How might faith-based actors play a role in changing values and norms of corruption?

By Roberto Laver

Having grown up in Argentina, with its consistently high levels of societal corruption, I am quite familiar with the significant incoherence between formal rules of public integrity (the law) and the pervasive and widespread corruption (the practice). Whether in a school setting, a hospital, a workplace, a sports competition or a public office, I have experienced, directly and indirectly, the dire consequences of living and working in a social context lacking strong normative constraints against privilege and favoritism.

This is not a new reality in my home country. Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer, observed decades ago that Argentines think in terms of concrete individuals and personal loyalties, not in terms of community (a “friendship of the whole”). In such social environments, where personal ties and loyalty prevail over merit, there is little trust in the public sector and the notion of the common good is very weak.

While there is a growing recognition among international development agencies that contextual factors are critical in a good diagnosis of governance dynamics, there seems to be little change in their strategies in the anti-corruption reform agenda. 

The conventional technocratic anti-corruption reforms (such as anti-corruption agencies; new legal and regulatory frameworks on public procurement and access to information; new monitoring mechanisms and new judicial structures), are not producing a real and lasting transformation in the rules of the game, and this is unsurprising to anyone who has grown up in a similar environment of endemic corruption, as I did. While many factors might explain these disappointing results, there is a growing realization that a more positive and broader focus on building values and norms of public integrity is needed to produce a collective shift in behavior.

Some of us (see here, here, here and here) have pointed out the potential role of faith leaders and communities in fighting corruption and building a culture of public integrity and ethical universalism.  Indeed, the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, for instance, concluded over a decade ago that faith communities had an enormous, though untapped potential, to contribute to good governance.  Yet, as Katherine Marshall notes in a recent post, faith groups are “often strikingly absent” in the fight for integrity. I can attest to this fact in my own personal and professional experience.

In recent years, I have been involved in efforts to engage faith leaders and faith-based groups in anticorruption work, particularly those of a Christian persuasion (Catholics and Protestants) in Latin America. Follow a few thoughts on some of the opportunities and challenges:   

Image: Map of Christianity in Latin America.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Christians_in_the_world.png

Christian faith has broad reach and influence: The Christian faith remains a strong presence and influence across most of Latin America. People professing the Christian faith exceed 90% of the respective populations in almost all countries. The majority of those who declare to be Christians are from the Catholic tradition, though Protestant congregations (mainly evangelical) have been growing substantially in recent decades.

In fact, Protestant adherents represent over 30% of the population in several countries. Although there is much religious nominalism, the percentages of believers who consider their faith to be important and who are active members of their local congregations are quite significant.

Faith leaders and communities can inculcate public integrity values:  Faith leaders (ordained and lay) and communities are well placed to cultivate and internalize public integrity values. The Christian faith is a primary source of values for believers in Latin America. They look to their churches, and specially to their leaders, for moral and ethical guidance.

Yet, we must ask ourselves: how are religious values that have bearing on corruption transmitted and inculcated within the churches?

Image: Pilgrimage to the virgen de San Juan de los Lagos.
Source: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peregrinos_al_altar.jpg

There is generally a notable absence of a social ethics of public integrity in church teaching and practice, that challenges social acceptability of corruption. While public integrity and corruption are themes that permeate the entirety of the biblical text, theologian Milton Acosta notes that social ethical messages about public integrity and corruption are virtually absent from the pulpit, seminaries, and Christian education in general. The bible’s teaching about moral standards is seen as applicable to individual and family lives, but not equally relevant to societal interactions. Worse still, the structures and organizational practices of denominations and churches often perpetuate unbiblical social patterns of favoritism, opacity and non-accountability. Kinship-based social structures, rather than society-wide procedures of fairness, dominate the public ethos. 

Public integrity and anticorruption need to be incorporated into the practical ethics of Christian faith. There needs to be a moral indignation that is not only directed at politicians or the “others” but also at the believer’s participation and complicity in perpetuating “corruption norms”. Without an internal renewal and moral awakening, faith leaders and communities cannot effectively contribute to a real and sustainable transformation.

