workplace.

To meet the need of companies seeking corporate chaplains, other enterprises have emerged to supply chaplaincy services. Marketplace Ministries, Inc., is over thirty years old and claims to have “over 630 client companies with over 2,870 chaplains caring for 155,000 workers and 432,000 family members.”26 Firms like Marketplace Ministries function like other EAP providers, working on a contractual basis with employers. The nonprofit Corporate Chaplains of America operates similarly and includes testimonials from client companies on its website along with an evangelical statement of faith to which all its chaplains must adhere.27 A different type of chaplaincy organization is the National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains (NIBIC), based in Houston, which functions more like a professional association and accrediting organization for business chaplains, specifying a code of ethics as well as offering educational standards and courses. The NIBIC is broadly ecumenical in its orientation and appears to want workplace chaplaincy to have the same level of standards and prestige as heath care and military chaplaincies where evangelization is frowned upon and spiritual care is more the rule. Full “clinical membership” in the organization requires a master of divinity degree, ordination, ecclesiastical endorsement, and additional training in a clinical setting.28

Evangelicals in Businesses

Another distinctive form of workplace spirituality is being developed by evangelical Christians in the growing number of self-styled “Christian businesses.” The model of the Christian company is so well known that it has been featured in the Wall Street Journal (1985 and 2006), Fortune (1987), US News and World Report (1995), New York Times (2001), Time (2005), and Atlantic Monthly (2014). Each of these publications recognized that evangelicals are increasingly flexing their economic strength, but the characteristics of a “Christian business” vary widely with some firms offering on-site religious activities and others emphasizing the manager’s responsibility as a role model. Specific practices may include inviting customers to meetings where Christian testimonies are heard, displaying Christian principles in prominent areas, inviting customers to church, giving Christian gifts to customers, using Christian symbols, and naming God or Christ in a mission or policy statement.29 While the vast majority of Christian businesses are small, there are several large ones as well.

Examples of Christian companies include many prominent retailers and other firms in the United States today. The trucking company Covenant Transportation offers Bible studies at the corporate headquarters and displays pro-life messages on every truck.30 At Chik-fil-A, a fast-food chain with over $6 billion in sales and over 2,000 restaurants, stores are closed on Sunday, and the company’s mission statement describes its purpose as “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.”31 The former headquarters of the ServiceMaster Company was unique among large corporations in the United States because it included an 11-foot-high statue of Jesus washing the feet of a disciple. As the corporate name indicates, the company is in the service business, but the name also communicates a dual message that the organization seeks to be the “master of service” and to provide “service to the Master.” The company has also charted a distinctive course because it claims that its first objective is “to honor God in all we do.”32 Those who live near a Hobby Lobby store may have seen one of the company’s Christmas or Easter advertisements; since 1996 the company has placed full-page ads offering a devotional message on these Christian holidays with all of the messages including the Hobby Lobby name and a scripture passage printed in full. In 2008, Hobby Lobby added Independence Day advertisements with the caption “In God We Trust” and focusing on the role of faith in the founding of the United States.33

Direct-selling organizations like Amway offer a different category of organizations that have adopted the practices of evangelicalism even though they may not be explicit about Christian beliefs and creeds in their business operations. Amway and other direct-selling organizations, including companies such as Mary Kay, Shaklee, Avon, and Tupperware, are distinguished by their reliance on scores of independent contractors who are not employees of the main company but are self-employed as commissioned distributors of company products. Amway is distinguished by its use of evangelical revival techniques to motivate its sales force as well as sales and recruitment strategies that closely resemble the outreach styles of evangelical churches.34 The heart of an Amway sales meeting is the speaker(s) who delivers a personal testimony on the impact of Amway in achieving personal success, with success always defined in terms of personal possessions and exotic travel. Like the Christian testifying to his life before and after being “saved,” the before and after description of a distributor is an important part of the testimony because it points to the salvific character of the organizations. As Nicole Biggart describes it, “Whoever distributors may be in the outside word, they are ‘born again’ in direct selling.”35 And in the same way that revivalist seek to provoke an emotional response from their congregants, “speeches and award presentations are continually punctuated by shouts of ‘Ain’t it great?’ and ‘I believe.’”36

