It is refreshing to read a book about the collusion between the church and big business by a political scientist and a philosopher. Both authors are also knowledgable Roman Catholics. This book is a critique of the ways that corporations have prempted Christianity for their own uses, and churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have become caretakers for capitalism. This review will summarize the ideas in some of the significant chapters.
The authors begin by stating they know they will make people uncomfortable, "but that often seems to happen whenever our work invites the gospel to critique everyday lives and loyalties." (7) They begin by observing the ways that capitalism has used Christianity to bolster its reason for being. CEOs and managers discuss how to apply Biblical passages to the workplace, rather than looking at and listening to what the gospel says about how to live.
"Putting Jesus to Work" discusses the business and spirituality movement. Some companies espouse this movement as long as it is low-key and supports a capitalist economy. "Company-store theology," that is, chaplaincy programs in the workplace are scrutinized. From the corporate perspective their purpose is to save the company money by helping employees with their personal problems, thus saving paid sick leave. Other business and spirituality endeavors have a focus on self-development. Deepak Chopra is an example. Even the Woodstock Business Conference is criticized for affirming "the compatibility of corporate profitability with ethical decision making" (41).
"The Political Economy of Formation" points out the manner in which businesses use religious symbols in marketing. One example is an ad campaign in the United Kingdom which Christian churches designed to increase Easter attendance; however, references to the cross were removed to make it more appealing. In other words, the cultural industries use the churches' formation ideas: "dreams, desires, images, and roles" (63) but these formative symbols have a different meaning in the culture industries than they do in the churches. Accomodation to capitalistic ideas takes precedence over a countercultural critique by the churches of cultural formation.
A second example of accomodation to secular culture is "the death business." In 1963, Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death) criticized the abuses and exploitation of the funeral industry. Budde and Brimlow go farther in detailing the way corporations have taken over funerals by buying family-owned funeral homes, and hiding their ownership by keeping the "family name" of the funeral facilities. Conglomorates have also bought diocesan-owned cemeteries, one of the largest financial sources for many dioceses. Thus, death has now been separated from both church and home.
Although the next chapter takes apart the reasoning of the encyclical, Centesimus Annus, proclaimed by Pope John Paul II in 1991, the ideas of this document can be found in similar Protestant ones. The name of the chapter, "John Locke in Ecclesial Drag? The Problem with Centesimus Annus" gets attention. This and the Protestant documents give the impression that churches are reactive, rather than proactive about politics and economics by buying into the secular culture. This chapter assumes a knowledge of John Locke, which may not be a valid assumption for college students; therefore, readings by Locke should be a prerequisite to dissecting the Pope's encyclical and the recent Protestant documents on politics and economics.
Reading the first six chapters, one begins to wonder if the authors are only being critical, and that there is little hope of change. Is the book asking us to relinquish all attachments to capitalistic things? No. In the last chapter, the authors outline some solutions. The chapter introduces readers to "The Church as Oikos," ("household" which is the Greek root for economy.) They advocate practicing an economics of discipleship. This kind of community is called to critique capitalism, keeping in mind the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Sabbath and Jubilee practices of the Israelites. People today could live "trusting in God's abundance," rather than stockpiling more than they need as the transnational corporations do.
An interesting discussion of an economics of discipleship is the soup kitchen. All who labor there are "workers," with attorneys and janitors getting the same jobs. When the meals are given out, one has only to ask and food is given whether the person is homeless and smells bad, or healthy and better attired. Budde and Brimlow caution, however, that the soup kitchens, which survive on donations, guard against being shaped in their ministries by corporations that expect capitulation to their ways.
Present church ventures that demonstrate a gospel-centered economics of discipleship are described. One is Willow Creek Community Church's self-supported ministries to the homeless, abused women, and other needy persons. One must beware, though, that "buy Christian" might mean supporting conservatives rather than practicing discipleship.
In these days of discussions about the economy and invading Iraq, thoughtful Christians are asking themselves how to stand up to current popular opinions. Budde and Brimlow raise questions for reflection. Why are profits necessary? Can we find ways within capitalism of practicing the Sermon on the Mount? In what ways are the churches dishonest in belief and action? Where does one draw the line between church and corporation?
In academia, where can this book be used? Students in a course on Catholic Social Thought would benefit, although I would suggest it be used in upper level undergraduate classes. It would be appropriate for management and business courses in a church-related institution. The course description should make it apparent that it is a class on business and spirituality.
Michael Budde and Robert Brimlow prick our consciences about how we practice the gospel. But rather than suggesting we all live "a simple life," thus being judgmental towards those who do not live that way, they make provocative statements about big business and the gospel message to enable us to seek our own answers.