In early June, BuzzFeed withdrew from a $1.3 million advertising agreement with the Republican National Committee after Donald Trump became the party’s presumptive nominee for this fall’s presidential election. According to CEO Jonah Peretti, “We don't run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won't accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.” BuzzFeed’s refusal of Trump’s campaign ads is just the latest of the media company’s political statements. Last year, editor-in-chief Ben Smith explained, “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”
In a similar move, Google recently announced that starting in July 2016, they’re banning advertisements for payday loans from their popular and powerful search engine. Such lenders will still appear in search results, but they will not be allowed to advertise their services. Google says this move is an effort to “keep bad ads out” of the space they control. Like BuzzFeed, Google drew a parallel with tobacco and also firearms, saying they consider these loans so harmful to people that they are unwilling to be associated with their advertisements.
These private sector decisions impact the industries and politicians directly involved, but they also matter more broadly for the rest of us. They reflect a particular understanding of morality and exert major influence on the moral thinking of masses of people—particularly young people, whose moral mindsets are being formed in an age when secular thinking holds sway. These decisions are also important because they signal an ongoing need for the church to assume a role of moral influence.
This kind of corporate moral activism is not new, and it’s natural that corporations increasingly consider themselves entities with moral responsibility—or at least desire to represent themselves as such. After all, we live in a time largely defined by moral outrage, and many consumers appreciate corporate moralism and show preference to businesses that are willing to take a stand in support of “what’s right.” Companies are also responding to internal forces within their own tribe. Over the last 10 to 15 years, business schools—along with the business community in general—have placed heavy emphasis on corporate ethics, morals, and social responsibility in an effort to avoid more messes like the Enron scandal of 2001. This commitment deepened after the financial crisis of 2007–08 became a black eye on the reputations of businesses in certain economic sectors.
The right of businesses to make moral judgments is a good thing. It’s the same right that allows Christian organizations, churches, and private individuals to make and enforce their own moral boundaries (in theory) without government policing. And when businesses see themselves as entities with moral and ethical responsibilities not only to their stockholders, but to society in general, their corporate influence will typically be positive, not harmful. It’s reasonable to assume that businesses who care about the common good—and even those who use social responsibility merely as a marketing tactic—will embrace causes that benefit society.
But there is an alarming side to these trends. After all, it’s just as reasonable to assume companies will simply advocate for causes that make them popular with shareholders and consumers—which is not the same as following the guidance of a finely-tuned moral compass.
In an age when the failings of moral relativism are obvious yet rarely acknowledged, it’s worth asking on what basis anyone gets to decide—for the rest of us—that presidential candidates are harmful to our health, payday loans are morally bankrupt, and there is only one side to any given issue. For corporations like BuzzFeed and Google—which hold the power to control what we know, believe, and access—what defines right and wrong, moral and immoral? And what are the implications of corporations wielding such a powerful sword as moral authority?
We’re all talking about moral responsibility, yet almost nothing is being said in the secular arena about how a common sense of morality ought to be defined. In a pluralistic society, how can we find common moral ground? It’s a serious challenge no civilization has effectively overcome. In the hands of humans, morality has the potential to become just another well-intentioned weapon of destruction. We have plenty of historical evidence for that.
With that in mind, there are three challenges for the church. First, we need Christians working inside powerful corporations, helping to form the moral consciences of their corporate leaders. Second, more than ever we must be sure that our own morality is based on something outside ourselves—specifically the higher authority of God’s revelation to humankind—rather than on the arbitrary aspects of tradition or the obsessions of a charismatic leader. Third, we the church need to engage in civil dialogue with nonChristians about how to find common moral ground. Historically, perhaps no other institution has abused its moral authority to the degree that the church has, and yet we still have a lot to offer. We order our lives by a systematic, historically grounded, and philosophically coherent moral framework that needs to be seen and heard in the public square. Despite our theological differences, we know how to find consensus within our own ranks (even if we don’t always practice it well). We know how to take the long view. And we know that our well-formed Christian moral framework has been tested over millennia.
In a culture that frequently rebuilds popular morality on the shifting sands of trend and positive feelings, it’s critical that we bring to these discussions our best thinking—informed by the wisdom of the ages—our moral convictions, our civil discourse, and our long term (rather than trendy) perspective. It’s for the sake of the common good and also for our own sake, as we invest in the future of the church.
Thank God we have a basis for right and wrong, good and bad, beyond what seems right to any one of us (or even most of us). As followers of Christ, we have an increasingly countercultural mindset in believing that defining morality is not a job for individual humans. As with powerful corporations, our moral convictions show themselves in relationship with the world, and they can produce dramatic consequences.