From the Celestial to the Banal – The Descent of Religions from the Spiritual into the Corporate

This article was published in the On Faith section of the Washington Post in 2010, coincident with the publication of my book, The New Enlightenment.

As a management consultant, former White House Staff member, religious writer, and “cradle Catholic,” the behavior of today’s organized religions is a little baffling because it is so self-defeating. The semi-official position of the Catholic Church appears to be to help and hide predatory clerical child abusers.  Some Muslim religious leaders actively seek nuclear weapons and threaten apocalyptic aggression – “the Persian Gulf will be a sea of fire.” Other mullahs are fond of issuing fatwas, justifying the murder of millions of infidels.   The three major western religions are locked in an endless cage match over the “holy land.”  Buddhist temples in China have reportedly become places to make money, which is consistent with what Buddha predicted: “My teaching will eventually be destroyed by my followers.” Hindu nationalists execute their own version of jihad against their Muslim counterparts.  And who can forget those devout Shinto suicide pilots, crashing and burning for the divine emperor. No wonder, on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Douglas MacArthur in his global radio address ending World War II, said that “the problem, basically, is theological” and that the solution “must be of the spirit, if we are to save the flesh” over the next fifty years.

What is up with contemporary religion? Is this what God (any God) had in mind?  Why would holy men, representing the Word of God, act this way?  Whatever happened to the communities of good people seeking God and their own spirits and attempting to detach themselves from the material?

The short answer is that, over the millennia, religions morphed into “Corporate Religions,” then they became corrupt, it worked for awhile, but now it’s falling apart. As opposed to communities of the spirit, Corporate Religions are designed to grow, protect the organization and leadership, and defend their perquisites.  In such a pragmatic corporate culture, the souls (and bodies) of the faithful can be expendable.

Part of the problem is that any organization claiming to have an exclusive franchise from God and exclusive insight into the “will of God” will be tempted to organize around that “equity” and to use it to accumulate economic and political power, use that psychological or physical force to become a local monopoly  (the pattern of many industrial giants selling a valuable commodity), and then become autocratic and imperial … and that is generally what has happened.  The poison seed of “infallibility” only magnifies the problem by helping the Corporate Religion arbitrarily define its own value and grow its equity at will.  Any autocratic company, based upon unchallenged authority and selling a product of unlimited value (eternal life) would become corrupt.

To increase “value” over the millennia, religious organizations have evolved and adopted many business practices and corporate processes.

Religions have become excellent at finance and marketing.  They are good at corporate legal defense.  They are masters of real estate. They have economies of scale.  They are strong brands.  They have a clear organizational structure and chain of command, form committees, communicate well, and collect well on receivables.  They drive aggressively for market share.  Holy texts have become articles of incorporation and land deeds from God. Some religions have fully transformed from imperial to corporatist states. As I note in my book, The New Enlightenment, they have become the powerful “salvation monopolies.” These transitions have led to organizational design flaws that cause the Corporate Religions to veer away from their original spiritual purpose, toward more banal pursuits.

As earthly economic organizations, Corporate Religions conform very closely to demand models (why people seek religion), supply models (why religions are fragmented into the current market configuration of faiths and sub-faiths, all of which claim to be exclusively “right”), and the setting and adjusting of price for the range between casual believers and true fanatics.  And, to conform to and be bound by these economic models makes Corporate Religions organizations of the flesh rather than the divine, a priori. 

Religions have become big businesses. And, without question, religion is the most successful business and marketing model in history, and that has driven unmatched growth, “profitability,” customer loyalty, and corruption.  

Economists are fond of applying “consumer choice models” to business strategies and market behavior.  From this perspective, Corporate Religions should be case studies for all students of business. They have created the “celestial cash cow” – original sin or the sinful nature of humans – to drive initiation rituals, cleansing rituals, and evangelical/expansion drives.  Committees have grown a whole herd of these cattle by publishing fifteen hundred page catechisms, listing the wide range of sin. They have designed attractive “bait” (“salvation” or spiritual insight) and “switch” (religious membership, commitment, rules, rituals) schemes to drive growth.  They have designed a “pyramid scheme” (save – or kill – 10 others to really save yourself).  A “rewards” program is widely promoted (guaranteed, first-class ticket to heaven; great real estate in heaven; 70 virgins, etc.). “Seasonal specials” (holy days and celebrations) renew customer loyalty; drive cash flow; and serve as proxies for tribal cohesion (Christmas, Ramadan, Passover), superiority and rivalry, and market segmentation; and drive market cap (trillions of dollars in art and architecture (let alone cold cash), contributed by billions of followers). Religion has achieved 90 percent market share in the world, with each Corporate Religion claiming that its product is vastly superior to its competitors. These are amazing economic engines and damn good business.

The problem is that they have become the human engines of Corporate Religion.  And they have gone down the path of many corrupt companies, which have sacrificed their original values and customers to sustain the organization and the perks of management.  Old businesses under pressure put in too much salt and sugar, caffeine and nicotine, and compromise quality to create addiction and drive profits, not to provide the best products to customers.  So, everyone feels guilty, children are abused, women are diminished, travel agencies and the retail trade thrives, money is made, wealth and power are concentrated, and real estate is expanded. But, true salvation and spiritual guidance are sacrificed. Caveat emptor. 

The stock response is that religions do a lot of good – helping the poor, etc. – and they do.  But that is simply not good enough when an institution claims to represent the “Will of God,” and yet has become material, corporate, and unethical.

In the imperial stage and the early industrial stage, such engines can grow and survive.  But, in an era which forces transparency and discussion and eventually wears down the authoritarian, corruption leads to decline … and all religions are declining.  Catholics are rapidly losing heart with the Church.  Iranian citizens would remove the mullahs in the blink of an eye, given the chance.  Most Jews would compromise Biblical claims to land to secure peace.

In the Corporate Religion context, is human greed for power and wealth unstoppable?  Certainly not.  Market rules, ethical standards, tools of transparency and enforcement have been useful in controlling commercial businesses.  The solution is to persuade religions to move away from their plainly material corporate and political goals, and return to the more simple role of spiritual guide. I remember Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.  It might be thought of as the last, great and valiant effort of the Catholic Church (or of any religion) to change corporate culture.  It failed.  It is abandoned and forgotten.

But, an alternative, near-term solution may be to create a new vocabulary – a plainly corporate, economic, and political vocabulary – to move the discussion away from emotional “doctrinal differences,” which cannot be compromised and lead to unrestrained action, toward pragmatic business and economic negotiations.  History has shown that religion under economic and political pressure is not as immutable as claimed.

If this is not successful, supply, demand, and pricing models can also be used for one additional purpose – forecasting the future behavior and performance of religion.  On the behavior side, religions will try two strategies: some will lower price to attract more customers.  That will lead to limited results, because customers seek the “right” answer to save their souls.  The alternative strategy is to raise price, point out the institution is under attack, and demand more from the followers – that can lead to even more dangerous and extreme behavior.  The latter is almost certainly where we are headed.  But it won’t really work either. In their hearts, people do not want to see greedy, callous, and unethical corporate religions. And so, religions may go the way of other unethical organizations that have abandoned their customers.  They will lose their customers.  They will have trouble recruiting leaders.  Their power will erode. They will disappear.  Large companies come and go. Religions are no exception, if they do not reform.

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