Ethics in the Workplace

Religion at Work:
Conservative Protestantism, Religiosity, and Ethics in the Workplace*

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Religion at Work:

Conservative Protestantism, Religiosity, and Ethics in the Workplace.

The relationship between religion and public life in the U.S. may be changing as Conservative Protestant religious movements grow, and attempt to bring religion into politics and education. But most extant research finds that the religious factor exerts no influence on the ethical decision-making and conduct of Americans at work. Yet the samples and religion measures of most of this research are inadequate both to the task of understanding changes in the relation of religion and economic life, and to account for the distinctive subculture of Conservative Protestants. Using latent variables for Conservative Protestantism and religiosity, we reconsider religion's possible influence on workplace ethics by analyzing personal interviews with Conservative Protestants throughout the U.S. and reanalyzing the 1992 Economic Values Survey. We find that Conservative Protestantism exerts significant direct and indirect effects on individual ethical conduct on the job, and that personal religiosity shapes moral reasoning used in workplace decisions. We provide a cultural theory of Conservative Protestantism's influence on individual and interpersonal ethics at work, and suggest implications of our findings for secularization theory and sociological studies of religion's influence in American public life.


Religion at Work:

Conservative Protestantism, Religiosity, and Ethics in the Workplace


In the last two decades researchers have argued that religion has surged back into U.S. public life, in large part because of Conservative Protestant religious movements. From religious right politics and culture wars (Hunter 1991; Green et al. 1996; Liebman and Wuthnow 1983; Oldfield 1996; Rozell and Wilcox 1997; Smidt and Penning 1997; Wilcox 1996), to civic participation (Wuthnow 1997b), social movements (Borer 1996, 1998; Osa 1996; Smith 1991), and liberal politics (e.g., Marsh 1997; McAdam 1988; Morris 1984; Smith 1996a), the role of religion in public life does not seem to be diminishing, and may in some ways be expanding. But does this resurgence of religion have any implications for the workplace, where we would expect greater secularization as a result of expanding capitalism? Is there a relationship between religiosity, Conservative Protestantism and ethical conduct and decision-making on the job? What specifically about Conservative Protestantism might shape workplace behavior? Secularization processes at the institutional level may have eliminated a formative role of religion in the economy (such as usury laws based on biblical texts), but the specific character of Conservative Protestantism—within the constraints of secularization—may strengthen other forms of engagement of religion in the world of work.

Very little sociological research has been conducted on the extent or type of influence of religion in the marketplace, the business world, the economy (Davidson and Caddell 1994). Despite the need for solid empirical evidence about the matter, the possible influence of religion in business and on the job remains largely uncharted sociological territory. While other research has shown the importance of Conservative Protestant cultural structures on parent-child relationships (Ellison and Sherkat 1993; Wilcox 1998), education (Darnell and Sherkat 1997; Sikkink 1999) pornography (Sherkat and Ellison 1997) abortion attitudes (Emerson 1996), and racial prejudice (Emerson et al. 1999), we know little that is empirically reliable about how a resurgent Conservative Protestantism relates to the work world. This paper begins to fill this gap by explaining why and how Conservative Protestantism shapes individual behavior in the workplace, especially through religious concerns about ethics in interpersonal relations.

We argue that the role of religion in the U.S. workplace is shaped by secularization and, paradoxically, the growth of Conservative Protestantism. Secularization theory—to the extent that it survives—sees an increasing decline of religious authority as economic life becomes differentiated from the sphere of religion (Chaves 1994). No doubt this process leads to a decline in religious authority over economic structures, and business policies and practices. But secularization theories have been unsuccessful in explaining a second process that may affect the relationship of religion and the workplace: the growth of conservative Protestant religious groups and their increasing activity in public life (Casanova 1994; Hoover and Lundby 1997; Miles 1996; Monsma 1996; Silk 1995; Smidt and Penning 1997; Wilcox 1996). Together, the cognitive and social structures of Conservative Protestantism and the differentiation of religion and economic spheres may lead to a particular form of engagement of religion in the workplace. Instead of a multi-dimensional relationship between religion and work, we argue that individualistic and interpersonal emphases of Conservative Protestantism provide an important if circumscribed connection between religion and ethics in the workplace.

We find that the differentiation of religion and economic spheres has not completely severed the relationship between religion and the workplace, contrary to the findings of most extant research. Conservative Protestantism provides a grand narrative that links morality and ethics to individualistic ethical behavior in the workplace. Within the symbolic framework of Conservative Protestantism, business life is perceived as the realm of relativistic and self-interested individual action. The symbolic tension that Conservative Protestants construct between this secular economic sphere and a sacred order, where personal relationships and moral absolutes reign, does not lead to walling off faith from the workplace. Instead, it leads to renewed efforts by Conservative Protestants to take a stand in the workplace for moral absolutes, for what they see as a proper emphasis on interpersonal relationships over economic gain and individual advantage, and for self-sacrificial action. For Conservative Protestants seeking to set examples that they see as witnessing to the grand, sacred narrative of their subculture, the workplace is a prime mission field. We conclude, then, that secularization does not lead to the elimination of religion in the world of work, but tends to constrain its expression into individualistic ethical decision-making and conduct, which arises out of the distinctive religious subculture of Conservative Protestantism. Conservative Protestants continue to take their faith to work, but in a way that seems to leave intact broader forms of institutional secularization.

In the next section, we first set our research in the context of other studies of deviance and religion in the workplace. Then we draw on qualitative interviews with Conservative Protestants throughout the US to construct a cultural theory about the relation of Conservative Protestantism and individualistic ethics in the workplace. Guided by this theory, we set up quantitative models that attempt to test the association of Conservative Protestantism with personal ethics at work.


The mass media provides anecdotal evidence that religion has an increasing influence in the business world. Popular magazine articles note the high number of business people who claim that religion influences their decisions at work (Madlin 1986; McGraw 1995; U.S. News and World Report 1995; see also Griffith 1997), government commissions consider the economic policy ideas of the Roman Catholic Church (Scaperlanda 1993), and business journals debate the place of religiously-informed ethics in the workplace (Ostas 1995: 27; e.g., Ettorre 1996; Siker, Donahue, and Green 1991).

While the research literature provides little to support this anecdotal evidence, there are some indications that religion might influence orientations toward work. One research study found some influence of religiosity on viewing work as a calling (Davidson and Caddell 1994), while other studies have found that religiosity leads to greater dedication to and satisfaction in work (e.g., Connecticut Mutual Life Report on American Values 1981: 163; see also footnote 1 below). Another study showed surprisingly strong religiously-inspired views of work, and, more specifically, found that religious fundamentalists think that their religious beliefs and values have a strong impact on their work lives—even more so than on their choice of political candidates (Tamney and Johnson 1985). It also showed that people tend to see this connection as shaping interpersonal relations at work, such as "kindness" and honesty toward co-workers. But this study was based on a sample of a single city in Indiana, and did not investigate actual work behaviors.

Research on religion and deviance, however, does show that religiosity provides social constraints on deviant behavior (Albrecht, Chadwick and Alcorn 1977; Cochran and Akers 1989; Higgins and Albrecht 1977; Tittle and Welch 1983), and that, even net of religiosity, religious fundamentalism increases compliance with law (Grasmick, Kinsey, and Cochran 1991). Moreover, Conservative Protestants tend to have higher levels of perceived wrongfulness of crimes, and, they make less sharp distinctions between different types of crimes¾ everything from cheating on taxes to violent crimes are considered highly morally wrong (Curry 1996; Warr 1989). The importance of religion in constraining deviance of some individuals is greater when secular moral guidelines have lost their power to compel (Tittle and Welch 1983). In this paper, we show one mechanism, the cultural structures of Conservative Protestantism, through which religion constrains individual deviance specifically in secular contexts.

