Posts Tagged philanthropy

Christian Mattress Merchants Reach Beyond Economic Exchange

Urban Mattress, Christian businessOver at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I discuss a recent article at Christianity Today on a mattress business whose Christian owners seek to transform what many see as “one of the sleaziest industries in the world.”

From the article:

Rietema and Steve Van Diest, both former campus ministers, are bringing rest—and integrity—back to a business largely devoid of it. Four years ago, a Christian entrepreneur invited the Colorado natives to begin deploying their relational abilities in strip malls rather than on college campuses. They now co-own three Urban Mattress stores in Denver and have franchised four more. And, they argue, their current work is just as important as their former ministry….

…”I don’t have to do mental gymnastics with the product I sell,” Van Diest says. “It’s not a frivolous item. It’s not an image-conscious product. People come here after being worn down by horrible sleep, replete with aches and pain. If we can provide them with a small glimpse of grace for a third of their lives, that’s kingdom work. That matters to God.”

There is plenty to admire about Urban Mattress, but one of the most striking features in the article is the intimate nature of many of their customer interactions. Here, I argue that Christians should pay close attention. The social, moral, and spiritual implications of Christian business – nay, all business – stretch beyond philanthropy and sound business practices:

On this, Urban Mattress provides a good lesson not only on the broader implications of our economic transactions, but also on the broader potential of Christian business in general. Far too often we confine our thinking about Christian business to areas like philanthropy or “corporate evangelism.” By going further and offering this type of personal customer service, these owners show us how there can be more exchange in exchange than we allow for or recognize, whether social, psychological, or spiritual.

When we engage in the marketplace, whether as producers or consumers, there is something transcendent Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments

American Idealism and Economic Opportunity for the Glory of God

flag, crossFrench Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote that Americans “are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage.”

Drawing on this sentiment, George Weigel argues that although materialism may reign in America more than it once did, “there remains a link between money-making and idealism in these United States that is distinctive, and perhaps even unique.”

Pointing to President Calvin Coolidge (no fan of materialism), Weigel emphasizes that Coolidge’s famous line—“the chief business of the American people is business”—shouldn’t be taken by itself. For Coolidge, and for most Americans (even today), promoting the dignity-conferring effects of business is part of a larger, deeper idealism.

As Weigel explains:

As for wealth, consider Silent Cal’s remarks at the end of the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element in all of civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists…”

And that, I suggest, is why Americans respond positively to presidential aspirants who lift up a vision of American possibility—prosperity linked to creativity, responsibility, and generosity—rather than candidates who play class-warfare politics, in whatever partisan form.

Weigel then explains how the market economy supports such idealism (emphasis added):

A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world.

A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.

A robust economy is essential in supporting one telling sign of America’s enduring generosity and idealism: the remarkable philanthropy of the American people. Americans, these days, give some $300 billion a year to charitable organizations, including religious institutions that fund vast networks of education, health care, and social service serving people in real need. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in the Western world; if you doubt that, go to Europe or Canada, where the tradition of the benign, caretaker state (the contemporary version of the benign, caretaker monarch) has severely eroded charitable instincts—meaning giving.

Yet many of today’s Christians will shrug at any talk of an “American ideal,” and in some sense, rightly so. Our ultimate aim should be a Christian ideal, and we have a natural disposition to self-construct the latter for purposes of satisfying the former. But while we should be careful to make such a distinction, we should also recognize that a careful concern for the Gospel demands a careful concern for culture and country. Catholic social teaching aside, Weigel’s “vision of American possibility” fits quite nicely into the most generic understandings of Christian mission.

But we must dig deeper, even still, for just as American idealism has been watered down by self-centered post-modern thinking, so has our Christian idealism.

Even more fundamentally, the Christian should be concerned with the glory of God—an overarching, not-of-this-world notion that shatters our convenient cultural obsessions with “individualism” and “collectivism” and pushes us toward a different orientation altogether. Living a life focused on lifting up the King of Kings in all things will mean producing plenty of fruits that fit the current categories—responsibility, self-control, hard work, sacrifice—but I fear that we’re getting to a point where we can’t discern the fresh from the rotten from the poisonous. This is why the market, like any institution, needs to be analyzed first and foremost by how well it enables and empowers transformation at the root of individual worship. Otherwise, the byproducts we’re seeking will soon be replaced by nothing more than hollow do-gooderism cloaked in the lingo of the church.

Pro-market Christians can and should tout the market as the best mechanism for Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments

The Billionaire’s Dilemma: Charity vs. Job Creation

Carlos SlimI have thus far expressed mixed feelings about the pledge by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to donate half of their wealth to charity, so I thought it would be fitting to pass on the latest addition to the narrative. According to Bloomberg, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim recently said that he would prefer to use his money for job creation rather than donate it to [so-called] anti-poverty causes (HT Dambisa Moyo).

Here is Slim’s perspective:

“The only way to fight poverty is with employment,” Slim said at a conference in Sydney today. “Trillions of dollars have been given to charity in the last 50 years, and they don’t solve anything.”

As I’ve mentioned previously, I obviously don’t think philanthropy is “bad,” nor do I think it is something we should necessarily avoid. But if we are talking about addressing the particular concern Slim is pointing to — namely, “fighting poverty” on a global scale — it seems highly convincing to me that increasing employment through traditional investment is usually the most successful solution from a macro perspective. (Could I add any more caveats!?)

But that doesn’t mean it always is (or even that it actually is). There are plenty of counterarguments that leave the solution a bit up in the air for me. For example, philanthropy has the potential to bring plenty of spiritual benefits to the table by funding missionaries, planting churches, and simply promoting Christ-like behavior. Depending on what you believe, such spiritual transformation could indeed lead to Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments

Business as Philanthropy: Gates, Buffett, and Transformative Change

Bill GatesBill Gates and Warren Buffett recently pledged to join 40 of America’s wealthiest people in donating at least half of their riches to charity. For Gates and Buffett alone, such a pledge will translate into at least $115 billion in charity.

This sounds wonderful on the surface, but philanthropist Kimberly O. Dennis is a bit skeptical. In last week’s Wall Street Journal, Dennis argued that “the wealthy may help humanity more as businessmen and women than as philanthropists.”

As Dennis explains:

What are the chances, after all, that the two forces behind the Giving Pledge will contribute anywhere near as much to the betterment of society through their charity as they have through their business pursuits? In building Microsoft, Bill Gates changed the way the world creates and shares knowledge. Warren Buffett’s investments have birthed and grown innumerable profitable enterprises, making capital markets work more efficiently and enriching many in the process.

In the end, Dennis’ criticism seems to serve as a simple reminder of which approach is most promising when it comes to bringing about transformative change.

While businesses may do more for the public good than they’re given credit for, philanthropies may do less. Think about it for a moment: Can you point to a single charitable accomplishment that has been as transformative as, say, the cell phone or the birth-control pill?

On this last question there is bound to be disagreement, particularly because we all view value differently. For one person the birth control pill is extremely important. For another, feeding one hungry mouth is Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments