"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Do Corporations Eat, Drink, And Love? The Issue Of Contraception

A number of years ago when I was working as an international consultant, I heard an interesting story from a friend of mine who had just come from an interview with one of the largest non-profit agencies in the development business.  The firm also happened to be what had come to be known as a ‘faith-based’ organization.  Although it received federal tax dollars to dig wells, distribute food, and provide health services, its primary purpose was the collection of souls – conversion to fundamental Protestantism.  Although the NGO couched this objective in very subtle ways in their annual reports to avoid criticism from taxpayers concerned about the separation of church and state, it was as evangelical as you could get.

I once visited one of its mother-and-child feeding centers.  In this poor corner of Africa families lined up for the free US food distributed by American private contractors, like Global Vistas. Although the organizers of the ‘nutrition’ events never conceded that prayer was payment for the corn meal, wheat flour, and milk powder, all ‘beneficiaries’ had to sit for an hour and hear the Reverend Lawson Pierce talk about Jesus, the Resurrection, and Eternal Life.  It was no different from the Salvation Army soup kitchens on the Bowery during the Depression.

This extracurricular activity never got noted on progress reports submitted to the US Government, but its officials knew what was going on and winked at it with a smile. The Bush Administration was very much in favor of spreading the word of the Lord, and the number of ‘faith-based’ groups sprang up like weeds during the President’s tenure.  To be sure, the old tried-and-true religious groups like Catholic Relief Services and the Protestant Church World Service had been around a long time and took development seriously – i.e. put it at least on a par with saving souls; but for the new crop of evangelicals, the secular gloves were off.

In any case my friend went to the interview hoping for the best.  He had not had a contract for some time, and Global Vistas was offering a six-week opportunity to work in Chad.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”, asked the interviewer.  My friend hesitated.  He had never been asked that question in so forthright a way, let alone from a a corporate recruiter.  He replied that he was, and was about to ask what business it was of the rotund man sitting across from him, when the interviewer quickly went on.

“And I can assume that you have not taken Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”.  Again the rotund man did not wait for an answer.

“We are a Christian organization”, he said, “and the spirit of the Lord is what guides us in all our works.  Whether roads, water, or warehouses, Jesus Christ is with us”. Here he stopped and waited for my friend’s response.  My friend’s instinct was to get up politely and end the interview, but the idea of a long, lucrative contract kept him seated.

“I have worked in Chad many times before”, he started, hoping to convince the interviewer that his familiarity with this benighted country would trump religion, “and I worked with the Ministry of Health in exactly the type of program this contract requires.”

“Yes”, said the interviewer, “but was Jesus Christ at your side during those visits?”

My friend knew that his goose was cooked, but gave it one more try. “I have a strong faith”, he lied, “and it has sustained me on many occasions”.

“All well and good, Mr. Bernstein, but you are still a Jew”.

Now, the rotund man did not mean this maliciously, nor was he anti-Semitic.  He simply knew that a Jew would not fit in with born-again, muscular Christians.  Interview over.

I was working in Rwanda a few years later and sat at the breakfast table with two volunteer aid workers who had come to the country under the auspices of their church, a small congregation in rural Missouri.  The church belonged to a larger confederation which, as an organization registered with the US Government, was allowed to receive and distribute American agricultural products.  These women were helping out a a food distribution jamboree put on by local church of their denomination.

“We witnessed a miracle yesterday”, one woman began. “We had prepared large pots of food for mothers and children – something we do every day – and made enough to serve 50 families, the usual number who come for food.  When we arrived at the church, however, we saw that the line of mothers extended far outside the church compound and into the fields beyond.  There were at least two hundred women in line, and more were joining the queue every minute.”  Here she paused, looked over at her colleague, and smiled.  She put her hand on my arm and went on.

“No matter how many women came for food, the pot was always full.  Our stocks had run out hours ago, but the food was always plentiful.  Jesus had come down to this poor Rwandan village and multiplied the corn meal like he had done with the loaves and the fishes in Biblical times.”

I bring this all up because the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether or not a business has the right to withhold health insurance benefits for certain types of contraception, those that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb.  This, the business says, is abortion, and because it was founded by people of faith and is run and operated on Christian moral principles, it cannot be forced to go against the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Opponents say that corporations are not people and have no right to impose their particular morality on employees. I am not sure how the Supreme Court will rule on this case, but I am sure that if Global Vistas is called as an amicus curiae, they will argue forcefully that a corporation certainly can set moral standards for its employees and expect them, after full disclosure, to abide by them.  Not only that, Global Vistas would argue, it is the very evangelical Christian faith which enables its staff to work tirelessly for the poor.  Ladling gruel out of a barrel to 500 women and their squalling babies is not all that rewarding unless you know that you are doing the Lord’s work.

