The value of character and integrity looms largest in their absence. Thank Wall Street for that important lesson.

If you doubt it, think for just a moment about some of the names in the news this year–Adelphia, Arthur Andersen, Enron, WorldCom.

When the scandals related to these firms broke, we discovered deceptive practices and shady dealings among the corporate elite. But as horrific as those revelations seemed, they reflected only the beginning, the ethical boulders thrown into the pond of American culture.

The ripples they caused have produced tidal waves across the nation and beyond. Last week, as the Dow Jones index jerked up and down like a polygraph needle at a liars’ convention, commentator after commentator explained the recent downturn in the stock market reflected emotional feelings rather than rational thinking. Leading business indicators provided plenty of reasons for confidence in the market as well as the larger U.S. economy. But nervous investors sold, sold, sold.

Not coincidentally, the Barna Research Group released a poll showing that executives of large corporations ranked at the bottom when Americans rated their levels of confidence in people who influence our society. Only 12 percent of respondents said they had “complete” or “a lot of” confidence in these key business leaders. Of course, the Adelphias, Arthur Andersens, Enrons, Tycos and WorldComs represent only a tiny fraction of the businesses across the nation. But their leaders’ actions have alarmed investors so that businesses–executives, employees and stockholders–far removed from these shady dealers also have suffered.

“Money, money, money,” you say. “This is all about money. What’s it got to do with anything that should be discussed in a Christian newspaper?”

In a word, everything. The current corporate calamity is a model of moral failure. By its breadth and depth, it illustrates clearly the consequence of sin. Most particularly, it shows how the sins of ethical depravity and broken trust impact lives far beyond the people immediately involved.

A recent Time magazine cover questioned how millions of American retirees are faring, now that their incomes have been decimated by a dilapidated stock market. Sure, it’s about money. It’s also about how people live their lives. It’s about the impact of fear and insecurity and heartache and disappointment.

Integrity is the vessel that carries trust, the most essential ingredient in human relationships. Once integrity is cracked or broken, trust spills out across the table of human life and drips down onto the floor of eternity–lost, dissipated, wasted.

America suffers from a crisis of trust, which stems from a failure of integrity. Business leaders have provided the most recent example, but they are not alone. Plagiarism darkens chapters in the lives of two prominent historians. A beefed-up resume tackled the career of a successful football coach. Shoplifting charges have stolen the good name of a popular and seemingly respected young actress. Pedophilia and adultery have compromised the careers of clergy. We suffer from an epidemic of Ethics-AIDS–Acquired Integrity Deficiency Syndrome. And it’s making our society very, very sick.

Unfortunately, we don’t share a consensus about a cure.

Congress has responded with bills to stiffen penalties for business fraud. Educators are updating standards and penalties for plagiarism. The Roman Catholic church has drafted a pedophilia policy, and some Protestant denominations have tightened their procedures for responding to charges of clergy sexual abuse. These are timely and appropriate responses, but they’re inadequate. They treat symptoms but don’t offer cures.

Participants in the Barna poll strongly affirmed two “strategies for prevention” of moral failure. Almost three-quarters of respondents supported “parents spending more time teaching their children appropriate values.” And nearly two-thirds affirmed a call for a “stronger moral foundation.”

Those solutions sound logical enough, but how do we get to them? From the looks of things, many parents need remedial ethical education themselves. After all, respected “grown ups” spawned the scandals that have rocked society. And the notion of a “stronger moral foundation” is so broad and ill-defined it’s not very useful.

Let us begin the campaign for a moral America in church. Unfortunately, our track record isn’t particularly strong. The Baptist Center for Ethics reports that the founder and former CEO of WorldCom is a Baptist; the former head of Enron was a Baptist and now is a Methodist. Obviously, we need more sermons and Bible study lessons that hone in on the practical applications of how the Bible should inform and impact our daily lives. We need to talk seriously about how the things we think about on Sunday make a difference in how we live on Monday.

(By the way, we need to resist the temptation to commit our energies on combatting Baptists’ pet sins–sex and booze. We all know sex outside of marriage and alcohol abuse are sins. But as long as we only talk about the sins we’re comfortable hating, we fail to take on the economic sins that cripple our society. Read the Gospels; Jesus preached much more often against greed, selfishness and covetousness than sex.)

Ministers need help. Pastors and Christian educators should convene groups of laity–business people, teachers, farmers and ranchers, folks from many occupations–to talk about how they can shape practical sermons and relevant Bible study lessons to address the ethical questions and moral temptations people face week by week. Youth ministers need to listen to the temptations of young people. Sure, sex will be Topic 1, but invitations to cheat, steal and lie are rampant.

Until we bring practical application of the gospel to our pews and into our classrooms, the Adelphias, Arthur Andersens, Enrons, Tycos and WorldComs will forever be with us.

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.

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