Despite Max Weber's (1930) argument that religion has a profound effect on economic change by shaping cultural orientations toward work, investment, and self-discipline, most extant social research—typically found in business research journals—suggests that religion actually exerts little influence in business and economic life generally; that religion is an irrelevant factor in predicting decision-making and conduct in the workplace. Chusmir and Koberg (1988), for example, find no significant connection between various work-related attitudes (motivational needs, work ethic, job satisfaction, and work and organizational commitment) and their subjects' religious affiliation and commitment. Badaracco and Webb (1995) report that young managers resolve ethical dilemmas they face by relying on personal reflection and individual values, not on religious or philosophical principles. Kidwell, Stevens, and Bethke's (1987) study on the differential ethical perceptions of male and female managers found that religious preferences and church attendance were statistically unrelated to their subjects' varying responses to similar ethical decision-making situations. Hegarty and Sims (1978, 1979) report that religious value orientation is an insignificant factor in predicting ethical choices in business. Grabhorn (1980) reports no relationship between religious motivation and job satisfaction. And in a review article on research on business ethics, Ford and Richardson (1994) conclude that the majority of studies which examine religious variables determine that they are non-influences on ethical decision-making in business. How might we explain the findings of these studies in the face of contrary anecdotal evidence and the role of religion in suppressing more general forms of deviance?

A critical look at many of these studies' samples and religion measures reveals important methodological weaknesses. Several are based on convenience samples, and few have adequate measures of religion. They are not sensitive to changes in the religious field, such as the growth of Conservative Protestantism. Nor do they theorize or attempt to measure the potential effect of the conservative Protestant subculture on individual behavior in the workplace. Given the general difficulty of correlating attitudes and behavior (Schuman and Johnson 1976), it is not surprising that research without adequate measures of religion has not found a significant influence of religion on workplace conduct.

Systems of religious belief and practice may influence individual conduct on the job in diverse ways. Differences between diverse types of Protestants, Catholic, and Jews, for example, make broad religious-preference questions virtually useless for any meaningful analysis of religion. Furthermore, religion measurement questions and scales developed in the 1950s and 1960s are dated. Much has changed about American religion in the last two decades, and only religion measures sensitive to those changes will prove helpful predictors of differences we hope to explain. Lacking solid samples and the proper tools to operationalize and measure relevant religious variables, it is not surprising, then, that few existing studies find significant religious influences in the world of work and business. It especially is not surprising that they miss the relation of Conservative Protestants and ethics at work.

In addition, several of these studies, which do not have precise religion measures and/or do not consider indirect effects mediated by religion variables, may in fact distort our understanding of the role of demographic variables on business ethics and decision-making. Gender and age have been shown to be among the strongest predictors of deviance (Smith and Visher 1980; Tittle and Rowe 1977). If religion does affect personal-ethics dependent variables, the strong positive association between gender and religiosity (e.g., Miller and Hoffman 1995) calls into question gender-ethics findings that do not control for religion variables. Theories about the relationship between gender and ethics may be distorted to the extent that gender effects operate primarily through religious variables. The relationship of marital status and ethical conduct is likely to be mediated by religion, since marital status has a strong influence on religious variables (Greeley 1989: 32). Also, most studies find that higher education is associated with ethics in the workplace (Ford and Richardson 1994). One study found a positive direct effect of education on stated importance of religion on workplace behavior, but a strong negative indirect effect that was mediated through religious variables (Tamney and Johnson 1985). Without precise measures of religious factors, educational variables are likely to pick up some of the effect of religion on ethics, which may distort the empirical relationship between education and ethics at work, and at least may lead to theoretical explanations that are not consistent with findings from a properly specified model. In this paper we remedy the problem of poor measures of religion and of inattention to effects on business ethics that are mediated through religious variables.

The one major exception to this otherwise weak body of literature is Robert Wuthnow's work on religion, economics, work, and materialism (1994, 1996: 292-328; also see 1992, 1997a), which is based on a national sample of working Americans and in-depth, face-to-face interviews conducted in different regions of the country (Wuthnow 1994: 269-278). Wuthnow's overall conclusion is that religion has little influence on individual behavior in economic life, but he finds some evidence that religiosity (attendance at religious services and importance of faith) has a small impact on ethical conduct in the workplace. He does not attempt, as we do in this paper, to distinguish dimensions of religion, such as religiosity and association with religious movements (see Grasmick et al. 1991), nor theorize and test the influence of Conservative Protestantism on ethics in the workplace. Nor does he consider how religion mediates the relationship between demographic variables and ethics. A more fine-grained analysis—accounting for more specific differences between religious groups and for other dimensions of religion, and considering the mediating role of religion—may reveal patterns that specify Wuthnow's major arguments, and enhance our understanding of the relation of Conservative Protestantism, religiosity, and secularization in the workplace.


How might religion shape individual behavior in the workplace? One common argument is that general religiosity, such a strong belief in God or attendance at religious services, itself creates a heightened concern with ethical conduct. There are several theories about how religiosity shapes ethics. Believing in a sacred reality that transcends the mundane world may generate altruism and adherence to moral codes (Smith 1996b; Wuthnow 1991, 1994, 1995), which become meaningful through (framed by) their relation to this sense of the sacred. A heightened sense of God in one's life, irrespective of association with Conservative Protestantism, may increase one's sense of a sacred calling in life, which could lead to a greater willingness on average to sacrifice personal interests for others or for one's employer. Prayer, attendance at weekly worship services, reading sacred texts, and other expressions of religiosity may increase the belief that something higher than self-interest should govern individual conduct.

More importantly, control theories of deviance (Hirschi 1969) lead us to expect that religiosity increases "attachment, commitment and involvement which increase the stakes in conformity and encourage the belief that societal norms in general, not just those buttressed by religious teachings, should be obeyed" (Grasmick et al. 1991). Religiosity may lead to respect for authority, which may reduce rule-breaking behavior (Cortes and Gatti 1972). And, a stronger belief in an afterlife or closer communion with God in this life, which are likely to follow from increased religiosity, may create ultimate "compensators" for individual sacrifice, and make one more likely to "do the right thing" in the workplace (Stark and Bainbridge 1985).

Wuthnow (1994:324) has provided evidence for a positive—though very weak—relationship between religiosity and workplace ethics. The tendency of Conservative Protestantism to increase religiosity for its adherents (Kelley 1972) leads us to expect a positive effect of Conservative Protestantism on workplace ethics that is mediated by religiosity. In addition, as we show in the next section, an analysis of Conservative Protestant discourse leads us to expect that even net of the effect of general religiosity, Conservative Protestantism on average should be associated with greater zeal to maintain individualistic ethics in the workplace.


We expand Wuthow's general work on religiosity and ethics by considering the specific ways that Conservative Protestantism—independent of religiosity—is related to the business sphere. Theories of the relationship between religion and workplace ethics have not accounted for the cognitive structures of Conservative Protestantism. Of course, specific biblical proscriptions are reinforced within Conservative Protestantism, and these may have direct implications for individual workplace behavior (e.g., Grasmick et al. 1991). But the more powerful influence on Conservative Protestant orientations toward ethics at work are broader Conservative Protestant cultural schemata, which are based on Conservative Protestant biblical traditions. The way that Conservative Protestants construct the relation of the God, the individual, the social world, and sin are transposed to give meaning to individualistic and interpersonal ethical behavior in the workplace (cf. Ellison and Sherkat 1993).

Expressions of an individualistic morality in the workplace are a key part of the construction of religious identity for Conservative Protestants. We find evidence for this in 178 qualitative interviews which we conducted with Conservative Protestants from 23 states in the U.S. (identifying citation). In these two-hour personal interviews, we asked Conservative Protestants how their faith influences their views on politics, family, education, and work. Most made explicit—if individualistic—connections between their faith and work. These interviews reveal that the cognitive structures, the interpretative frames, of Conservative Protestants lead to a concern with upholding absolute morality and individualistic ethics—especially in their personal relationships at work—in what they see as a highly secularized workplace.

Work and Conservative Protestant Identity Formation

Conservative Protestant identities create an interest in ethical behavior at work in several ways. In the first place, Conservative Protestants see everyday activity as an arena in which they are to be obedient to God, and witness to God's work (salvation) in their lives. Religious obligation is not limited to Sunday worship and the church community. A common theme in Conservative Protestant discussions about their work and faith—evident in this example from our interviews—is that they "need to show [non-Christians] how Christ is working in my life on a daily basis." Conservative Protestants construct salvation as primarily an individual matter, and, correspondingly, see their religious identity as something that should be carried along as each individual enters secular spheres of life. A widely-invoked admonition among Conservative Protestants is to "do everything as unto the Lord." One respondent explained that "everything I do, I should do for the Lord. Whether I eat or drink or whatever I do, I should be doing it for the Lord and doing it for His glory. So, I try and go to work every day and do everything I do every day to bring glory to Him." Another connected work with her honoring of God: "I am doing my work as unto God. [The Bible] says that to do your work heartily as unto the Lord. And I know the Lord gave me my job and He provided it for me. I feel I would be doing him a dishonor if I did not do it to the best of my ability."

