what in the World?
Citizens, corporations, and other matters
by Jane Greer and Christopher L. Walton
Corporate Citizens? Tom Stites quotes Abraham Lincoln's famous definition of American government as "government of the people, by the people, for the people" ("How Corporations Became 'Persons,'" page 23). But the feature stories in this issue relate the strange tale of how corporations became legal "persons" and gained many of the rights that the Constitution gives you and me.
Question: Were you surprised to learn that corporations are considered "persons" under U.S. law? Do you see this as a threat to democratic government? What do you think about the power of giant corporations in light of the UUA's affirmation and promotion of "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large"?
Employed to What End? Tom Stites observes that "tens of millions of good people draw their paychecks from amoral corporations" and that our economic and political systems have made it harder for people to be responsible citizens ("How Corporations Became 'Persons,'" page 23).
Question: What factors would make you regard one job as more ethical than another? When does an employer's corporate behavior implicate its employees? When does a corporation's behavior become a citizen's concern? What does it mean to be a responsible citizen?
Corporate Purpose. In early American history, "charters specified the corporation's purpose and expired at the end of a set term," writes Tom Stites. "If corporations overstepped their boundaries, their charters could be-and frequently were-revoked." A Wisconsin state law used to ban all forms of corporate involvement in the political process. But corporations today participate aggressively in the political process. ("How Corporations Became 'Persons,'" page 23.)
Question: When should a corporation lose its right to exist? A leak at a plant operated by chemical giant Union Carbide caused the deaths of more than 15,000 people in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Unitarian Universalist prodemocracy activist Ward Morehouse, profiled by Kimberly French, sees Union Carbide as only one example of gross corporate misconduct, and condemns "the enormous power of corporations to do as they like with no effective accountability" ("Taking on the System," page 38). How should corporations be treated when they cause grievous harm?
Conflict of Interest? In his commentary "Democracy and Religion" (page 14), Bernard Avishai wonders what to do when religiosity becomes so dogmatic that it threatens democracy. He defines "religion acceptable to democratic life" in terms of the questions it asks, not the answers it offers. He says, "truly religious people can never shake off their sense of uncertainty, contingency, or the loneliness of self-knowledge."
Question: Is Avishai saying that some religions are not acceptable to democratic life? If so, what would need to change for them to become acceptable? Is it a matter of the religion itself, or the practitioner? Is democracy tied to a certain kind of religious outlook?
Divine Calculus. Sarah Voss describes mathematics as an important, if unusual, way to approach the divine: "God seems to speak in mathematics in two basic ways. One is through the precision of numerical calculation, logical proof, and all the other blessings associated with mathematics in the 'hard' sciences. The other way is through metaphor" ("Mathematical Theology," page 20).
Question: If you are like many Americans, you may have grown up "math averse." Do you think that mathematics offers a useful avenue to understanding spiritual issues? If so, how? What did you find most interesting in Voss's description of "mathematical metaphors"?
Agreeing to Disagree. Unitarian Universalist congregations have been careful to allow room for a variety of opinions about the war with Iraq. The Rev. Danny Reed, minister at the Unitarian Church in Norfolk, Virginia, home to one of the world's largest naval bases, says, "When the war started, I talked about how just having soldiers and pacifists in the same pew is radical social witness and not to be underestimated." ("Congregations focus deeply on war," page 42).
Question: How does your congregation handle disagreement about the war? How do you reconcile a position that you passionately hold with the necessity of allowing for different viewpoints? How important is it to you that your viewpoint is shared? Do you feel distanced from those who do not share your opinion?
Contemplating Death. Richard Taylor reflects on learning that he will soon die: "My reaction to the bad news surprised me as much as the news itself. I was at first shattered, but this quickly gave way to something quite different" ("What Matters Now," page 19).
Question: If you learned that you had only a few months to live, how would you want to spend your time? If you could choose the time and place of your death, what would it be? Would you want others to be present?