National Edition

New foundation promotes religious freedom as good for business

Published: Monday, Feb. 3 2014 8:00 a.m. MST

Chinese consumers wait for the opening of the new Taobao Mall, left, in Beijing, China, on May 27, 2011. Data has shown that economic growth in China has corresponded with the government’s loosening of religious restrictions.

Associated Press

For more than a decade, Brian Grim has gathered and analyzed data about where religion is practiced and suppressed around the world.

His research shows a world where 84 percent of the population says it is religious, but where restrictions and hostilities against the freedom to practice one's faith are rising. In 2012, the percentage of people living in countries where social hostilities and government restrictions against religion that are considered extreme climbed to 76 percent — a six-year high.

But Grim also noticed a correlation between religious freedom and economic growth — where the freedom to worship is suppressed so are jobs and business opportunities and vice versa. That connection sparked the idea that commerce could play a part in reversing the trend of increasing hostilities toward religious minorities.

Now, the 54-year-old leading expert on the global religious landscape is acting on that idea. Last week, Grim left his job as a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center and became president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. The new venture will enlist business leaders and trade groups from around the world in an ambitious effort to enhance religious freedom through economic opportunity.

"I’ve come to see that this is on of the most promising new ways to address the rising tide that I have been documenting and measuring," he said. "What I am doing is the result of looking at data and trends and I tried to see what might make a difference. And I think this might make a big difference."

Avoiding controversy

Grim is not alone in recognizing the tie between religious freedom and economic growth. Academics at Harvard and Boston universities have drawn the same conclusions. Diplomats and human rights advocates have also joined the chorus that society in general benefits when people are allowed to observe their faith.

In the international business community more than 10,000 corporate participants and stakeholders in more than 130 countries have signed onto the the United Nations Global Compact, which proclaims a corporate responsibility to uphold human rights, including the "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and religious accommodation of employees.

"But when businesses are approached with the idea there are two responses: 'How much is this going to cost me?' and 'I don’t really understand how religion and business relate,'" Grim said.

For many executives religion is a red flag that signals bad publicity and conflicts better resolved by government, explained Paul Godfrey, the William and Roceil Low professor of business strategy at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management.

"Most businesses see their role as avoiding controversial issues and religion is seen to be a polarizing force in many societies. Businesses tend to stay away from that because they don't want to alienate anybody," Godfrey said.

But whether managers recognize it or not, religion impacts the employee and customer base of their business, Godfrey said, and it is in an executive's interest to be aware of that and have the tools to manage it.

That doesn't mean advocating a certain belief over others, he said, but accommodating religious freedom and diversity within the company and in the marketplace.

"There are many things that people in business monitor, but they never thought of this, which is often right in their face, as something that can be analyzed or understood," said Grim. "And perhaps their own actions could make a difference to solve issues that are also good for their bottom line."

Making the connection

Like the numerous statistical trends Grim rattles off from memory, he recalls story after story of conversations in just the past year with business, trade and government leaders that made them believers in commerce as an avenue to religious freedom.

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