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Religion’s ethical failure

| Friday, September 19, 2014

Last month’s 11-count felony conviction of 1976 Notre Dame alumnus and former Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell, is an indictment against his religious-based education’s failure to inculcate business ethics. Specifically, McDonnell — Virginia’s Republican political poster boy for strong conservative religious convictions and clean, family values — earned his law degree from Regent University, an interdenominational Christian university founded by the Southern Baptist televangelist Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson. By any minimum standard, McDonnell should have been a perfect model of political conduct forged through the double-whammy of fundamental values these institutions claim to instill. Rather, he unsuccessfully blamed his wife for much of his problem and now awaits a judge’s sentencing that potentially can earn him an incarceration for at least a decade.

Regent and Notre Dame are educational communities steeped in Christian traditions with uniquely charitable interpretations of personal conduct. As any good public affairs brand expert would expect, their names and mottos succinctly proclaim their missions. The Notre Dame motto, “Vita Dulcedo Spes,” refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary, translating as “Life, Sweetness, Hope.” The University’s name in Latin — Universitas Dominae Nostrae a Lacu — translates from French as “Our Lady,” further distinguished as the lady of the lake when “du lac” is added to the official name: The University of Notre Dame du Lac.

Regent University lays claim to a just as straightforward clear message. Generally, a regent is a person who replaces and represents a monarch while exercising power during the absence or incapacity of that sovereign. The school motto boasts, “Christian Leadership to Change the World.” Its catalog sets a high standard for its graduates by explaining that “a regent is one who represents Christ, our Sovereign, in whatever sphere of life he or she may be called to serve Him.”

Scholars currently argue the finer legal points of McDonnell’s case. Yet the jury found that all public events a governor attends should be considered official events, at least when a favor or a potential favor comes into the discussion. The jury further found that the former governor failed to report his family company income (or in McDonnell’s case, list huge losses from his real estate company MoBo) on ethical reporting forms. McDonnell explained that he did not interpret a family company as a job. Perhaps a blind trust should settle the issue going forward.

Observers — both close to the McDonnell family and complete strangers alike — are dumbfounded by the scope and large dollar amount given by businessman Jonnie Williams to McDonnell and his family. It is difficult to explain how or why McDonnell “thought” the Rolex watch he received from Williams was counterfeit simply because it was given to him in a differently labeled box. One glance at the damaging evidence — a photo of McDonnell grinning from behind the wheel of a Ferrari convertible — outweighs any thousand words of explanation. Critics would like to know how to find a “friend” who will pay $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding without expecting something in return. Friends are saddened by McDonnell’s professed ignorance of his wife’s shopping trips that lavished her with many quite noticeable additions to her wardrobe.

The Harvard Business School teaches that reinventing a demand is key for a company’s continued success. For example, once an Asian specialty restaurant saturates the American market, it can then begin selling its specialty cutting knives. But at some point when expanding a product line is no longer viable, cost reductions or increases in market share become corporate lifelines. Oftentimes, though, company executives simply cut corners, thus reducing quality in the hope of increasing profits. At times, executives resort to unscrupulous corporate business decisions like Jonnie Williams did in his attempt to curry favor from McDonnell.

What more can be taught, especially at religious institutions, about business and personal ethics to save society from a future Bob McDonnell or Jonnie Williams? It may be advisable for public policy, political science and business schools nestled within religious institutions to mandate more ethics courses on how to avoid the seven deadly sins: lust, envy, greed, pride, wrath, sloth and gluttony. Conceivably, if executives and policymakers were more adverse to the seven deadly sins, fraud cases would precipitously diminish.

Why is it that Costco, with more realistic living wages, healthcare benefits implemented long before President Obama’s initiative and a more worker-friendly management-labor relationship, can compete with Walmart, which is the antithesis within the wholesale retail market? Once Burger King announced its corporate move to Canada to avoid U.S. taxes, a more generous — some might characterize as more patriotic and ethical CEO — could have announced a higher minimum wage for American workers left behind as a way to show empathy and commitment. Unfortunately, many times it is not until one’s personal coffers overflow by the billions that an aversion arises to greed, lust, envy, pride, wrath, sloth and gluttony. In McDonnell’s case, he simply blamed his wife.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • MG

    One might also characterize a corporate tax system that taxes foreign earnings at the US rate, not at the rate of the country in which the profits are earned, as a counterproductive system since it encourages companies to locate headquarters elsewhere. That has nothing to do with the patriotism (or not) of the CEO. Who among us voluntarily pays more taxes than those required by the IRS? I don’t.
    I think it’s excellent policy to pay our employees well. It allows us to attract excellent employees. I also believe that ethical behavior is essential for long-term success. It’s easy to blame “company executives” for cutting corners, but I don’t believe they have cornered the market on shoddy behavior. I have been both a member of the UAW and a business owner. The seven deadly sins are not confined only to the boardroom. That’s the problem with sin…it doesn’t conform to economic models easily or neatly.

  • Mike

    Religion did not fail ethically–McDonnell did. I think the distinction is important. Samuel Johnson said it well: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”