Individual ethics in the workplace, then, have special meaning for Conservative Protestants because they are seen as a consequence of one's personal, saving relationship with God. Connecting faith and everyday life, Conservative Protestants construct a sacred obligation to carry out personal ethics, especially honesty and truthfulness, on the job. One Conservative Protestant made this connection explicit in his retelling of his experience with an insurance claim for his business:

I told this lady [the out-of-state insurance adjuster] that lightning hit our building, and we had a few thousand dollars worth of damage downstairs. I didn't know this lady from Adam, and she says, "well, did lightning hit your roof or did it hit your spouting? If it hit the roof, I'll pay the claim. If it hit the spouting, I'm not going to pay the claim." I said, "I'll call you back." So I go out on the roof, I'm looking around, and I didn't see where it hit the roof. I called her back and I says, "nothing hit." She goes, "well I can't pay you any of the money for the damages." Now see, I have to live with that. I don't care how much money it was. When I get to heaven and the Lord looks at me and says, "you lied on this date for two thousand dollars?" Duh! You know what I'm saying? This lady would have wrote me a check. She didn't know. But, there's just a thing inside me that I couldn't live with myself over that. I don't care if it was ten thousand—I didn't have to think twice about it. I expect all people that say they're Christians to do that—their "yes" is "yes," their "no" is "no."

Secondly, individual ethics in the workplace has significance to Conservative Protestant religious identity because in their view it offers an avenue for witnessing to their faith in God, which may lead those outside of Conservative Protestantism to consider their relationship to God. Conservative Protestants see themselves as a minority that is always on stage before an "unbelieving," non-Christian world. If they show some behavioral distinctiveness, they believe they are witnessing to the reality of God's influence in their lives. And that, according to Conservative Protestants, may lead others to personal salvation. One woman explained that her faith causes her to "look at [my job] now with a kind of fervor that whatever I do, I've got someone right beside me. Maybe they [co-workers] can't see Him, maybe they don't quite understand. But what I do directly affects how they may see my Lord at some point in the future."

Third, the salience of maintaining religious identity markers at work is even stronger because, within the cultural structures of Conservative Protestantism, the world of work is symbolically set over against individual faith. The workplace often becomes the foil for their own religious identity. They tend to talk about work life as dominated by the pursuit of money and power. They tend to exaggerate the moral failings of the average American worker, who they see as ruled by selfishness and greed. One explained how a company that was operated and staffed by Christians was absolutely set apart from the normal work world: "It isn’t the crass coldness that’s out in the world, the way people deal with each other there. We’ve got a different concept here." Against this (symbolically constructed) backdrop, Conservative Protestant identity is set in sharp relief, in their view. One Conservative Protestant explained how a Christian religious identity is starkly opposed to the work world: "I think that instead of people being out for the money and revenge and out for achieving the top of the corporate ladder any way they can get there—that [a Christian ethic at work] would change things a lot. The corporate world wouldn’t be so cut-throat." The workplace is one of the key places to show the difference that God makes, Conservative Protestants would say, because it is here that most people are slaves of self-interest, cut-throat competition, and the pursuit of power. Markers of religious identity are thought to be even more efficacious in this secular world of work, because they show the power of God to make a concrete difference in individual lives.

Finally, Conservative Protestants are particularly motivated to distinctive workplace behavior because it provides an implicit signal to other Christians that they are "under the influence" of God. Since Conservative Protestants see themselves as a minority in a largely hostile, secular workplace, they for the most part see their witness at work as a covert mission. Their strategy is to leave traces of their religious identity in subtle differences in attitude and action. By following certain ethical stands in the workplace, they can signal to other Christians that they are part of the hidden and secret Christian team—the "resistance," as it were. By avoiding certain language, upholding the importance of right and wrong, focusing on personal relationships, and so forth, they believe that other Christians (who understand the identity cues) will take notice. This creates the sense of belonging to a great cause, a sense of unity in the face of an overwhelming secular foe. Many of our respondents mentioned specific examples of connecting with other Conservative Protestants simply through their calm demeanor or concern with truthfulness. But even without a specific story in which they communicated their religious identity through actions rather than words, the mythical role of this narrative provides emotional power to what they see as their behavioral obligations on the job.

How Conservative Protestants Take Their Faith To Work

Conservative Protestants believe that they must "take a stand"—be different in some way—especially in the public realm. They must witness to the grand narrative that God exists, that there are rights and wrongs (which are based on teachings in the Bible), and that hope for human beings is through personal, "proper" relationships with God and others. As one respondent put it: "Ethics [at work] for a Christian is much higher because it gets into attitude and relationships, and response to God's initiative on our behalf." Another connected his religious identity with subtle witnessing and taking a stand at work:

From day one when I went into secular work it was with the idea that I would be able to be a witness and testimony for the Lord. I feel that I have always done that. People have always known that there was something different. And I take some heat on that too. I don’t get invited to certain parties. I don’t get told certain jokes. So be it. People know where I stand.

What are the salient ways to take a stand at work? One of the primary ways that Conservative Protestants believe that Christians are different—and are called to be different—is through their individual demeanor, especially a positive and caring attitude, and serenity in a stressful situation. Many of our respondents mentioned that they can keep their cool at work because they have a higher source of strength. To maintain this exemplar demeanor is, according to Conservative Protestants to witness to the grand, sacred narrative of God's work in their lives. They see themselves as having a "big picture" perspective, which keeps them from being anxious and caught up in the "cares of the world."

I am customer relations manager, which, being a Christian, works out real nice. So, when you've got a man who's screaming and veins are like bulging out of his neck and his forehead because he feels he's been abused, and I can go in and sit back and, say, "Okay, I'll help you. No problem, we'll get it taken care of." Now, they've been banging their head on the wall, and they watch this. They've got to identify that there's a difference there.

A second way of expressing Conservative Protestant identity at work was through standing up for what was "right" and not going along with "wrongs." Conservative Protestants believe that they witness to the reality of God and God's power in their lives by taking positions at work that (they believe) show that absolute morality can and should govern human conduct. According to Conservative Protestants, taking a stand on moral absolutes will place questions in the mind of the self-interested, unethical hedonist, which they see as the typical American.

By far the most often mentioned way of doing this is through honesty in their relationships to work colleagues and in how they handle money and expenses. And it is especially important to confirm the reality of God in their life (confirming their religious identity, or witnessing to themselves, so to speak) through honesty and trustworthiness even when no one would find out about it. By showing they have internalized biblical standards, they confirm that God exists and is working in the world to transform them. One respondent used well-known biblical words and phrases to explain how he thought his Christianity made a difference at work: "If I was a dishonest person—because I had to handle money—I could have swindled money and they would never have known it. So yes, honesty—part of loyalty to a company. Scripture says to do all that you do as unto the Lord. So I was doing my job unto the Lord and not unto man."

Another way to show honesty and trustworthiness is to avoid "going along with the crowd" on issues that could be construed as stealing from an employer. Arriving late at work is one of these issues: "Since you say we're Christians, why are you always coming to work late? I expect more out of the Christian person. If you say you're going to come to work and if you're following the Bible, don't come to work late. And be consistent about it." Another connected time issues with sanctification as she explained how Christians should be distinctive at work: "Don't try to beat your employer out of his time or out of whatever. You do the best you can do and try to live Christ-like." When asked how Christian faith affected his life at work, one man responded, "Not being willing to go along with things I think are wrong. If someone wants to lie in order to not get caught, I don’t go along with it. Or cheat on the expense account. There are lots of that kind of stuff."

Another frequently mentioned way of taking a stand on moral absolutes and thereby witnessing to a larger cosmic drama, is through self-sacrificial action in relation to co-workers. One respondent explained how she attempted to live out her religious faith at work:

Living out my faith by being willing to jump into people's lives. I consider [my co-workers] my little flock of people that God has called me to care for. To put their needs above mine. The bottom line is that I'm called to love them. And that means building friendships, establishing trust with people.

In their view, this action sets their faith in vivid relief, and shows their commitment to the grand narrative in which God seeks personal relationships with individuals.