With the increasing prominence of evangelicals in business and the rapid rise in Christian companies, parachurch organizations have been formed to provide support, networking, and resources. Fellowship of Companies for Christ (FCC) was formed specifically for owners and chief executives who understand their business leadership and ownership as an act of Christian stewardship, and their unabashed goal is to change the world for Christ, one company at a time. FCC offers workshops and training events for CEOs and company owners; they support local groups for study, prayer, and fellowship; and they produce a variety of videos, books, and manuals for use by Christian business leaders in their own companies. FCC claims that company leaders serve a special function in the body of Christ, and Christian owners and CEOs must understand themselves stewards of the companies that God has entrusted to them. The organization has both national and regional offices with programs available at each of these levels and across denominational lines.37 An older but similar parachurch organization, the Christian Businessmen’s Connection (formerly, the Christian Businessmen’s Committee), has been in existence for over eighty years and appeals to a broader range of business professionals (not just owners and CEOs) with similar programs and resources but a single gender membership.38

Christian businesses can distinguish themselves by advertising their theological convictions. Using verses of scripture is one example, but the most common is the ancient Christian fish symbol. With a history dating back to the 2nd century, it has long been a marker of Christian identity. Its business advantage is its subtlety compared to a cross since it is likely only other Christians will recognize it as a Christian symbol. This describes the difficulty of marketing to Christians since a desire to solicit business from other Christians is often coupled with a desire not to alienate customers who may not be Christian (or evangelical).

Books on Workplace Spirituality

For evangelical Christians who do not work in Christian businesses (and even for those who do), a variety of books and other resources are now available to help make a connection between work and faith. In 1995, Laurie Beth Jones wrote Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership. Although not the first book of this genre, Jones’s best seller was translated into four languages, and it marked the beginning of a new emphasis on Jesus as a teacher of business management techniques. Books that connect work, business, and faith easily blend both ancient wisdom and self-help, especially if self-help is expanded beyond the therapeutic to embrace success and advice literature. The subject headings given by the Library of Congress are also illustrative. We now have books under subject headings such as Management—Religious Aspects, Business—Religious Aspects, Jesus Christ—Leadership, Executive Ability—Biblical Teaching. Jones’s Jesus, CEO includes three subject headings: “1. Success, 2. Success in business, and 3. Jesus Christ—Leadership,” and it appears that Jesus, CEO was the first use by the Library of Congress of the heading “Jesus Christ—Leadership.” The connection to leadership ranks Jesus alongside winning coaches, successful CEOs, and heroic political and military figures.

In the history of American publishing, Jesus, CEO was nothing new. Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows was a run-away best seller in 1925 and 1926 with over 250,000 copies sold. Translations were made into several languages, and a silent movie was made by the same title.39 Barton’s Jesus was a business leader who “built the greatest organization of all,” demonstrating success as a salesman, supervisor, and master of his own destiny.40 Barton was also able to capitalize on the success of The Man Nobody Knows with several sequels, and Barton’s corpus established a pattern for success books where Jesus was the model of workplace success to be emulated. The result was that the book fell prey to a two-pronged attack by critics and reviewers. For religious conservatives, it was faulted for its failure to affirm Christ’s divinity and basic tenets of Christian theology. From more liberal Christians, it was criticized for using Jesus to bless capitalism and the business practices of the day, and Christian Century attacked The Man Nobody Knows for making Jesus into a mere “efficiency expert.”41

