Thursday, April 7, 2011

Run it like a business

As the prospect of a government shutdown looms, it's worth pausing to consider what the Donald Trump presidential candidacy says about our national values, and to think about what kind of correctives might be in order. After all, if the federal government is about to shut down, it would appear that there are at least certain things that we're not doing very well.

We also have a ready-made answer, of course. There is an almost mystical belief in America that a successful businessman (or woman) can run anything better than anybody else. How? By running it like a business, of course. This is what drove the Ross Perot candidacy in 1992: the most successful attempt I have ever witnessed by an independent candidate to crack the two-party monopoly on government power at the national level. If Perot had managed to prove himself in the hard-scrabble world of business, many assumed that he would be able to straighten out the proverbial "mess in Washington" as well.

Unfortunately, I have often heard the same argument made by college trustees, most of whom are successful businessmen. When I lived in South Carolina, most of the trustees at the college where I taught were textile barons. It was often pointed out that they regarded the college as a mill, and professors as mill workers. After all, a good college should be run like a business, right?

It doesn't stop there, of course. Anybody who has worked in the arts has probably heard repeatedly that the arts are a business, and will succeed or fail as such. The same argument is routinely made to people who work in the media, in health care, in schools of all kinds, and even, God help us, in the church. It's not surprising, therefore, that we have so many churches these days that are run like businesses.

So I want to ask a very simple question. What would it look like if, instead, we started running everything in the country like a church? Running it, that is, the way a church is supposed to be run?

Here are a few reminders. Churches aren't supposed to worry about the bottom line. They're not supposed to ask whether someone can pay. They're supposed to honor those with prophetic visions who challenge the values of the society around them. They're supposed to trust that people will rise to the occasion and support transformative actions and ideas.

A church isn't supposed to cut back on services to the needy because money is running low. It's supposed to shame people into rising to their responsibilities, even when this involves personal sacrifice.

A church isn't supposed to ask whether somebody can afford to take advantage of what it has to offer. It is supposed to think pro-actively in order to offer the widest possible range of services to precisely the people who most need them.

Now of course we know that churches aren't always run that way. In fact, I would wager that, like most things in America, they're more frequently run like businesses, driven by the bottom line. Perhaps that's why we seem to lack the moral imagination, or even the desire, to rise above the petty, childish antics that we're witnessing throughout government at all levels. It's not that we don't know how to run things like a business. We know that perfectly well. What we've forgotten is how to act with love, compassion, trust, mercy and faith. Those are things that go beyond the realm of the everyday world, which is precisely why they are advocated by saints and prophets, not businessmen.


  1. Well said! It seems we are caught between two economies, one where love rules and the other, money. It is difficult to reconcile the two. In fact they are antithetical to each other, as love is not a commodity for sale, but a free gift. Believers in the love economy (and it requires belief!) have to constantly push back against proponents of the money economy and their efforts to calculate all social transactions in terms of dollars and cents. The trouble is we do not share the same language and you cannot put price on love!

  2. One of the things I'm trying to suggest is that the rhetoric is all wrong. Conservatives often say that government should stop trying to help people and leave it to churches and other charities. This would make more sense if the churches didn't largely subscribe to the same cultural mindset that drives everybody else. The question isn't government vs. private charity: it's love and faith versus the bottom line.

  3. Actually, I think the framing here is wrong.

    Decades of experience teaches the disinterested student of American history that government intervention in education, health and poverty-prevention all represent investments in economic self-interest. They reduce crime and disease and increase US competitiveness.

    I don't understand this dichotomy between 'government' and 'people.' The US government is an emergent property of the American people. What the government does is, in fact, what we do to and for each other. It is a part of the Conservative framing to pretend that government is separate from society. We would be well-served to reject this frame.