Many corporations have some kind of ethos which defines them – a brand, a particular professional philosophy, a well-defined purpose.  I worked for an NGO which although non-religious was faith-based in every other way. It believed in the ‘participatory engagement of beneficiaries’; or in simpler terms, designing projects and programs based on the expressed needs and wishes of their clients.  On the surface this approach resembles private marketers who use focus groups to test out ideas and products; but scratching only a little deeper, one could see a particular and peculiar faith. The people are anointed, these secular missionaries believed, and are always right.  It is wrong, manipulative, and racist to impose any idea from the top down.  Collective wisdom always trumps professional expertise; and if there is not a divine mantel on the shoulders of the poor, there is certainly a benign guiding hand.

Even truly private firms, those in business for the bottom line, try to brand themselves and tell the public what ethos drives them, what they are all about, what higher purpose motivates them.  I once worked for a company which was known in the business as a take-no-prisoners, win-at-all-costs firm.  It bid on all contracts offered by the US Government and knew that based on the law of averages alone, it would win approximately one-third of them.  Anything above that would be gravy. It tailored its work force accordingly, and was able to exact high productivity at low wages from young, eager workers who lined up at the door for employment at a company which worked in international development, a job far more rewarding than moving files at a government office.

One day the CEO decided that our brand was too diffuse.  “People don’t really appreciate what we do”, he said.  “We help people.  We do good in the world, and we want others to know it”.  He hired a management consulting firm to canvas employees to find out what they thought of the company – what image or brand came to mind; what was the particular ethos that motivated them.

The results of the survey may have been surprising to the CEO but to no one else. “Bottom line; competitive; win rate; hard-driving; relentless” were only some of the terms used by those surveyed to describe the firm.  No one echoed the CEO’s sentiments about helping people or making the world a better place.  Slice it however you wanted, the firm stood for nothing except bidding on contracts, winning them, managing the projects generated, and bidding for some more.

At any rate, businesses both large and small are often organized around principle.  As in the case of my Jewish friend, Global Vistas was openly and enthusiastically evangelical Christian.  They didn’t want you if you were Jewish or a non-believer; and if you had any sense at all, you wouldn’t want to work for them.  In fact, if you did choose to slip by the sentry at the gate, you had to be prepared to live and work within a foreign regime.  Stated more crudely, put up or shut up.

I see no reason, therefore, why a private firm cannot apply its particular moral or ethical principles to workplace rules, benefits, and restrictions.  Although abortion is the law of the land, doctors are not obligated to perform them; and can work in private Catholic reproductive health clinics which treat and counsel women in other ways.  If the company whose case is now before the Supreme Court objects to its monies applied to what it considers abortion practices, does it not have a right to object and refuse?

In my many years of working in a field which has many faith-based representatives, I have seen every possible expression and application of religion. Although I don’t care whether Jesus is in the driver’s seat or not, I don’t mind if others do.  If it takes a belief in miracles and in the restorative power of Christ to motivate volunteers to work long hours at no pay, so much the better.  If Global Vistas finds that it is more efficient and productive if it has a cohesive, tightly-bonded community of workers, that’s their business. My issue has always been whether or not the organization has met the secular targets it agreed to when it accepted government money.

A final anecdote.  On a trip through the Ecuadorian Amazon, I was told by local residents that an American family was living not far from town; and since the town didn’t get many foreigners, I might like to go visit. The house was the spitting image of a farmhouse in rural Illinois.  It was white frame with a porch and a glider.  It had a large, well-trimmed lawn with flower trays under the eaves.  There was a well, a tractor, and a trellis.  A tanned, muscular man dressed in overalls greeted me warmly as I walked up the path.

I learned that his work was downriver in the jungle, still home to some of the last primitive tribes of the Amazon.  His job was to bring them health care and the word of the Lord.  He told me how easy his work was, despite the heat, jungle, and snakes.  “Once they have been clothed and hear the Word of God”, he said, “they are like gentle lambs who come to nibble on the tender shoots in my pasture. It is a miracle”.

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