Outside Christianity, another popular hero manager has been Siddhartha Gautama, usually known simply as the Buddha. Demonstrating the ecumenical reach of a good, spiritually connected hero-manager, management expert Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, wrote the introduction to What Would Buddha Do at Work? 101 Answers to Workplace Dilemmas, praising it as a work “rich with words of wisdom for people in organizations both large and small.”42 What Would Buddha Do at Work? follows a similar format to other books of hero-inspired management wisdom, asking how the Buddha would answer common business problems, offering a short quotation from Buddhist literature like the Dhammapada, and providing a short two- to four-paragraph response. Enlightened Management: Bringing Buddhist Principles to Work (1999) focuses less on the wisdom of the Buddha and more on the positive effects of Buddhist-inspired meditation techniques—no doubt a form of wisdom in and of themselves. Perhaps one of the most ambitious books of the genre is Business and the Buddha, written by Lloyd Field with a forward by the Dalai Lama. What distinguishes Field’s work is that he engages the Buddha’s wisdom at both the micro and macro levels of business life, considering potential Buddhist correctives to the capitalist economic system and the thought of Adam Smith as well as concrete business decisions that can be guided and improved by the Buddha’s teachings.43 In form, however, the books of business wisdom from “hero managers,” spiritual or otherwise, are remarkably the same, but the consumer’s choice of hero remains distinctive.

Controversy and Conflict

While workplace spirituality grows, there is also a growing conflict. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of the United States reports that charges of religious discrimination in the workplace more than doubled from 1997 to 2015, and monetary payments to victims of discrimination increased from $2.2 to $10.8 million during the same period. Although complaints for gender and racial discrimination far outnumber religion complaints, complaints about race and sex have remained fairly constant over the same period.44 The 1964 Civil Rights Act made religion a protected activity in the workplace, requiring that places of employment not discriminate on the basis of religion and that they make “reasonable accommodations” for religious expression in the workplace. The EEOC has further broadened its interpretation of the 1964 law so that religious protection includes “moral or ethical beliefs” and any other belief that an individual might hold—whether it is found among a religious group or not.45

It is impossible to explain the exact cause of rising workplace discrimination complaints, but journalists and scholars are already developing several hypotheses. First, increasing religious diversity in the workplace may be an obvious source of tension. As the United States has become more religiously diverse, especially with immigration from Asia and Africa, the workplace has become more religiously diverse as well.46 While growing diversity does not necessarily lead to tension or discrimination, it is certainly possible, and the possibility is magnified when religious belief has public manifestations in the workplace. James Morgan theorizes that new immigrants have not been “indoctrinated with the traditional U.S. view that expressing faith at work is inappropriate” and may in fact believe that such religious expression at work, including display of symbols and practices, is essential to faithfulness.47 The need for space and time for Muslim prayers, the addition of a scarf or kipa to a work uniform, or a small painting of Lakshmi on a desk can all be understood as forms of workplace spirituality, but they each push boundaries and force a decision on what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” to an employee’s religious beliefs as well as what constitutes religious discrimination.

The rise of Christian companies raises similar concerns. Even though an owner may identify his or her business as Christian, religious discrimination in employment is still illegal. A Christian business cannot hire only Christians, employ only Christians as managers, favor Christians in any way connected to their employment, or discriminate against non-Christian employees. But in practice, a firm that has fish and cross on its job advertisements may not appear to be a very hospitable place for a Buddhist or atheist. One Christian business owner reported that in speaking to job candidates at interviews he “explain(s) to them that we’re doing God’s work.”48 Under the law, this is not religious discrimination, but it may allow a Christian company to hire only Christians (and especially evangelicals) because candidates self-select this type of enterprise for employment.

Questions of religious discrimination in the workplace—discrimination against religious beliefs and discrimination because of religious beliefs—have also occupied courts and legislatures because of evangelical Christian responses to the Affordable Care Act (2010) and actions by legislatures and the courts legalizing same-sex marriage. Opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) by Christian businesses (as well as faith-based nonprofit organizations) focused on the act’s requirement that health-insurance plans include coverage for birth control. Due to objections that certain types of birth control could be abortifacients, Christian businesses filed suit against the federal government with the most prominent being Hobby Lobby (discussed above), and in a groundbreaking decision in 2014 (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that closely held, for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby could have religious beliefs that must be protected by federal antidiscrimination laws.49 Actions by the courts and legislatures to legalize same-sex marriage, including the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, prompted a different type of discrimination claim by businesses and individuals opposed to the unions on religious grounds. Public officials objected to the granting of marriage licenses or being required to officiate at the ceremonies, and evangelical service providers, ranging from photographers to florists to bakers, sought legal protection for refusing services on religious grounds. In response, states have considered or enacted new legislation like Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which evangelical Christians have praised but others have condemned as a means to legalize faith-based discrimination against same-sex couples.50

