May 05, 2009
"The Christian Entrepreneur"
Posted by Ronald Colombo

Christine's question, "what is a Christian Entrepreneur" sparked a memory from this past semester that I thought worth sharing.

I had the joy of teaching a seminar entitled "Controversies in Corporate Law" while a Visiting Associate Professor at Brooklyn Law School this past Spring (2009) semester. 

We had a very good mix of students, ideologically speaking.  Pretty much every viewpoint, from right to left, was well and ably represented in the class.

One of the issues we covered in the seminar was "Religion and the Corporation."  Surprisingly, this was the only issue that the students reached a consensus on:  they pretty much all agreed that corporations should generally not adopt religious missions, and that those which did adopt such missions should certainly not enjoy anything analogous to the "free exercise rights" that individuals enjoy under the U.S. Constitution.

Driving this perspective on their part was the concern that a religiously motivated corporation, especially if endowed with constitutional rights to act upon such motivations, would trample employee freedoms and restrict consumer choice.  "Where would we get our contraceptives if the only pharmacy in town was run by a Catholic corporation?" was a repeatedly expressed concern.

Interestingly, the students also agreed that it would be quite all right for an unincorporated business -- such as a partnership or sole proprietorship -- to pursue a religious agenda.  Corporations were seen as simply different -- too powerful, too large, and too privileged under the law to permit a religious mission on their part.

I think there's a lot of grist for the mill here.  Getting back to David's original four questions, however, I think this implicates his fourth one:  what is the audience of "Christian Corporate Law"?  For there is certainly a fair bit of antipathy towards all things associated with religion these days.  I think there is a very real reason to be concerned that even some tremendously helpful insights brought to bear upon corporate law from a Christian or religious perspective might be rejected, or viewed askance, simply because of their religiously inspired origins -- despite whatever underlying merit they might contain.

PS:  As another follow-up to Christina's post, I refer all interested parties to Chick-fil-A, the corporate mission statement of which is: "To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us."

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Comments (5)

1. Posted by rob vischer on May 5, 2009 @ 21:17 | Permalink

Great post, Ron. The students' resistance gets at a broader source of resistance to this conversation that has nothing in particular to do with the corporation itself. We seem to be steeped in the notion that moral autonomy belongs to the individual, and is nonsensical (at best) or oppressive (at worst) when granted to organizations, especially organizations that act in the public sphere. Part of this conversation -- especially when it comes to issues like discrimination flagged by Robin Wilson -- requires getting the audience to reflect meaningfully on the value of institutional autonomy. Even CSR advocates, from my reading, tend to minimize this value, as their alternative to the profit-maximization model often seems decidedly statist, as though we should assume that the alternative set of corporate values will invariably come from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.

2. Posted by Gordon Smith on May 6, 2009 @ 9:31 | Permalink

Ron, Drawing the line based on entity form doesn't make sense. The next time you teach the seminar, you might include some of Larry Ribstein's forthcoming book on "uncorporations," which Larry imagines being as large and powerful as any of our current public corporations. Maybe your students are trying to distinguish monopolies from companies in competition, and fear of monopolies has a long and dignified tradition.

3. Posted by RR on May 18, 2009 @ 16:27 | Permalink

I find it hard to believe that any socially conservative viewpoint was present in a class at BLS. What if instead of a Catholic pharmacy refusing to dispense contraception, a monopolistic defense contractor refused to manufacture cluster bombs for use in Iraq?

4. Posted by Ron Colombo on May 18, 2009 @ 17:02 | Permalink

RR, I can't guarantee whether a true "social conservative" was in the class or not. Admittedly, statistically speaking, it's unlikely in this neck of the woods. I can say that the students were a genuinely fair and "open minded" lot - their viewpoints would visibly shift back and forth throughout the semester as they were exposed to a variety of arguments and perspectives.
Allow me to second Rob Vischer's sentiments above. The students seem to have seared into them a very robust sense of "separation of Church and state" -- so robust, in fact, that almost any public expression of faith is viewed askance. And although I generally agree with Gordon Smith that the divide between a "corporation" and other large (but unincorporated) business entities can, in many ways, be meaningless -- the students saw something particularly "public" about the corporation versus non-incorporated business enterprises (and fairly so, in my opinion, given the history and benefits of the corporate form). Hence, their reticence toward "religious corporations."

5. Posted by Clark on April 15, 2010 @ 1:02 | Permalink

I think employee owned companies can send similar branding signals. I think a few used that fact in TV commercials some time ago.


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