Related to stated concern with sacrificing personal interests for the good of others, almost all Conservative Protestants mention that they must bring their faith to work by emphasizing personal, caring relationships ahead of individual gain and corporate profits. One man explained how he brings his faith to work:

I'm definitely very interested in the people, much more than the [work] project or even the end result. God clearly communicates with us that His priorities are at the relationship level. Most of His revelation is about relationship. And to me, that's where my priorities are—including in the workplace. Obviously, that's not popular because most managers and promotions are evaluated at the production level at the expense of people. My priorities are people first.

Work has religious meaning because it is a place for putting personal relationships first. One respondent said that at work she was, "Building the Kingdom of God by my personal relationships with the people I am working with everyday." And this is particularly important for Conservative Protestants in the workplace, because they believe they are more likely to come into contact with non-Christians there. By paying careful attention to individual relationships, they are witnessing to the grand narrative in which God is seeking to establish "proper" personal relationships with individuals and among individuals.

This focus on relationships is most often understood by Conservative Protestants as an obligation for honesty and self-sacrifice in relationships. The primary way that faith affects work, a woman explained, is: "In the way I treat people. I try to treat them fairly and don't try to take advantage of them and that kind of thing." Another made this connection between God's focus on relationships and his own honesty in the workplace:

I do think you have to be honest at work. There are gray areas and I think you have to be called to a higher standard than "Can we get away with it or is the state going to get you?" As opposed to, "Is this how God wants another person treated?" You really want to be honest and ethical with people and up front with them and fair.


One respondent sums up the dominant Conservative Protestant themes of witnessing through honesty, individual attitudes, and relationships as she described what it means to be a Christian at work:

First of all, I'm going to be punctual. Second, I'm going to work my eight hours. Third, I'm going to be honest; I'm not going to steal from my employer. I'm going to be kind. I'm going to be whatever it takes to get along with my co-workers. I don't care if they hate me. I'm going to love them anyways. And when I get over my head, and can't take it anymore, I'm going to go to the back room and I'm going to read the word of God and ask God to give me the strength to go back and take another dose. I believe that Christians can only impact society by the way that you live—by loving Jesus and letting that flow out of you.

In this discourse, which is riddled with allusions to Conservative Protestant traditions about Jesus' life, it is clear that Conservative Protestants see certain types of ethical stands in the workplace as an important part of their religious identities. From Conservative Protestant discourse we can develop a cultural theory of the interpretative frames of Conservative Protestantism as these are invoked to give meaning to some types of ethical action in the workplace (Snow et al. 1986). Here we draw on William Sewell's (1992; 1996) work on cultural structures, and recent attempts to apply this theoretical framework to religion (Ellison and Sherkat 1993; Darnell and Sherkat 1997; Sherkat and Ellison 1997; Sikkink 1999). We need to go beyond the claim that Conservative Protestant action is direct reflection of biblical commandments—a carrying out of biblical rules within the workplace—and theorize how Conservative Protestant traditions construct individuals and relationships in a way that shapes behavior at work.

Conservative Protestants make sense of their lives through a grand narrative about God's work in the world and their role in that work. The essence of that grand narrative is a cosmic drama in which a holy God seeks to establish personal relationships with sinful human beings. In this narrative, God is about restoring personal relationships with individuals—and between individuals—which have been hindered and destroyed by sin. The work of Jesus is seen in terms of God crossing the divide created by sin to restore relationships with individuals. One of the ways in which humans deny God's work (i.e., express their sinfulness), according to this narrative, is by not acknowledging that God's absolute moral standards should govern human relationships; instead, humans degenerate into self-interested and relativistic action, which destroys their relationship with God and others. Ignoring moral absolutes as laid out in the Bible does not put one's salvation directly in jeopardy, according to most Conservative Protestants, but it is a rejection of God—at least for that moment—and raises questions about the strength of one's faith.

How Conservative Protestant cultural structures are transposed to give meaning to the work world is shaped by dominant cultural tools within American society, which are given a sacred twist within Conservative Protestantism. In American society, widely-circulated cultural schemas construct individuals versus structures; personal relationships versus money and power (Bellah 1985; Emerson et al. 1999; Calhoun 1995; Hart 1992; Habermas 1983). In these cultural structures, social structures pollute individuality, and money and power destroy the purity of personal relationships. A common frame for Americans to interpret work, then, is through the opposition of personal relationships versus self-interest, cut-throat competition, and the pursuit of profit at all cost.

This frame is given greater salience—and a sacred power—within Conservative Protestantism, which sees personal relationships as central to God's work in overcoming a sinful human nature and sinful world. Conservative Protestants transpose the cultural framework of God, sin, and personal relationships to make sense of their obligations in work. The opposition of God and sin becomes for Conservative Protestants the opposition of God and self-interested, power-hungry, and materialistic individuals at work. Upholding through personal ethics what they see as an absolute morality allows them to dramatize that God exists and is separate from human self-interest (sin). The drama of Jesus entering a sinful world to re-establish personal relationships with individuals becomes the template for Conservative Protestant obligations to go into the work world to create caring personal relationships.

In this way, cultural schemata of Conservative Protestantism give sacred meaning to individual and personalistic ethics at work. Action at work is directly connected to the grand narrative in which Conservative Protestant identity is built. To be dishonest or untrustworthy, to ignore moral absolutes in the workplace, is to call into question who they are as Conservative Protestants. Of course Conservative Protestants at times ignore these norms, but doing so is an assault—however small—on the meaningfulness of their lives, a threat to their religious identity.

In sum, religious identity motivates actions in the workplace as Conservative Protestants attempt to show the reality of God and God's work—especially through acknowledgement of God's moral absolutes and the centrality of personal relationship to salvation. The Conservative Protestant grand narrative is transposed to understand work as an opposition of sinful (self-interested, dishonest, hedonistic, power-hungry) workers and economic structures (pursuit of profit above all) versus warm, authentic relationships built on trust, caring, and honesty. By framing their actions in the workplace with this cultural schema, Conservative Protestants see their actions at work as a reflection, or outworking, of God's grand purpose for human beings and the universe itself. Ethical decision-making and conduct at work becomes for Conservative Protestants an arena for "working out salvation." The next step is to show whether this religious identity does in fact shape individual behavior at work.


This study reconsiders the potential influence of religious identity, practices, and beliefs on the ethical decision-making and conduct of working Americans on their jobs. It reanalyzes Wuthnow's 1992 Working Values Survey data, employing a constellation of more fine-grained religious variables than employed in previous analyses. Here we seek to determine whether the religion of working Americans might in fact shape (1) the criteria by which they make ethical decisions at work, and (2) the likelihood of engaging in what appears to be improper, or ethically questionable, conduct on their jobs. To be clear about the substantive bounds of this analysis: our focus here is on the individual workplace ethics of working Americans, not on the whole range of other more socially-structured economic and business injustices, malpractice, and inequities, which also deserve further analytical attention. It is here that we expect that the particular narratives and cognitive structures of Conservative Protestants have an influence on ethics in the workplace.

From our understanding of Conservative Protestant identity, we expect that Conservative Protestantism is associated with lower levels of individual "unethical" conduct in the workplace, and higher levels of morally absolutistic and "altruistic" decision-making criteria for dealing with difficult decisions in the workplace. General religiosity should have a weak, positive relationship to ethical conduct in the workplace, and thus a small part of the total effect of Conservative Protestantism on workplace conduct should be mediated by the emphasis on religiosity within Conservative Protestantism. Lastly, important demographic factors should affect ethics in the workplace through their association with Conservative Protestantism. Being female, older, and married is known to be positively associated with Conservative Protestantism and religiosity, and the effect of these characteristics on ethical conduct in the workplace will be mediated through these religious dimensions.


The data for this paper are from Robert Wuthnow's 1992 "Economic Values Survey," which is a national, representative sample of the active U.S. labor force, age 18 through 65 living in the continental U.S. (excluding students, retired persons, unpaid household workers, and the unemployed). The survey was conducted by the Gallup Organization using personal interviews with the respondents in their homes. Respondents were sampled using a stratified probability sample, selected down to the block level in urban areas and segments of townships in rural areas. The sampling procedure stratified the population by community size and geographic region. The total sample size is 2,013 (see Wuthnow 1994: 270-311 for details).

