Volume 2, Number 40
28 March 2002

Quaker Business Attitudes

by Mark S. Cary

Unprogrammed liberal Friends today seem publicly almost uniformly negative about most business activity. I have been to talks at the Pendle Hill Conference Center (Wallingford, PA) where speakers casually state that capitalism is the cause of all the injustice and inequality in our world, where being employed by a large corporation is treated as a badge of shame.

For example, Paul Rasor, who directs the Social Issues program at Pendle Hill considers the "deep-seated ethic of competition that underlies our economic system" to be "a form a cultural violence, it is also a form of physical violence as well." Paul write that this violence "has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death." Certainly, with language like this, the average business person might wonder about their moral legitimacy.

These negative views of business are not limited to Friends. Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan (Church on Sunday, Work on Monday) have found that many liberal clergy share these negative views. Knowing little about how business works, many clerics take a view that includes simple protests and academic position papers full of "oughts."

Attitudes of the average "Quaker in the Street" are not as negative as some of the more public Friends. We have two recent sources of data here, both of which I conducted as a volunteer using my survey research background. The first was a survey members and attenders at three Meetings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) which was done to learn more about outreach and diversity issues. The second was a survey of people on the Pendle Hill mailing list who live outside the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states. This survey was about Friends' attitudes toward money.

Both studies show these Friends to be are mostly upper income people with high levels of education, and thus good earning potential. In the PYM study, 53% percentage have a graduate degree, with 79% percent having a graduate degree in the Pendle Hill sample. Few, however, are in business. Previous survey work suggests that most Friends are in education or social services. Those in business rarely have management responsibilities. Few Friends appear to be small business persons or entrepreneurs.

Friends are much more politically liberal than the general population. As shown in the table below, 88% of the Quakers on the Pendle Hill list and 65% of the PYM Quakers self-identified themselves as liberal or extremely liberal, compared to only 15% of the general US population. Thus, these Friends are 4 to 6 times more likely to be liberal or extremely liberal than the US population. Few Quakers are leaning conservative or conservative politically in these samples. Compared to the US population, Quakers are definitely on the "far left" of the political spectrum.


US Population
(1998 GSS Survey)

PYM Quakers
(Three Meetings)

Pendle Hill Quakers

Extremely Liberal








Leaning Liberal








Leaning Conservative








Extremely Conservative




Their attitudes toward business appear to be leftist, but with considerable range. We only have data on these attitudes for the Pendle Hill sample, but given their overall similarity in liberalness, we might expect PYM to be roughly similar.

In the table below, we have divided the responses into "Agree" meaning "Agree" or "Strongly agree", "Neither agree nor disagree", and "Disagree" meaning "Disagree" or "Strongly disagree."

Almost all these Friends agree that there is too great an income disparity in America today, and most agree that they themselves have enough money. Likewise, there is substantial agreement that spiritual and emotional poverty is more important than material poverty and that income does, in the end, come from business economic activity.

A number of issues split the respondents into thirds. About a third think socialism is a better economic system than capitalism; about a third disagree. About a third say they would agree to some taxation scheme to level incomes across all Americans so that everyone would have about the same income; about a third disagree. Such a program would require a much higher marginal tax rate than we have today. A third agree that the WTO should require world-wide wage standards.

There is little support for free international trade as a solution to world poverty.

In more conservative circles, the entrepreneur who develops new methods of production or new products is seen as a creator of wealth, a person who lifts all boats even if some gain disproportionately. Most Friends disagree. Quaker entrepreneurs are not likely to be held in high esteem.








