It Doesn't Always Work
The New York Times > Magazine > Faith at Work
Chuck Ripka is a moneylender -- that is to say, a mortgage banker -- and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ...The bank opened 18 months ago as a ''Christian financial institution,'' with a Bible buried in the foundation and the words ''In God We Trust'' engraved in the cornerstone...
It doesn't always work. I spoke with one employee of the bank, who asked that her name not be used, and she told me that while she had been raised Catholic, she did not consider herself part of the bank's Christian culture. ''You will never find me going into Chuck's office to pray,'' she said. On the other hand, she said that the bank was a ''wonderful'' place to work because ''here the people are all nice -- it's a healthy environment.'' Another employee, a young man who until recently worked at a competing bank, also said that while he hasn't given his soul to Jesus, he liked the wholesome atmosphere of Riverview.
I can understand the appeal of the religious right's vision. I'd like to operate in a healthy environment, where people were fair, decent and compassionate, too. The world is a rough place and could use lots of improvement. But I don't think that personal transformation, whether religious or secular, can do the job.
I believe in Original Sin--"the only Christian doctrine that has knock-down empirical verification." People are not nice and no amount of prayer, meditation or psychotherapy will make them consistently fair, decent or compassionate. To make the world livable we engage in "self-binding" to prevent ourselves from acting on our tainted impulses and costly sentimentalities, like Odysseus who bound himself to the mast to avoid being lured by the Sirens. We bind ourselves through legally enforceable contracts because we know that we cannot trust one another, or ourselves, to keep promises. We vote for taxes to pay for public works and income transfers because we know that left to our own devices we will not be public-spirited or charitable. Only impersonal agencies and coercive regulations can make the world a minimally fair and decent place.
Maybe the real cultural divide isn't between the religious right and the secular left but between cynics like me and optimistic sentimentalists who image that they can make the world more livable by promoting personal responsibility, preaching love, teaching wisdom, strenghening families, supporting grass-roots efforts, running Christian businesses or establishing communes.