Faith leaders and communities can contribute to collective action:  

The moral awakening among Christians needs to be translated into active citizenship, contributing to a grassroots movement that seeks greater public integrity. Faith leaders and communities are also well placed to speak prophetically and mobilize for social change. Churches have extended social networks and infrastructure with a substantial outreach capacity.

Yet, we must ask ourselves: to what extent are churches encouraging collective action to influence the governance structures and practices in society?

While there are some examples of courageous Christian leaders and groups, there is generally very limited engagement of faith leaders and churches in advocacy efforts for public integrity.  

This prophetic role of the leaders and the church is, of course, intimately related to, and affected by, their own understanding and upholding of public integrity. However, there are other factors at play that need further attention. In some instances, this non-engagement results from a dualistic theology, promoting the belief that the church should only deal with private spiritual matters, and not with social norms or the integrity of institutions

While recognizing the many challenges, faith leaders and communities can play a critical role in building normative constraints against particularism and corruption. This role should receive much greater attention in anticorruption research and action. In recognition of the need for greater engagement of faith actors in anticorruption work, a new global network has emerged bringing together leaders and organizations of a Christian faith persuasion. The global network collectively advocates for the engagement of church leaders and communities in the fight against corruption, within the Christian community and to the global anticorruption community.

History shows that religious leaders and communities (for all their imperfections) have played a positive and considerable role in civil rights movements, human rights advances and even clean government. They have now an opportunity, and a responsibility, to help societies in “getting to Denmark”.


About the Author

Roberto Laver is an international lawyer with over thirty years of combined professional experience in law and development, non-profit leadership and academia. He is the founder and director of Fides, a Christian anti-corruption NGO and cofounder, and member of the steering committee, of the Faith and Public Integrity Network,. A former World Bank senior counsel, Laver taught at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and has been a network fellow at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Roberto’s recent book, “Libranos del Mal” (Spanish) “Deliver us from Evil“ (English) explores the tie between corruption, culture, and the Christian church in Latin America.


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3 thoughts on “How might faith-based actors play a role in changing values and norms of corruption?

  • March 30, 2021 at 10:42 pm
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    Excellent op-ed. How would you respond to the reality that many Latin American churches have been under tremendous resource strain, especially trying to fill the gaps in welfare services corrupt governments are failing to provide? In the process, the churches become charity focused and less centers for spiritual life and governments are more than happy to let others care for the poor’s needs. Churches and clergy certainly have a role in fighting corruption, but they are also limited in their capacity.

    Reply
    • April 1, 2021 at 8:47 pm
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      Thanks Ron. Excellent point. This would call for strong collective action by churches and their leaders to demand accountability from the respective governments. I think faith actors need to be more active in using social accountability mechanisms. Fighting corruption, specially given its impact on the poor, should be a an issue that transcends denominational differences.

      Reply
  • April 15, 2021 at 10:32 am
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    Thank you for this wonderful op-ed. I agree the current efforts to battle corruption, while important, are not sufficient to drastically reduce the incidence of corruption. I further agree faith-based initiatives (cultural initiatives) to combat corruption would make significant contributions to the reduction of corruption.

    Unfortunately, the church itself is currently battling its own issues with abuse of power. These issues are compounded by their need to focus on fundraising to allow them to continue and promote spiritual life. Adding initiatives, such as anti-corruption to the church’s current vast and extremely important agenda, may be difficult to achieve. In fact, my attempts to do so in my own diocese have failed miserably.

    One potential solution is the creation of a secular movement to build a culture of ethical business practices within the general population. It should be secular to avoid the complexities and delays of gaining approval from faith-based institutions. However, that does not mean it should be devoid of actions reflecting the power of God.

    Such an organization would need to be self-sustaining to avoid the distraction of constant fundraising and undue influence of benefactors. It must be a nonprofit, charitable organization to remove the stigma associated with a profit motive. It should provide both financial and social rewards for all participants to ensure the continued engagement and growth of the participant base.

    There is such an organization under development. It is supported by a devoted group of academics and business executives from around the world.

    Our hope is all faith-based organizations will lend their moral support and voice to this organization as it is aligned with the fundamental teachings of all faith-based instututions. This organization does not detract from the following or financial support of faith-based organizations.

    I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about this organization or become a part of the incredible movement to contact me at jvalle@iejl.org.

    Reply

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