From ‘Management Gurus’ to ‘Corporate Chaplains’: A Review of Spirituality Inc.

Spirituality Inc.: Religion in the American Workplace
by Lake Lambert III
(New York University Press, 2009)

For anyone who has worked desk jobs at institutions like Hebrew College or the YWCA, workplace spirituality can seem to be an inconspicuous part of daily life. But it’s a different story when people bring their faith into secular work environments. In Lake Lambert’s new book, Spirituality Inc., he tackles such diverse topics as religious-based civil rights complaints about the workplace and how post-industrial revolution de-skilling of workers took the spirit (so to speak) out of mass production.

Citing thinkers from John Calvin to Max Weber, Lambert explains the increased demands of industrial production, deconstructing dehumanizing management methods such as Taylorism and Fordism as he moves into the rise of personal development programs that became popular in the 1960s. Exploring the influence of Puritan traditions, he details the way many universities have fused religious teachings with business training, even beyond specifically spiritual higher education institutions like Maharashi University. His historical overview of the ascension of the creative class and knowledge workers is thorough without being redundant, and he also examines the ways welfare capitalism has created a system distinctly in opposition to the European social welfare models when it comes to workers’ employer-sponsored benefits.

Comparing modern corporations that offer on-site benefits such as health and wellness centers, daycare facilities, and kitchens to the now-defunct company town model, Lambert explains that in some ways, little has changed in terms of workplace spirituality over the past century. Corporate poet David Whyte can make a living traveling between offices to recite his verses, and workplace chaplains and life coaches can continue the tradition of centering life at work instead of at home. These may sound like anecdotal examples, but they draw sharp comparison to the traveling tent revivals of Charles Finney and Billy Sunday, and life coaches often base their corporate roles on the examples set by military chaplains.

Lambert points out again and again that commercialism has never been frowned upon by evangelicals. He devotes whole chapters to contemporary books like Jesus CEO, What Would Buddha Do At Work?, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which have served as DIY models for workplace spirituality (models that include ideas like apostolic delegation) and paved the way for multimedia efforts like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. These books also advocate a type of “mind power” method for envisioning a positive future in the vein of Normal Vincent Peale and later, Robert Schuller. Megachurch ministers like Joel Osteen, working in their own specifically spiritual workplace, have employed similar themes through “prosperity gospel” teachings, which equate material goods with God’s blessings.

A short series of case studies also demonstrate the religiously-based management philosophies of companies like fast food chain Chick-Fil-A, arts and crafts giant Hobby Lobby, and home services provider ServiceMaster (even their name a pun on “serving the master”). Chick-Fil-A, for example, operates in a similar fashion to McDonald’s except it provides Sundays off for employees nationwide, and in their children’s meals, a customer is more likely to find a Veggie Tales toy than a promotion for the latest G-rated Pixar film. In each of these cases, Lambert makes passing reference to capitalist skepticism but mostly focuses on the company’s methods for ensuring that a specific type of religious undertone exists throughout company policy. Almost exclusively focusing on Christian workplaces, Lambert does mention the New York City diamond merchants several times, the notable bourse run by Hasidic Jews, and briefly explores the culture of the Diamond Dealers Club, which is overwhelmingly Jewish—from ethos to business calendar to Yiddish as the group’s primary language. He offers no other examples of non-Christian religious workplace environments.

Lambert’s analysis incorporates many facets of modern workplace spirituality, and his research is a valuable contribution to the field, if heavily weighted toward Christian and Christianized traditions at work. From feng shui and astrology in the office to corporate-sponsored spiritual getaways, his scope is inclusive. But Lambert’s lack of analysis of the co-opting of religious practices is troubling. While Lambert assesses workplace religious retreats like those promoted by companies like Ford, he barely makes mention of the way Xerox Corporation, for example, embraced the Native American vision quest tradition as its own. While he also spends some time explaining how terms like “management guru” borrow from the Indian spiritual tradition, it seems odd to not explore this word choice in the context of an analytical religious text. No doubt many take for granted the use of words like “guru” in North American vernacular, but to gloss over these cultural appropriations, especially in the context of religious studies, seems inattentive.