There is too great a disparity between the highest and lowest income levels in this country




I have enough money; I do not need more




Spiritual and emotional poverty is a greater problem in the world today than material poverty




Almost all income for government or non-profit organizations comes, in the end, from commercial and business economic activity




Overall, socialism is a better economic system than capitalism




The WTO should require world-wide wage standards to that all workers are paid equally for comparable work




Capitalism is the main cause of problems in the world today




The government should use taxation and other means to equalize income so that every person has about the same income




International free trade is the best way to raise the world out of poverty




We need people with the gift of generating wealth, for we are all raised from poverty by them




Pursuing a for profit career is contrary to many Friends testimonies




Rich people are rich mostly because they are greedy and grasping




Rich people are morally inferior to poor people




Other Friends are more positive. In a talk given at the 1994 Consultation of Friends in Business at Earlham, John Punshon wrote that:

In recent years, convinced Friends like myself have come to be a fairly large majority in the Society, and we wanted to join a religious society that did good because we were already doing good ourselves. But we do not work, as the old philanthropists did, with their own money, but with taxpayers money. We are a sustained class and not a sustaining class. The link between the production of wealth which the community can use for socially productive purposes, and the good ideas about what those purposes are, has been severed.

Far too often, then, I find Friends speaking in critical or condescending ways about business, and it annoys me, because such attitudes show no awareness of how Quaker history has developed, let alone the importance of the vocation to economic life. Suppose there is a cherry pie. It is easy enough to share it out, but who is going to pick the cherries and go in the kitchen and actually make the pie? The answer is the business community and Friends in business. I think that it is sad that the prevailing opinion in the Society of Friends seems to be more concerned with eating the pie than cooking it.

Richard Wood, then President of Earlham, and a philosophy professor, makes a similar point. He contrasts the utilitarian approach to ethics to the Kantian. Being concerned with the greatest good to the greatest number, the utilitarians pay attention to the size of the pie, even if it is not always distributed evenly. The Kantians can tend to focus exclusively on fairness and distributive justice. Wood believes that "Much Quaker hostility to business in recent decades seems to me to lie in an uncritical adoption of largely Kantian views. As Plato has Glaucon argue in The Republic, a society might be fair but otherwise hardly worth human habitation."

Many Friends who live in "clean" professions like teaching, social work, and the like, are living off a tax base drawn mostly from business activity. In Punshon's terms, we are a "sustained class" and not a "sustaining class." Even the Friends School teacher who complained about capitalism admitted in her talk that their Friends School could not exist without the money from these same capitalists. While the work we do may well be useful, we are more like the little fish that symbiotically clean the teeth of the big fish than the big fish themselves. We want to divide the pie, leaving the work of making it to others.

There are also social class and status distinctions that affect business. Thorstein Veblen wrote of the leisure classes and their distain for useful work. As we become more academic, we are holding ourselves to be doing "high status" work rather than business work — teaching, research, art, literature, pure research and theory. But, someone has to run the local grocery store, manage the garbage collection, and be a fireman or policeman. I think some of our resistance to business is a matter of prestige — we are now wealthy enough to indulge ourselves in the pursuit of "higher" things.


I personally believe that excluding the pro-business and more politically conservative views from today's liberal Friends' communities is a mistake. In doing so we become less diverse, our political and religious dialogue becomes more one-sided, and Friends become increasingly out of touch with the wider diversity of views in our society.

As a Quaker who is in business, I feel increasingly isolated within my faith community. Where do we turn for help?

There are some Quakers in business. The British Quakers and Business Group has a web site at www.quakerbusiness.org that contains literature and other resources. They have also published Good Business: Ethics at Work, which contains advices and queries on personal standards of conduct at work. Here in the USA, we do not have a national Friends Business organization — and it appears that few would be interested. However, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting does have a group that meets from time to time.

However, other religious persons have thought deeply about these issues. Laura Nash and Scotty McLennan's book Church on Sunday, Work on Monday is the most detailed discussion of the split between the church and person of religion in business. Their book attempts to explain the view of each side to the other, and ends each chapters with questions to consider. Michael Novak, a Catholic, has also written a book entitled Business as a Calling, which summarizes many of the pro-business views.