We used responses to six questions to construct a dependent variable for individual ethical conduct at work. Respondents are asked if they had done any of the following during the past month: (1) arrived late at work, (2) bent the rules, (3) used office equipment for personal uses, 4) charged for illegitimate expenses, (5) taken time off work illegitimately, and (6) bent the truth (see Appendix A for exact question wording). While these measures do not cover the whole range of potential unethical work behaviors—not to mention socially-structured economic injustices—they nevertheless may serve to indicate a latent, more general orientation of individual-level ethical conduct, which may be linked to more serious ethical violations. Moreover, these are the type of ethically questionable behaviors in the workplace that can provide a test of whether Conservative Protestants are especially attuned to impropriety in individual ethics at work.

Though normative behavior at work is our main focus in this paper, we would also expect that Conservative Protestants and religiosity may shape the process of making ethical decisions at work. Three questions in the survey indicate different criteria for making difficult decisions at work. Each of these questions asks whether a particular criteria would be a major, minor, or not a consideration in making "tough decisions" at work. The criteria are (1) doing what is morally correct, (2) doing what would benefit other people most, and (3) doing what would benefit the company/employer. As in interpersonal workplace behavior, we expect Conservative Protestants transpose cultural structures regarding God's altruism in seeking sinful human beings and the concern to witness to moral absolutes (and thus God's work in their lives) to give sacred reinforcement to criteria that go beyond their own self-interest.

We attempt to account for two dimensions of religion by using several measures of religiosity and Conservative Protestantism. The survey provides measures of reported weekly attendance at religious services, self-reported liberal-to-conservative religious views, affiliation with conservative Protestant denomination, self-reported importance of religious faith in the respondent's life, and views of the Bible, such as the claim that the Bible should be read "literally, word for word."

Types of moral reasoning may influence ethical conduct and decision-making criteria at work, especially for Conservative Protestants. Thus we include measures of moral absolutism in most of the models below. Moral absolutism is primarily measured with questions about whether the respondent sees ethics as universal, or believes that "certain values must be regarded as absolute."

In the models below, we also control for several demographic variables, including age (years), education, which is measured on an eight-point scale (from 0 to 4 years to college graduate); and total family income (a nineteen-point scale from less than 10,000 dollars to 180,000 dollars or more).

We also include binary variables for married respondents, females, and the racial categories Hispanic, African American, and other races. Finally, preliminary regression models included a binary variable for each occupational category. Four occupational categories consistently showed significant negative relationships to the ethical conduct dependent variables: professional worker, clerical, manufacturer's representative, and manager/executive in business. In the regression models and in SEM, we include a single binary variable combining and controlling for these "ethically challenging" occupations.


OLS Regression. For the multivariate analysis, we created two linear dependent variable scales. The first scale on decision-making criteria combined the value of responses on three ethically-principled/altruistic criteria: (1) what is morally right, (2) what is best for other people, and (3) what is good for the employer/company. Respondents answered for each that these were either "not a consideration" (0), "a minor consideration" (1), or "a major consideration" (2). Our additive decision-making criteria scale ranged from 0 (none of the three criteria were considerations) to 6 (all three criteria are major considerations) (alpha=.57). Our second scale on ethical conduct at work combined six ethically-questionable behaviors respondents reported committing in the previous month: (1) charging for illegitimate expenses, (2) bending the rules in dealing with someone, (3) using office equipment for personal use, (4) taking time off work illegitimately, (5) arriving late to work, and (6) bending the truth in dealings with someone. Our scale, which added up respondents reportings, ranges from 0 (R committed none of these behaviors in the previous month) to 6 (R committed all of these behaviors in the previous month) (alpha=.54). We then regressed the ethical conduct scale on key demographic variables and different combinations of religious measures.

Structural Equation Models. Figures 1 and 2 and Table 2 present findings employing structural equation models (SEM). These models allow us to account for measurement error, since we have multiple measures of religiosity, Conservative Protestantism, and belief in moral absolutes. And we also model indirect relationships between ethical decision-making and conduct, religion variables, and demographic variables.

In addition, an assumption in using a scaled dependent variable for unethical conduct (used in the OLS regressions below) is that each measure is a direct "cause" (rather than an indicator) of an orientation toward unethical conduct in the workplace. That theoretical position is defensible to some extent for individual ethical conduct, but it may be more accurate to think of the measures of unethical conduct as "caused" by a (latent) variable, such as personal orientation to ethical conduct at work (see Bollen 1989 for a more detailed explanation of causal indicators). A simple mental experiment bears this out: we expect that if a person becomes less committed to high ethical standards in the workplace, that change will then lead to (or "cause") an increased tendency to arrive late to work and charge for illegitimate expenses. We directly model this second assumption—that our indicators of unethical conduct at work are driven by the latent variable, ethical orientations in the workplace—in the structural equation models below.

Latent Constructs and Measurement Model. We distinguish between two dimensions of religion: personal religiosity and Conservative Protestantism (cf. Tamney and Johnson 1985). We have four indicators of a religiosity latent variable in the dataset, (1) stated importance of religion in daily life, (2) frequency of attendance at religious services, (3) belief that a relation to God is an important part of one's basic sense of worth, and (4) how often the respondent thinks about his or her relationship to God.

Conservative Protestantism is measured with four indicators. Two of these are views of the Bible; specifically, beliefs about whether everything in the Bible should be taken literally, and whether the Bible is seen as a book of rules that Christians should follow. The third indicator is a question that asked respondents to identify their religious views on a six-point scale from very conservative to very liberal. Finally, we include a measure of conservative Protestant denominational affiliation as an indicator of Conservative Protestantism.

Types of moral reasoning may have an independent effect on ethical decision-making. Specifically, moral reasoning that favors universal and absolutistic views of ethics may lead to more altruistic (by which we mean considering imperatives beyond narrow self-interest) orientations to tough decisions in the workplace. We used three indicators of the moral absolutism latent variable: whether the respondent believes (1) in following a strict set of rules, (2) that certain values must be regarded as absolutes, and 4) that there are no "gray" areas when filling out income tax returns.

The latent construct for ethical decision-making at work includes all the variables included in the scale that makes up the dependent variable in the linear regressions above. Thus more altruistic decision-making criteria include those that say they base their decisions on (1) what is morally right, (2) what would benefit other people most, and (3) what would benefit the company or employer.

The latent variable for ethical behavior at work includes all but one of the variables included in the dependent variable scale for the linear regression above. Only 51 respondents said that they had charged for illegitimate expenses—too small a number (when included in combination with the other variables in the model) to allow for calculating the appropriate covariances and for stable models. All the other indicators are included: (1) arriving late to work, (2) bending the rules, (3) using office equipment for personal use, (4) taking time off work illegitimately, and (5) bending the truth in personal dealings at work.

Control variables are treated as exogenous factors with no measurement error. Similar to the linear regression models above, these include measures of age, sex, education, family income, non-white race, and occupations that have more opportunity or incentives for unethical behavior. In order to reduce the number of variables in the structural equation model, nonwhite races are collapsed into one variable, as are the four ethically challenging occupations.

Estimation. Since we have several ordinal indicators in the model, we first used the statistical software package, PRELIS 2.14, to create a covariance matrix and an asymptotic covariance matrix, which is used as the weight matrix in the weighted least squares estimation in LISREL 8.14. Several variables are treated as completely exogenous to the model, which allows us to create a covariance matrix to use in the SEM analysis. Age, education, income, marital status, gender, nonwhite race, and ethically challenging occupations are treated as fixed variables in PRELIS.

Our preliminary SEM model included the following expected relationships. Following other research (e.g., Sherkat 1998; Sherkat and Ellison 1997), we postulate that religiosity is in part an outcome of religious beliefs rooted in religious identities and denominations. We expect that higher levels of Conservative Protestantism lead to greater religiosity, such as church attendance and thinking about God. Conservative Protestant cultural orientations and strong social networks encourage high levels of religiosity (Ammerman 1987; Ammerman and Farnsley 1997; Iannacone 1994; Kelley 1972). Following our theoretical and empirical analysis of our interviews (above), we also assume that Conservative Protestantism and religiosity shape reasoning processes, specifically whether people favor morally absolutistic reasoning (cf. Sherkat and Ellison 1997). We expect that moral absolutism mediates the relationship of Conservative Protestantism and ethical decision-making criteria, but also that religiosity and Conservative Protestantism have direct effects on ethics in the workplace.

Several relationships between the control and religion variables are well-known and included in the preliminary model. For example, sex, age, income, education, and race have important associations with religiosity, Conservative Protestantism, and moral absolutism. We include these in the preliminary model, and use modification indexes to add to the model all significant paths from the control variables to the latent variables. The final models estimated several error covariances that made theoretical sense, and the overall model fit statistics indicate a reasonable fit between model and data (see Appendix B for details).


