“Business is religion, and religion is business,” said Maltbie Babcock. “The man who does not make a business of his religion has a religious life of no force, and the man who does not make a religion of his business has a business life of no character.”
While few people today would completely agree with the 19th-century Presbyterian preacher, business and religion are indeed closely tied together. This connection, though, remains largely unexamined by major media outlets. It’s refreshing to find, then, a new publication that has already done an impressive job of showing how to adequately cover the intersection of religion and business.
Quartz, a “digitally native news outlet” owned by the publisher of The Atlantic, bills itself as a site for “business people in the new global economy.” Recently, they ran an article explaining why Chrysler’s .Ram domain “might just offend a billion people.”
At the most recent meeting of the GAC in Durban last week, India again made clear (pdf) its discomfort with the idea of a .ram domain name. To many outside India, this is baffling. Why does India care about a line of pick-up trucks named for a male sheep?
The objection arises from an unfortunate homonym: Ram, pronounced with a long “a,” is also the name of one of Hinduism’s chief gods. “What if someone registers a domain name such as http://www.sex.ram? It could create a lot of communal tension in the country,” a government official told the Business Standard newspaper. India has argued that under the nation’s laws, trademarks can be denied if they stand to hurt religious sentiments.
The argument might sound disingenuous, but Indians often lose their collective sense of humor when it comes to matters of religion. Moreover, Ram is also a politically sensitive issue. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque claiming that it was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The act led to weeks of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.
Another Quartz feature, published on the same day as the .Ram article, explains how “Buddhist monks are buying into Thailand’s new religion: consumerism.”
Religious and secular observers have worried that as Thailand’s economy speeds along and enriches its population, the country’s most popular religion, Theravada Buddhism, is losing relevance and threatening the central role that Buddhist temples and their monks have played in Thai society. “Consumerism is now the Thai religion,” Phra Paisan Visalo, one of the country’s most revered monks said last year. “In the past, people went to temple on every holy day. Now, they go to shopping malls.” (As we’ve reported, about 19% of Thai households will earn more than $20,000 in income by 2017, up from 2.2% in 2002.)
On the bright side, consumer engagement could help Thailand’s Buddhist monks relate their religious traditions to the general population—while spurring the economy. The retail business of supplying products for monks is worth about 10 billion baht (paywall), or $320 million, according to a study published last year by a Thai bank’s Kasikorn Research Center. In a sign that monk consumerism is growing, a mega-supply store on the outskirts of Bangkok, Hang Sangkapan, or “Monk Supply”, is hoping to franchise and find investors. Modeled after big-box retailers like Carrefour, the store offers a bevy of religious clothes, candles, Buddha statuettes and altar tables for Thailand’s robed men.
The entire article is very well-done. I particularly liked the subtle explanations, such as describing Wan Khao Phansa as the “beginning of Buddhist Lent.” (Unfortunately, for many American readers, the concept of “Lent” will be as unfamiliar as Wan Khao Phansa.)
The publication has only been around for about a year, yet it’s recent coverage of religion and business is already putting more established media outlets to shame. Quartz not only seems to recognize the significant role that religion plays in the global marketplace, they have found a way to explain global religions to an audience of business readers. That’s quite an achievement. Maltbie Babcock would be proud.