Friends' Attitudes toward Business in the USA

Unprogrammed liberal Friends today seem publicly almost uniformly negative about most business activity. I have been to talks at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa., where speakers casually state that capitalism is the cause of all the injustice and inequality in our world, and where being employed by a large corporation is seen as a badge of shame.

For example, in 2001 the director of the Social Issues program at Pendle Hill said in a lecture, "Materialism, Violence, and Culture: The Context of Our Faith," that the "deep-seated ethic of competition that underlies our economic system" is "a form of cultural violence"; and further, this violence "has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death." Certainly, with language like this, average businesspeople might wonder about their moral legitimacy.

These negative views of business are not limited to Friends. Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan, authors of Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values to Business Life, have found that many liberal clergy share these negative views. Knowing little about how business works, many clerics take a view that includes simple protests and academic position papers full of "oughts."

Attitudes of the average Quaker are not as negative as some of the more public Friends. I have looked at two sources of data, both of which I gathered as a volunteer using my survey research background. The first is a 2001-2002 survey of 572 members and attenders at ten meetings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), which was done to learn more about outreach and diversity issues. The second is a 2001 survey of 61 Friends on the Pendle Hill mailing list who lived outside the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states. This survey was about Friends’ attitudes toward money. Both studies show these Friends to be mostly of upper income levels with high levels of education, and thus good earning potential. In the PYM study, 52 percent have a graduate degree, with 79 percent in the Pendle Hill sample having a graduate degree. Few, however, are in business. Previous survey work suggests that most Friends are in education or social services. Those in business rarely have management responsibilities. Few Friends appear to be small businesspersons or entrepreneurs.

Friends are much more politically liberal than the general population. Fully 88 percent of the Quakers on the Pendle Hill list and 63 percent of the PYM Quakers self-identified themselves as liberal or extremely liberal, compared to only 15 percent of the general U.S. population. Thus, these Friends are four to six times more likely to be liberal or extremely liberal than the U.S. population. Few Quakers in these samples are politically conservative. Compared to the U.S. population, Quakers are definitely on the far left of the political spectrum.

Almost all the Friends in the Pendle Hill survey agree that there is too great an income disparity in the United States today, yet most agree that they themselves have enough money. Likewise, there is substantial agreement that spiritual and emotional poverty are more important than material poverty and that income does, in the end, come from business activity.

A number of issues split the respondents into thirds. About a third think socialism is a better economic system than capitalism; about a third disagree. About a third say they would agree to some taxation scheme to level incomes across all people in the United States so that everyone would have about the same income, and a third disagree. A third agree that the World Trade Organization should require worldwide wage standards. There is little support for free international trade as a solution to world poverty.

In more conservative circles, the entrepreneur who develops new methods of production or new products is seen as a creator of wealth, a person who lifts all boats even if some gain disproportionately. Most Friends in the sample disagree: Quaker entrepreneurs are not likely to be held in high esteem.

Other Friends are more positive. In the text of a talk given at the 1994 Consultation of Friends in Business at Earlham College, John Punshon wrote:

In recent years, convinced Friends like myself have come to be a fairly large majority in the Society, and we wanted to join a religious society that did good because we were already doing good ourselves. But we do not work, as the old philanthropists did, with their own money, but with taxpayers’ money. We are a sustained class and not a sustaining class. The link between the production of wealth which the community can use for socially productive purposes, and the good ideas about what those purposes are, has been severed.

Far too often, I find, Friends speak in critical or condescending ways about business; and it annoys me because such attitudes show no awareness of how Quaker history has progressed, let alone the importance of vocations to economic life. Suppose there is a cherry pie. It is easy enough to share it out, but who is going to pick the cherries and go in the kitchen and actually make the pie? The answer is the business community, including Friends in business. I think it is sad that the prevailing opinion in the Religious Society of Friends is more focused on eating the pie than cooking it.

Richard Wood, a philosophy professor and president of Earlham at the time of the consultation, makes a similar point. He contrasts the utilitarian approach to ethics to the Kantian. Being concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number, the utilitarians pay attention to the size of the pie, even if it is not always distributed evenly. The Kantians tend to focus exclusively on fairness and distributive justice. Wood said, "Much Quaker hostility to business in recent decades seems to me to lie in an uncritical adoption of largely Kantian views. As Plato has Glaucon argue in The Republic, a society might be fair but otherwise hardly worth human habitation."

Many Friends who work in "clean" professions like teaching, social work, and the like are living off a tax base drawn mostly from business activity. In John Punshon’s terms, we are a "sustained class" and not a "sustaining class." Even the Friends school teacher who complained about capitalism admitted in her talk that her Friends school could not exist without the money from these same capitalists. While the work we do may well be useful, we are more like the little fish that symbiotically clean the teeth of the big fish than the big fish themselves. We want to divide the pie, leaving the work of making it to others.

There are also social class and status distinctions that affect business. Thorsten Veblen wrote of the leisure classes and their distain for useful work. As we become more academic, we are holding ourselves to be doing "high status" work rather than business work—teaching, research, art, literature, pure research, and theory. But someone has to run the local grocery store, manage the garbage collection, and be a fireman or policeman. I think some of our resistance to business is a matter of prestige; we are now wealthy enough to indulge ourselves in the pursuit of "higher" things.

I personally believe that excluding the pro-business and more politically conservative views from today’s Friends’ communities is a mistake. In doing so we become less diverse, our political and religious dialogue becomes more one-sided, and Friends become increasingly out of touch with the wider diversity of views.

As a Quaker who has been in business, I feel increasingly isolated within my faith community. Where do we turn for support?

There are some Quakers in business. The British Quakers and Business Group has a website at that contains literature and other resources. They also have published Good Business: Ethics at Work, made up of advices and queries on personal standards of conduct at work. Here in the United States, we do not have a national Friends business organization, and it appears that few would be interested. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting does have a group that meets from time to time.

Other religious persons have thought deeply about these issues. Church on Sunday, Work on Monday is the most detailed discussion of the split between the church and person of religion in business. This book attempts to explain the view of each side to the other, and ends each chapter with questions to consider. Also, Michael Novak, a Catholic, has written Business as a Calling, which summarizes many of the pro-business views.

Given Friends success in business from Barclay’s bank and Cadbury’s chocolates to Wharton and Wroe Alderson, who invented the modern consulting firm, what happened to Friends in business? I suspect that there has been a gradual drift of more conservative and free-enterprise-oriented Friends out of the Religious Society and into more supportive denominations. Although I have no quantitative data, I believe the trend is probably continuing.

Mark S. Cary

Mark S. Cary is a member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., and currently a staff biostatistician at University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine after many years in business. He has been conducting surveys for Friends for over 20 years. An earlier version of this article appeared as "Classic Liberal Quaker Letter No. 40" at The Quaker Economist Online at

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