Bivariate Analysis. Before adding demographic controls, we summarize the bivariate relationships between religion and workplace ethics in this section (complete tables available on request). For altruistic decision-making, the most striking bivariate results show that 91 percent of those who attend religious services twice a week, compared to 78 percent of those who attend only several times a year, claim that doing what is morally right is a major consideration in making difficult decisions on the job. And 77 percent of the high religious service attenders claim to take into account what would benefit others, while only 61 percent of low attenders claim to do so. Respondents who say that their faith is very important to them are more likely than those who say their faith is not very important to claim that a major consideration for making difficult decisions at work is what would benefit their employer (73 percent versus 60 percent). On whether the employer's interest is a major consideration, respondents who claim that they are religiously conservative are more likely than self-identified religious liberals to use this criteria (72 percent versus 60 percent). Thus far, both religiosity and Conservative Protestantism measures are positively associated with altruistic decision-making.

The bivariate results for the ethical conduct measures show similar religious differences. For example, 22 percent of respondents whose faith is very important to their lives bent the rules at work, while 39 percent of those whose faith is not very important did so. Church attendance has a similar relationship to work ethics. Those who attend more than twice a week reported a lower incidence of taking time off work illegitimately (7 percent) compared with those who attend several times a year (17 percent). Respondents who self-identified as religiously conservative were significantly less likely to report using office equipment for personal use than were religious liberals (21 versus 37 percent), and to report bending the truth in personal dealings at work (19 versus 32 percent). Again, the bivariate results show some support for a claim that religiosity and Conservative Protestantism shape individualistic ethics at work.

OLS Regression. Table 1 presents standardized OLS coefficients of four multivariate models each testing the relationship between a variety of religious variables and scales of both the kind of criteria working Americans use to help make difficult decisions on the job, and the likelihood of respondents engaging in various ethically questionable acts at work in the previous month. The dependent variables are linear, additive scales created by the methods described in the Methods section above. Concentrating first on the decision-making criteria models (on the left), and focusing on the religious variables, Model 1 shows that (net of the age, sex, education, income, marital status, race, and occupation control variables) greater religious service attendance and increased religious conservatism both predict increased likelihood of considering morally-principled, altruistic criteria (based on moral correctness, benefits to others, and benefits to the employer) in making difficult decisions at work. Model 2 shows that greater importance of religious faith (but not biblical literalism) also predicts increased consideration of these decision-making criteria. Model 3, which tests for religious identities (with an omitted comparison category of "non-religious"), shows that both churchgoing and irregularly attending Conservative Protestants, churchgoing Catholics, and Mormons are more likely than the non-religious to consider these morally-principled, altruistic decision-making criteria. And Model 4, which combines together all of the previous models' religious variables (many of which overlap conceptually), shows that religious conservatism and increased importance of faith are the measures which persist in significance. We see then that the chances of employing morally-principled, altruistic criteria to help make tough decisions at work are significantly influenced by a variety of measures of religiosity and religious conservatism.


Concentrating next on the ethically-questionable behavior models in Table 1 (on the right), and focusing on the religious variables, Model 1 shows that, net of the control variables, greater religious service attendance and increased religious conservatism both predict decreased likelihood of engaging in ethically-questionable behavior on the job. Holding a belief in morality as universal and non-situational also predicts a decrease in unethical behavior. Model 2 shows that greater importance of religious faith and biblical literalism also predict a decreased likelihood of engaging in ethically-questionable behavior at work. Model 3 shows that, compared to the non-religious, churchgoing Christians, particularly Conservative Protestants, are less likely to engaging in ethically-questionable behavior at the workplace. And Model 4, combining together all of the previous models' religious variables, shows again that religious conservatism, increased importance of faith, and belief in a universal, absolute morality are the measures which persist in significance. Again, religiosity and religious conservatism, as indicated by several variables, significantly shape the chances of engaging in ethically-questionable behaviors on the job. are significantly shaped by a variety of measures of importance of religious faith and religious conservatism. In the next section we use these multiple measures to better specify the relationship of religion and individual ethics.

Structural Equation Models. A structural equation with latent variables model, which in our case uses a weighted least squares technique available in LISREL 8, reveals the strong effect of the religious constructs on both decision-making orientations and ethical conduct in the workplace.

Figure 1 shows the relationships between the control variables, religion, moral absolutism and decision-making criteria for tough decisions at work (see Appendix C for measurement equations and error covariances). We first note that religiosity and Conservative Protestantism have strong positive effects on moral absolutism. Moral absolutism, in turn, has a strong positive relationship to altruistic decision-making criteria. For a one-unit increase in moral absolutism, we expect on average a .68 increase in the latent variable for altruistic decision-making criteria, net of the other relationships in the model. Interestingly, the results show that religious conservatism has a small but significant negative effect on altruistic decision-making criteria, net of its positive, indirect effect through moral absolutism. The total effect of Conservative Protestantism on altruistic criteria is positive, however (see below). Our analysis of decision-making criteria, then, shows that the indirect paths from Conservative Protestantism to altruistic decision-making are extremely strong, which perhaps makes it less meaningful to interpret the direct relationship—net of the relationship that is mediated through religiosity and moral absolutism—between Conservative Protestantism and altruistic decision-making.


The control variables show the importance of mediating effects of religion on decision-making at work. Higher income and education are directly positively related to altruistic decision-making at work. Those in ethically challenging occupations are also associated with greater expressed concern for altruistic decision-making criteria. All of the other control variables, age, sex, marital status, and nonwhite race, affect decision-making criteria through moral absolutism and/or religion variables. Table 2 helps to sort out the total effects of the variables on decision-making by presenting the standardized coefficients for direct and indirect effects of the variables on decision-making criteria.


Not surprisingly, given its association with moral absolutism, Conservative Protestantism' negative direct relationship to altruistic ethics is changed into a strong positive total effect because of its positive relationship with moral absolutism and religiosity. The total effect of religiosity on ethical decision-making is strongly positive, and is only surpassed in strength (if one accepts the common method of standardizing the coefficients with the standard deviations of the variables) by the positive effect (.68) of moral absolutism on altruism.

Among the control variables, the strongest effect is between higher levels of education and altruistic criteria. A significant portion of this effect is indirect, mediated through increases in moral absolutism. Despite the reduction in Conservative Protestantism that is associated with higher levels of education, the positive effect of education on moral absolutism and religiosity leads to a positive indirect effect of education on altruistic decision-making processes. Similarly, being female and being married, though not having a direct effect on decision-making, has a positive indirect effect on the latent decision-making variable that is mediated through higher Conservative Protestantism and religiosity. Nonwhite minorities are significantly negatively associated with altruistic decision-making through a negative association with moral absolutism—despite the positive association between nonwhites and Conservative Protestantism.

Figure 2 presents the structural equations for the model predicting ethical conduct in the workplace, which is our primary focus here. In this model, the Conservative Protestantism latent variable is significantly associated with ethical conduct in the workplace. This effect is primarily a direct one; though Conservative Protestantism is positively associated with moral absolutism and religiosity, there is not a significant relationship between either of these latent variables and ethical conduct. The direct effects for the control variables show that older people are significantly associated with ethical conduct, though those in ethically challenging occupations are negatively associated with ethical conduct.


The standardized indirect and total effects for Conservative Protestantism and the control variables are shown in Table 2. First, the results show that the Conservative Protestantism latent variable has the strongest effect on ethical conduct (.43), according to the standardized total effects. The standardized total effects show the strong negative effect of ethically challenging occupations, and the large positive effect of increasing years of age on ethical conduct.

Findings for the control variables show a positive and significant total effect of being female on ethical conduct, which is mediated through higher levels of Conservative Protestantism among females compared with males. The negative total effect of education on ethical conduct results from its negative association with Conservative Protestantism in this model. While education is positively associated with religiosity, religiosity is only very weakly positively related to ethical conduct. Income reduces ethical conduct through its negative association with Conservative Protestantism. The positive association between marriage and nonwhites and ethical conduct is also mediated through the religion variables, since both of these variables are associated positively with Conservative Protestantism. And ethically challenging occupations, which are negatively associated with Conservative Protestantism, have a significant indirect negative effect on ethical conduct. This provides very tentative evidence that working in these professions tend to reduce one's commitment to Conservative Protestantism.