One of the more challenging questions is how spiritual practices are being received when they are presented under the guise of professional-development programs. Meditation, yoga, the writing of personal mission statements, and even Native American spiritual practices are used for team building and to tap the creative processes of employees.51 To many employees, these practices may be inoffensive and fit naturally into a “spiritual but not religious” lifestyle. But to an evangelical Christian or a devout Muslim, these same practices may be the very essence of idolatry. The question that remains is whether employees who are compelled to participate in these practices are really being required to participate in objectionable religious activity. An employee who refuses to participate and is then fired, demoted, or denied promotion may have a legitimate religious-discrimination complaint. As spiritual practices sneak into corporate America through mainstream training programs, it will be increasingly difficult to parse out what is religious or spiritual and what is legitimate professional and organizational development.

Review of the Literature

While the topics of work, vocation, and professional ethics concerned clergy and theological writers from the earliest days of the American colonies, the work of German sociologist Max Weber at the beginning of the 20th century is an identifiable starting point for scholarship on the relationship between religion and work. Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) argued that Puritan religious beliefs on election, vocation, and the display of wealth had an “elective affinity” with economic practices conducive to capitalism. While faulted by critics for a century over his understanding of Calvinism and Puritan theology as well as the limited empirical evidence in support of his thesis, Weber’s claim that religious ideas can have an affinity for some economic practices and forms of workplace organization over others continues to have resonance. His smaller and lesser-known essay on “The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1904) in which he described the economic and workplace affinities of smaller sectarian Christian groups endures in its explanatory power of faith-based businesses today like Chik-fil-A and Hobby Lobby.

Scholarship on religion and the workplace after Weber largely emerged from two scholarly domains that, unfortunately, seldom communicated with each other. One was the academic study of religion, including its diverse methodologies, and the other was the new “science” of business management with its own methods and subdisciplines (e.g., organizational behavior, ethics, human resources). Some additional attention came from the field of law as scholars have sought to define the parameters of religious discrimination at work and the “reasonable accommodation” of religious practice by employers after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and amid increasing religious diversity.

Among business scholars, articles about workplace spirituality appeared occasionally in management journals, but in the late 1990s important developments occurred in two professional associations. The first was the inauguration of a “Spirituality in Organizations” track at the International Academy of Business Disciplines with conference proceedings published in the organization’s Business Research Yearbook, and the second was when the much larger Academy of Management established a Management, Spirituality, and Religion group in 1999. A peer-reviewed Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion was launched in 2004. An early collection of essays, a harbinger of things to come and expressing concern about a multitude of spiritual and spiritual-like practices in the workplace, was A Fatal Embrace: Assessing Holistic Trends in Human Resources Programs.52 In 1999, Ian I. Mitroff, a business professor at the University of Southern California, and Elizabeth A. Denton, an organizational consultant, issued A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace,53 offering a five-part typology for understanding religion and spirituality in the workplace varying from explicitly faith-based businesses to for-profit enterprises focused on social responsibility. Within this scholarly arena, collections of essays and conference proceedings, including Oliver F. Williams’s edited volume titled Business, Religion and Spirituality: A New Synthesis and Work and Spirit: A Reader of New Spiritual Paradigms for Organizations, have dominated over monographs.54

