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When corporations do the right thing

Delta Airlines was one of more than a dozen companies to cut ties with the NRA after the school shooting in February 2018 that left 17 dead in Parkland, Florida. The Georgia state legislature, dominated by NRA supporters, wasted little time in punishing the Atlanta-based airline by denying its $50 million tax exemption on jet fuel. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the NRA fended off accusations of any responsibility it might bear for the shooting by telling reporters, “you love the ratings.” Delta CEO Ed Bastian referred to that cynical jibe when he explained Delta’s move to end its discount for NRA members: “Our values are not for sale.” While Bastian proclaimed his support for the Second Amendment and Delta’s neutrality with respect to the political debate over gun control, the challenge to reporters delivered by the NRA spokeswoman clearly struck a nerve. As CEO of an award-winning Fortune Five Hundred company whose success depended on its reputation for safety, service, and good will, Bastian did not want Delta associated with the NRA or with corporate profiteering.

In a similar spirit six months earlier, CEOs from major American corporations spoke out against racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Trump’s inadequate response to the violence of white supremacists and their racist rhetoric prompted CEOs from Merck, General Electric, Apple, Goldman Sachs, Unilever, Armor, Dow, and Pepsi to separate themselves from him. The President’s failure to denounce white nationalist violence in Charlottesville led to the disbanding of two of his most important economic advisory councils.

The upright behavior of corporations in this fraught situation derive from old ideas about corporate responsibility for common good. To be sure, common good has meant different things to different groups, and corporate responsibility has all too often been honored in the breach. But corporate organizations became foundational to American economic and social order because many Americans expected corporate enterprise to benefit public life as well as private pockets.

NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA by Bjoertvedt. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

When corporations multiplied in the US after independence from British rule, the state governments granting corporate charters expected these organizations to bring improvements that would serve the common good. With state and local governments often too poor to finance roads and bridges, and opportunities for new industries abounding, corporations appeared to embody republican idealism with  the virtues of hard work, grassroots organization, and social discipline. Corporations did have their critics – notably Adam Smith, who believed they led to monopolies, and Thomas Jefferson, who thought they encouraged wealthy elitism. But American enthusiasm for corporations as voluntary organizations that brought people together in new, efficient, and beneficial ways was remarkable. Corporations multiplied faster in the US in the early decades of the nineteenth century than anywhere else, laying the groundwork for the development of big corporations later in the nineteenth century, and stimulating corporate development in other parts of the world.

Affinities between commercial corporations and churches contributed to the moral prestige that many business organizations enjoyed in the early nineteenth century. Even later, in the context of large-scale industrial growth, labor unrest, and the trends toward hierarchical organization after the Civil War, commercial corporations continued to espouse values similar to those endorsed by churches, including loyalty, honesty, and voluntarism. Well into the twentieth century, commercial and religious institutions had overlapping memberships, with business leaders prominent in church, and church members active in business. Shared expectations about conduct and many forms of influence ran back and forth. Unfortunately, provisions for defending white supremacy and male headship were woven into this intercourse, shaping what people with power meant by doing good and benefiting society. Today, those provisions are often (although not often enough) exposed and challenged.

Attentive to their markets, to social conventions, and popular trends, both commercial and religious organizations strive to attract followers and look good. The aspiration to stand on moral ground that businesses and religious institutions have long shared helps explain the disgust Americans express today when commercial corporations – Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Koch Industries, SeaWorld, Facebook – behave as if they are not accountable, and when they deny responsibility for the consequences of their work. Fortunately, there are many companies who do better.

We have come to an interesting point in American history where commercial corporations like Delta Airlines are acting with a degree of moral clarity that many evangelical churches seem to lack, especially with respect to readiness to confront racism and gun violence. We should not credit Delta or any other company for more than it deserves, nor should we overlook the fact that many religious organizations also promote racial justice and reject affiliation with the NRA. Nevertheless, we should recognize corporations with clout and will to benefit the common good, and ask them to do more.

Featured Image credit: DELTA AIRLINES by Eddie Maloney. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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