A secular, post-industrial workplace most likely places severe constraints on how religion influences the world of work (Wuthnow 1994). Still, our findings generally support the claim that Conservative Protestantism, even net of its relationship to religiosity, increases concern for ethical conduct at work. We did not find, however, that this relationship is mediated through moral absolutism. While Conservative Protestantism has a strong association with moral absolutism, this type of moral reasoning—net of the Conservative Protestant direct effect—is not related to differences in individual-level ethical conduct. In addition, religiosity has a strong relationship to altruistic decision-making, and a positive but not significant relationship to ethical conduct. Together, these findings are at least consistent with our claims about the relationship between work behavior and a distinctive dimension of religion, the cultural structures of Conservative Protestantism. How Conservative Protestants make analogies between (or "transpose," in Sewell's [1996] terms) the structure of their religious traditions—most importantly the relation of God, sin, and individuals—and a secular workplace shapes and gives meaning to their workplace behavior.

Why, then, are Conservative Protestants likely to bring their religious orientations into their business lives? We have argued that Conservative Protestantism carries an ideological commitment to having faith influence every aspect of the believer's life, including life at work (identifying citation). Conservative Protestants—and especially evangelicals, which are dominant players in the conservative Protestant field—are dedicated to living what they think are non-compartmentalized lives in which "Christ is Lord of all of life," as they often say—including life on the job.

A second important distinctive of the Conservative Protestant subculture is the belief that the Christians must "witness" to their faith through good examples lived in everyday life (Roels 1997). They typically think of themselves as always "on stage" before their unbelieving friends, colleagues, neighbors, and family members (identifying citation). They therefore try to be extra careful to be upstanding in their ordinary conduct, believing that it could have eternal spiritual significance (cf. Peek et al. 1979). Moreover, they believe that small differences in work behavior may provide opportunities to signal to and connect with other Christians at work, and this tends to extend into the workplace the social control mechanisms within Conservative Protestant religious communities.

The strong relationship between Conservative Protestantism and moral absolutism is one expression of the symbolic stand that Conservative Protestants take up against what is thought to be a morally relativistic outside world. Another significant identity marker is made possible by the pessimistic view that Conservative Protestants hold about ethics in the workplace. Given this assumption, upholding individual ethics in the workplace is all the more significant within a subculture that nourishes the sense that the world is watching, and that taking a stand in the little (individual, day-to-day) matters provides a witness to the watching world (cf. Tittle and Welch 1983).

Thus, given American Conservative Protestantism's (1) general need to maintain its own identity through symbolic forms of distinction, (2) evangelistic concern to "witness" to the surrounding world through lived good examples, (3) interest in having "faith impact all of life," and (4) individualistic theology and spirituality, it is not surprising that Conservative Protestants distinguish themselves when it comes to the kind of individualistic ethical decision-making and conduct on the job we have analyzed here.

Our findings also make clear the importance of indirect effects of demographic variables through dimensions of religion. Theories of the effect of gender on workplace behavior should attempt to account for our finding that this relationship is strongly mediated through religiosity and Conservative Protestantism. Of course, gender-based explanations of workplace differences may also apply to differences between men and women in religiosity and Conservative Protestantism. But the competing explanation, that gender differences at work are primarily due to differences in religious orientations, must be given careful consideration. Rather than assume that higher education itself fosters relativism and unethical conduct, it is instructive to note that the effect of education on unethical conduct is mainly through its negative association with Conservative Protestantism. Furthermore, education increases moral absolutism, which in turn is associated with altruistic decision-making. While marital status may not show a direct effect on ethical conduct, we note that married people are more ethical because they are more likely to be conservative Protestant. It appears that marital status per se does not shape ethical decision-making and conduct, but the relationship of marital status and ethics is due to the fact that married people are more likely to become more strongly associated with Conservative Protestantism, and to have higher levels of religiosity.


In contrast to most previous studies, we find that religion, especially conservative Protestant religious identity, does in fact shape the individual ethical decision-making and conduct of at least some working Americans. Conservative American Protestant theology and spirituality strongly predisposes them toward extremely individualistic views of business evils and ethics (Hart 1992; Roels 1997). Yet in this specific range of individualistic moral decision-making and conduct on which our analysis here has focused, Conservative Protestantism does appear significantly to have direct effects on ethical life in the workplace. In these ways, what is often considered to be an other-worldly religious tradition actually employs its cultural tools for decidedly this-worldly concerns. Conservative Protestants seem particularly concerned with taking their faith to work when it comes to personal ethics.

By employing a superior sample, a combination of useful religion measures, a more fine-grained analysis of different religious groups in America, we uncover significant religious influences in the business sphere that previous studies have not observed. And we have provided evidence consistent with the view that Conservative Protestants maintain a sub-cultural identity partly through particular attitudes and practices in the workplace. A more general religiosity, which is not rooted in the particular religious style of Conservative Protestantism, influences altruistic decision-making because of its strong association with moral absolutism, but it does not create the same kind of concern with creating a witness to the world through taking a stand against "self-interested" behavior in the business world. Religion is found to exercise some influence even in the rational sphere of economic life in the contemporary marketplace. For some Americans, at least, religious identities are not checked in at the corporate door or made irrelevant to the conduct of business—at least at some level (Hart 1992).

Secularization and the growth of Conservative Protestantism may interact in a way that alters the relationship between religion and the workplace. The differentiation of the economic and religious field is primarily the removal of religious authority from the overall structural operation of business. But the resurgence of Conservative Protestantism, which builds religious identities that demand a public expression of religion through day-to-day, individual ethical conduct, leads to a heightened concern for ethical behavior in the workplace within—and in part because of—the secular business context.

While the secularization framework usually suggests that religion would not significantly influence the economic sphere, it has not helped us understand the thriving of religious expression at the individual level, especially among Conservative Protestant groups. And important research has even argued that conservative religious movements are challenging secularization with their attempts to de-differentiate religion and public life (Casanova 1994). Further research is necessary to determine the extent to which these movements are shaping the economic system. Along with other researchers (Wuthnow 1994; Tamney and Johnson 1985), we doubt that the religious influence on economic structures is very extensive, since the particular style of engagement of religion and workplace among Conservative Protestants, while significant, seems highly individualistic and interpersonal. Thus, neither secularization theories nor de-differentiation arguments seem to fit the reality of Conservative Protestant engagement in the workplace. Conservative Protestants construct and maintain identity through a concern with individualistic ethical attitudes and practices in the workplace. But these types of faith and work connections arguably have an elective affinity with broader macro processes that differentiate economic and religion spheres.

This study's limitations point to several avenues for further research. We have been able to show the way religion and personal ethics at work are deeply intertwined in the world view of Conservative Protestants, and we have shown that these orientations are associated with greater concern for personal ethics in the workplace (i.e., they report more ethical work behavior). That in itself lays the groundwork for future research that more precisely specifies the contours of Conservative Protestantism's effect on attitudes toward ethics at work. Future research should explore the possible effect of religious factors on differences in working Americans' approaches to more institutionalized versions of economic and business injustices, malpractice, and inequities. It is possible such a study would find positive and significant mainline Protestant, Catholic, and/or Jewish effects—and weak Conservative Protestant effects—that our analysis of individualistic ethical conduct could not reveal. This research would help determine the extent that the particular Conservative Protestant concern for ethics in the workplace has broader implications for the structure and operation of business firms. From our analysis here, we expect that the way that Conservative Protestants link a grand sacred narrative to their work life, which emphasizes interpersonal relations, individualistic morality, and personal experience, corresponds with a division between their religious faith and structural issues in the work world.

We acknowledge, however, that it is very difficult to show that cultural frameworks actually influence behavior, despite the strong effect of Conservative Protestantism on perceived of seriousness of deviance and their tendency to see even small ethical lapses as categorically morally wrong (Curry 1996). A major problem is measuring ethical behavior through self-reports to closed-ended survey questions. It is possible that Conservative Protestants simply are more likely than other Americans to think of themselves as people who are honest in relationships with co-workers, who are altruistic and normative in their decision-making, and who avoid "stealing" from their employer. Conservative Protestant responses to the survey questions on ethics may be more about identity maintenance than actual behavior. But we also found that Conservative Protestantism does not lead as expected to bias in other self-reported behavior (see footnote 20). And our interviews with Conservative Protestants cause us to doubt that the Conservative Protestant effect is only talk. As our interviews show, Conservative Protestant discourse is full of concrete examples of workplace behavior that is tightly woven together with Conservative Protestant religious identity—the kind of close connection that is more likely to overcome the usual distance between norms and behavior (Schuman and Johnson 1976). On average, then, one would expect that these narratives, which are rooted in strongly networked religious communities, have some effect on work behavior. Part of this effect is simply conformity with the religious group in which their lives have meaning. And the influence of a strong religious community on individual member's actions—even if through internalized norms—would not be surprising (see Ammerman and Farnsley 1997; Tittle and Welch 1983; Stark and Bainbridge 1996).