Given Friends history of success in business and the many businesses that Friends founded, what happened to Friends in business? I'm not sure that this has been researched, but I suspect that there has been a gradual drift of more conservative and free enterprise oriented Friends out of the Society and into religious denominations that are more supportive. We have no quantitative data on whether this trend is continuing.

The Author

Mark S. Cary operates a survey research and data analysis business. He was worked in the past for Research International USA (a company within the WPP group, head-quartered in London), The Walt Disney Company (the Chilton research division of the ABC Broadcasting Company), Friends World Committee for Consultation, and was on the psychology faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He has also been adjunct faculty to the Wharton Global Consulting Program. His web site is caryresearch.com.


  • Nash, Laura, & McLennan, Scotty (2001) Church on Sunday, Work on Monday: The Challenge of Fusing Christian Values with Business Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Novak, Michael (1996) Business as a calling: Work and the Examined Life. New York: The Free Press.
  • Punshon, John (1994) "An Historical View of Friends and Business," in Friends Consultation on Friends in Business. Richmond, IN: Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center.
  • Quakers and Business Group (2000) Good Business: Ethics at Work — Advices and queries on personal standards of conduct at work. London: Quakers and Business Group.
  • Rasor, Paul (2001) "Materialism, violence, and culture: The context of our faith." Pendle Hill Monday night lecture. Wallingford, PA.
  • Wood, Richard J (1994) "Virtues, Ethics, and Friends in Business," in Friends Consultation on Friends in Business. Richmond, IN: Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center.

Readers' Comments:

Please send comments on any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

Comments may also be sent directly to the author at: [email protected]

As I was reading Mark Cary's article, I found myself wanting to stand up and sing for joy. Granted, I'm in college, so as yet not actually in business. However, I've noticed the quiet clearing of throats when I mention among Friends that I am majoring in (gasp!) Management. I started college with a typically negative view of business, but also knowing that I wanted to pursue a business degree. I'm not saying I know all the solutions, but as I've taken my economics and business classes I've started to understand two important things: 1) a good number of Quakers seem to be out of touch with some basic realities of economics; and 2) most seem to be in the happy position of being able to complain about "the system" without having to think up workable alternatives.

— Beth Stevenson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, now residing in Tulsa (OK).

Hear! Hear!

— Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville (NC).

As a small businessperson I have always felt what is mentioned in the article. The scorn and then the minds closing as I say things that run counter to "popular belief. I run into resistance to my reality about work in the business world from folks who have never worked (or very long) in that environment. I have the advantage of work which brings me into many businesses as a person who gets let in to many "secrets" about the businesses who's accounting, distribution and manufacturing systems I am replacing.

At FGC Gathering, AFSC meetings and FWCC conferences, it seems that everyone needs an enemy, even Quakers. So we have picked business people and corporations. I guess we are just like everyone else, except that we can maybe listen harder to the minority, even if they are not part of an "affirmative action group" or part of an "oppressed class". That is my hope.

— Free Polazzo, Anneewakee Creek Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA)

I especially appreciate #40 as I've been a small scale general building contractor for the past twenty years. Engaging in that activity has helped me make the transition from a lukewarm, left-leaning radical sympathizer and middle class misfit with tentative academic ambitions to a convinced conservative and to a proud and conventionally productive member of the American middle class.

— Tom Webster, Santa Barbara (CA) Friends Meeting.

I though your article provocative, well stated, and unfortunate in the sense that it is descriptive of the real Quaker world in at least some, and perhaps most, situations. Newtown Meeting, happily, seems to be an exception. We have, by my estimate, about 1/3 educators and social workers, 1/3 professional artists, and 1/3 business people.

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

The suggestion regarding some kind of Friends in Business organization seems to be a constructive idea. What about starting as a listserv? How many would constitute a critical mass at FGC?

— Vici Oshiro, Minneapolis (MN) Friends Meeting.


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Northampton, MA.
  • Caroline Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Merlyn Holmes, Boulder, Colorado.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark S. Cary. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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