Scholars of religion have been less prolific and perhaps less interested in the subject. Assessing theological movements in the latter half of the 20th century, David Miller’s God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement explored how Protestants in the United States sought to connect work and religiosity through both church and parachurch structures.55 In Religion in the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality and Leadership, Douglas A. Hicks sought to integrate religious and leadership studies for a pluralistic understanding and practical engagement with religious expression at work. Lake Lambert’s Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace offered a tour of issues, movements, and manifestations of religion and spirituality in the workplace, ranging from faith-based businesses to spirituality in management education and following Weber’s insight that religious (and spiritual) ideas can have affinity with economic ideas and workplace practices.56

Further Reading

Biberman, Jerry, and Michael D. Whitty. Work and Spirit: A Reader of New Spiritual Paradigms for Organizations. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Heuberger, Frank W., and Laura Nash, eds. A Fatal Embrace? Assessing Holistic Trend in Human Resource Programs. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.Find this resource:

Hicks, Douglas A. Religion and the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality and Leadership. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Jacoby, Sanford A. Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism Since the New Deal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Lambert, Lake. Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace. New York: New York University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Miller, David. God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Mitroff, Ian I., and Elizabeth A. Denton. A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.Find this resource:

Pope, Liston. Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942.Find this resource:

Williams, Oliver F., ed. Business, Religion, and Spirituality: A New Synthesis. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 242; and Hendrik Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 60.

(2.) See Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004).

(3.) World Council of Churches, “The Laity: The Christian in His Vocation,” in The Evanston Report, ed. W. A. Visser ‘T Hoof (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955), 161 and 168.

(4.) For empirical studies on this issue, see Robert Wuthnow, The Crisis in the Churches (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan, Church on Sunday, Work on Monday (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2001).

(5.) Robert S. Michaelson, “Changes in the Puritan Concept of Calling or Vocation,” New England Quarterly 26 (September 1953): 326–328; and Richard Steele, The Religious Tradesman (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1989), 19.

(6.) Isaac Watts, introduction to The Religious Tradesman, by Richard Steele, iii–iv.

(7.) Steele, Religious Tradesman, 10–11.

(8.) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), xxxi.

(9.) Stanley Buder, Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 38, 49–50, 89.

(10.) Buder, Pullman, 66.

(11.) Stuart Brandes, American Welfare Capitalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 38, 67.

(12.) Brandes, American Welfare Capitalism, 1–2; and Sanford M. Jacoby, Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New Deal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 12–14.

(13.) Liston Pope, Millhands and Preachers: A Study of Gastonia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942), 274–276.

(14.) Jacoby, Modern Manors, 19–20, 84.

(15.) Mary B. Young, “Hard Bodies, Soft Issues, and the Whole Person” in A Fatal Embrace?, eds. Frank W. Heuberger and Laura Nash (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 21–22.

(16.) Paul DiMaggio, “The Relevance of Organizational Theory to the Study of Religion,” in Sacred Companies, eds. N. J. Demerath III, Peter Dobkin Hall, Terry Schmitt, and Rhys H. Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 8–9.

(17.) Young, “Hard Bodies,” 18–19.

(18.) Frank W. Heuberger and Laura Nash, introduction to A Fatal Embrace?, 2–3.

(19.) Judith A. Neal, “Spirituality in Management Education: A Guide to Resources,” Journal of Management Education 21 (1997): 123; and Bob Ronser, “Is There Room for the Soul at Work?,” Workforce 80 (February 2001): 82–83.

(21.) Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 239–245.

(22.) Michelle Conlin, “Religion in the Workplace,” BusinessWeek (November 1, 1999), 151–152.

(23.) Tom Chappell, presentation at the “Spirituality at Work: The New Values-Based Productivity” conference, Washington, DC, June 28, 1998.

(24.) Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ben and Jerry’s Double Dip (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 51.

(25.) Rachel Emma Silverman, “More Chaplains Take Ministering Into the Workplace,” Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2001, B1; and Wayne Tompkins, “Workers Find Spiritual Support,” Louisville Courier-Journal, January 2, 2001, C5–C6.

(26.) Marketplace Ministries, Inc., “About Us: Overview.”

(27.) Corporate Chaplains of America, “Beliefs.”

(28.) Silverman, “More Chaplains Take Ministering Into the Workplace,” B1; National Institute of Business and Industrial Chaplains, “Membership Categories.”