Covering Worker Exploitation with Religious Rhetoric

Troubled by some of the book’s inconsistencies in coverage and Lambert’s omission of faith-based economic justice movements, I spoke with director of Interfaith Worker Justice (and Religion Dispatches contributor) Kim Bobo, who offered some thoughts on the limitations of workplace spirituality. “I find it a bit of concern that, by and large, the workplace religion and spirituality movement has limited itself to questions of personal piety, personal prayer, and opportunities for Bible study and worship,” Bobo told me. “Although I support personal piety, most of our faith traditions are equally strong on societal and employer obligations to treat workers justly. Thus, why do we hear so little from the workplace religion and spirituality movement about employers providing benefits such as health care, pensions, maternity leave, and paid sick days that can support families? Why do we have a national crisis of employer wage theft and no one in the workplace spirituality movement condemns the practice?”

Lambert’s assumption that capitalism and religion work in tandem without difficulty is a challenging one, especially during a global recession. For example, Lambert spends an entire chapter exploring religion-based discrimination in the workplace, but he only casually mentions workplace spirituality critics like Tom Peters. Moreover, that capitalism is not examined as a potentially harmful system to some group of workers down the line is troubling. While Chick-Fil-A takes pride in letting their employees have one day off each week, I question why conditions in factory chicken farms (both for the birds and the workers) are not the expressed concerns of a purportedly spiritual corporation. Even if one can justify low paid but spiritually sound employment as a fast food clerk, it is disconcerting that companies like Hobby Lobby are not called upon to explain their reliance on cheap goods and labor. Exploitative working conditions, even if ones tucked out of sight in overseas factories, can’t be justified by religious rhetoric.

Bethany Moreton, author of the recent To Serve God and Wal-Mart, spoke with me about these contradictions. “Evangelical interpretations of sin as personal vice have obscured the structural injustices even in a Christian model of free enterprise,” Moreton explained. “The concern with the individual’s motives and, especially, sexual purity leaves you with a question like ‘Did the CEO cheat on his wife?’ or ‘Does the store tempt customers with dirty magazines?’ rather than ‘Does this economic model inflict grievous harm as a routine, necessary part of its normal operation, regardless of the intentions of everyone involved?’ For complex reasons related to the rise of the service economy, over the last generation some Christian conservatives have elevated two concerns that the New Testament never raises—abortion and homosexuality—above Jesus’ urgent lessons on economic justice.”

Moreton went on to point out that many Christians believe free markets to be in line with their belief that God will spread blessings of abundance. However, she was quick to point out that the current economic conditions have called these values into question. “Many Christians are rethinking these priorities, especially now that the market has failed to secure those blessings in our own neighborhoods, not only in a Honduran garment factory or a Sudanese oil field that we never had to visit,” Moreton told me. “When people can’t eat on the minimum wage, or go bankrupt because they get sick, or lose their houses because the champions of free enterprise removed all adult supervision from the financial markets, then it’s hard to believe that poverty is the result of personal failing.”

Or as Kim Bobo explained, in a story about a time when her efforts to reconcile faith and economic justice were met with corporate resistance: “Years ago, I had some email communication with several chaplains at Tyson Foods. The chaplains challenged my criticisms of Tyson for not paying its workers for all of the hours worked and suggested that my workplace concerns were not valid moral questions. While I respect the chaplains’ work to support Tyson workers struggling with family and personal issues, the questions of justice in the workplace—fair payment and decent wages—are valid, and quite significant, moral questions.” Bobo added, “Faith cannot be relegated to only the personal and private.”

Lambert’s book adds much to the discussion of Christianity in the American workplace, and it can serve as a valuable historical text in a still-underdeveloped discipline. But the contradictions left unexplored are dismaying, and one can only hope that other scholars will continue to explore the inconsistencies between free-market capitalism and corporate religious rhetoric and practices.