(29.) Nabil A. Ibrahim, Leslie W. Rue, Patricia P. McDougall, and G. Robert Green, “Characteristics and Practices of ‘Christian-Based’ Companies,” Journal of Business Ethics 10 (1991): 127–128.

(30.) Daniel Machalaba, “More Employees Are Seeking to Worship God on the Job,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2002, B1.

(31.) Chik-fil-A, “Who We Are”; and S. Truett Cathy, It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail (Nashville, TN: Oliver Nelson, 1989), 156–157.

(32.) C. William Pollard, The Soul of the Firm (Grand Rapids, MI: Harper Business and Zondervan Publishing Co., 1996), 18 and 32; and Joseph A. Maciariello, “Credo and Credibility,” in Faith in Leadership, eds. Robert Banks and Kimberly Powell (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 213.

(34.) David G. Bromley, “Transformative Movements and Quasi-Religious Corporations: The Case of Amway,” in Sacred Companies, eds. N. J. Demarath III et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 350–351.

(35.) Nicole Woolsey Biggort, Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 140.

(36.) Linda Oldham Lester, “Success: A Phenomenological Analysis of the Belief System of the Amway Corporations” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1974); quoted in Bromley, “Transformative Movements,” 354.

(37.) Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, “About FCCI.”

(38.) Christian Business Men’s Connection, “About CBMC.”

(39.) Richard M. Fried, introduction to The Man Nobody Knows, by Bruce Barton (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2000), vii–viii; and Leo P. Ribuffo, “Jesus Christ as Business Statesman: Bruce Barton and the Selling of Corporate Capitalism,” American Quarterly 33 (Summer 1981): 221.

(40.) Bruce Barton, The Man Nobody Knows (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merill Co., 1925), 4.

(41.) Rolf Lunden, Business and Religion in the American 1920s (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 105; and “Jesus As Efficiency Expert,” Christian Century 42 (July 2, 1925): 352.

(42.) Franz Metcalf, What Would the Buddha Do at Work? 101 Answers to Workplace Dilemmas (San Francisco: Berritte Koehler Publishers, 2001), xii.

(43.) Lloyd Field, Business and the Buddha (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2007), 23, 42–44, 163–168, and 181–183.

(44.) U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Statistics.”

(45.) James F. Morgan, “How Should Business Respond to a More Religious Workplace?” SAM Advanced Management Journal 69 (2004): 14.

(46.) Morgan, “How Should Business Respond,” 13; Russell Shorto, “Faith at Work,” New York Times Magazine, October 31, 2004, 43; and Melanie Trottman, “Religious-Discrimination Claims on the Rise,” Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2013, B1.

(47.) Morgan, “How Should Business Respond?,” 13.

(48.) Shorto, “Faith at Work,” 46.

(49.) Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 575 (2014).

(50.) Richard Fausset and Alan Blinder, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” New York Times, March 6, 2015, A20; and Monica Davey et al., “After Rights Clash, Two States Revise Legislation,” New York Times, April 3, 2015, A12.

(51.) Karen C. Cash and George R. Gray, “A Framework for Accommodating Religion and Spirituality in the Workplace,” Academy of Management Executive 14 (2000): 125–127.

(52.) Frank W. Heuberger and Laura L. Nash, eds., A Fatal Embrace: Assessing Holistic Trends in Human Resources Programs (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).

(53.) Ian I. Mitroff and Elizabeth A. Denton, A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America: A Hard Look at Spirituality, Religion, and Values in the Workplace (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999).

(54.) Oliver F. Williams, ed., Business, Religion and Spirituality: A New Synthesis (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003); and Jerry Biberman and Michael D. Whitty, eds., Work and Spirit: A Reader of New Spiritual Paradigms for Organizations (Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press, 2000).

(55.) David Miller, God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(56.) Douglas Hicks, Religion in the Workplace: Pluralism, Spirituality and Leadership (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Lake Lambert III, Spirituality, Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace (New York: New York University Press, 2009).