Future research on the possible influence of religious factors in business, drawing on the research on white-collar crime, should also test for more serious ethical violations than the relatively mild ones we examined here. This would help to determine whether our measures do indicate a more general ethical orientation in the workplace, or only a more limited, individualistic ethical conduct. Future studies should also employ measures of religious self-identification (e.g., evangelical and liberal Protestant, traditionalist and progressive Catholic, etc.) and more precise measures of denominational affiliation than our dataset permitted. The similarity in findings for the Conservative Protestants and the Mormons, despite their religious differences, would also benefit from additional research into the Mormon effect on ethical conduct in the workplace. Finally, this study was not able to account for contextual variables. Future research should investigate how the conservative Protestant effect is shaped by the structure of the local work environment, and the social and moral integration of a community (Tittle and Welch 1983; Stark and Bainbridge 1996; Welch, Tittle, and Petree 1991). Accounting for religion in research at the managerial level of the firm would help to sort out the relative strength of institutional factors and individual religious beliefs and identities.

The evidence thus far points only to a continuing presence of religiously informed behavior in the workplace, constrained by the individualistic and interpersonal project of Conservative Protestants, who attempt to infuse their everyday work lives with religious meaning.


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Conservative Protestantism

[Asked of Protestants only] What specific denomination or faith is that?

On a scale from 1 to 6, where "1" is "very conservative" and "6" is "very liberal," where would you place yourself in terms of your religious views?

Very conservative Very liberal DK

1 2 3 4 5 6 0

In your opinion, is each of the following statements about the Bible true or false?

- Everything in the Bible should be taken literally, word for word

- The Bible is a detailed book of rules that Christians should try to follow


How often, if at all, do you attend religious services?

- More than once a week

- About once a week

- Several times a month

- About once a month

- Several times a year

- Once a year or less

- Never (SKIP to Q. 186)

- Don't know, refused

How important would you say religion is in your own life?

- Very important

- Somewhat important

- Not very important

- Don't know, refused

How important is each of the following to your basic sense of worth as a person--absolutely essential, very important, somewhat important, or not very important?

- Your relation to God

In the past year, how much have you thought about each of the following--a great deal, a fair amount, a little, or hardly any?

- Your relationship to God

Moral Absolutism

Does ethics, in your view, mean......

- Something that applies in the same way to everybody, no matter what the situation, or

- Something that varies depending on the circumstances you are in

- Don't know, refused

Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly with each of the following statements?

- Certain values must be regarded as absolutes

- I believe in following a strict set of moral rules

Here are two statements about income taxes. Which one better expresses your own view?

- In filing your income tax returns, you should follow the rules very carefully and pay exactly what you owe

- There are a lot of "gray areas" on income tax returns, and you are better off fudging some of them than being completely honest about everything

- Other

- Don't know, refused

"Altruistic" Decision-Making Criteria

Suppose you had a tough decision to make at work. Would each of these be a major consideration for you, a minor consideration, or not a consideration?

- What you thought was morally right

- What would benefit you the most

- How your family would react

- What would benefit other people the most

- Trying to obey God

- What would benefit your company/employer

Ethically Questionable Conduct

In your work, have you done each of the following any time during the past month?

- Arrived later than you're supposed to

- Bent the rules in dealing with someone

- Used office equipment for personal uses

- Charged for expenses that might not be legitimate

- Taken time off from work that you shouldn't

- Bent the truth a bit in what you told people



Model Fit for Ethical Conduct at Work. The preliminary model for ethical conduct revealed that model fit could be significantly improved by estimating several error covariances. A few of the significant error covariances made sense theoretically, and we added them to the model. First, freeing the error covariance for the two indicators that involve views of the Bible, which indicate Conservative Protestantism, significantly increases the fit of the model. Since both questions are part of the same question set in the survey, and involve Bible views, this covariance is theoretically justified. Similarly, the significant error covariance of religious attendance and importance of religion, and extent of thinking about God and importance of religion, are added to the model. The other two measurement equations with errors that seem to share a specific factor are the equation for biblical literalism and conservative-to-liberal religious views. We added this covariance to the model as well.

For the dependent variable for ethical conduct, freeing two error covariances is indicated. The errors for bending the truth and bending the rules are significantly correlated—not surprisingly since they use similar wording—and adding a path between the error variances for the "arrived late at work" and the "bent the truth" variable leads to significant improvement in model fit.

Since the final model is fairly complex, definitive identification of the model is difficult. The model easily passes the necessary condition that the total unknown parameters is less than or equal to the total non-redundant elements in the covariance matrix (Bollen 1989). The total number of unknown parameters in both models is 87. The number of non-redundant elements in the covariance matrix for the ethical conduct model is 300, while for the decision-making criteria model the total is 253. The LISREL output did not show any problems with local identification of the model (though this is not sufficient to establish global identification [Bollen 1989]). The relatively high number of observed variables per latent construct (at least three for each), and the fairly limited number of error covariances estimated, gives some degree of confidence that local identification is in fact indicative of global identification.

The final model fit for ethical conduct is adequate given the large number of cases in the sample and path estimates in the model. The Chi-square "goodness of fit" measure is quite high (1,482 with 189 degrees of freedom), but this fit measure unrealistically compares the model to one that fits exactly in the population, and is sensitive to the high sample size and multivariate non-normality of the covariance matrix (Bollen 1989). The AGFI (1.0) is extremely high, indicating good model fit even after some adjustment for the large number of parameters in the model. And the Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA), which also imposes a penalty for increasing the number of parameters, is .06, which indicates a reasonably good fit; RMSEA from .05 to .08 are generally considered acceptable (Browne and Cudeck 1993). The value of .98 for the normed and non-normed fit indices indicate that the overall model fits very well. The Incremental Fit Index (IFI) is perhaps the best indicator of model fit, since it adjusts for degrees of freedom and the effects of sample size on the fit statistic (Bollen 1989). Our IFI of .99 shows that the model fits the data very well.

Measurements of fit of the individual components show reasonable fit for latent variables of this kind (see Appendix C for all coefficients, error variances and R-squares for the equations in the model). All of the coefficients are at least twice their standard error. For the measurement equations, most have fairly high R-squares (generally ranging from .3 to .8), and, with a couple of exceptions, the association between the indicators and latent variables is quite high (almost all of the coefficients are between .5 and .9). The fit of the structural equations, .34 for the equation predicting ethical conduct, .21 for Conservative Protestantism, .59 for religiosity, and .51 for moral absolutism, is fairly impressive for this type of research. In sum, while some of the indicators do not load on the latent variables as well as we would like, the fit measures are adequate compared with extant research in this area, and satisfactory given the inherent difficulty of measuring and modeling religion, moral absolutism, and ethical conduct in the workplace.

Fit for Altruistic Decision-making Criteria at Work. The error covariances for the indicators of religiosity and Conservative Protestantism remain the same as the model for ethical conduct. As with the model for ethical conduct, most of the fit indices show a model that fits the data well (RMSEA, .055; IFI, .99). The measurement models, in which the indicator loadings range from .5-.9, and the highly significant coefficients in each equation also assure us that the model fits the data reasonably well.


Appendix C for Reviewers: Equations and Fit for SELV Model


Model 1: Ethical Decision-making Criteria in the Workplace



Measurement Model


Religious Conservatism

Denom(cons) = 0.69*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.57 , R² = 0.46

(0.023) (0.022)

30.46 25.51

bible(rules) = 0.50*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.73 , R² = 0.26

(0.025) (0.020)

19.66 37.14

literal(bible) = 0.93*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.24 , R² = 0.78

(0.025) (0.026)

37.02 9.47

selfid(liberal) = - 0.48*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.69 , R² = 0.25

(0.024) (0.024)

-19.48 29.19

Error Covariance for literal and bible = 0.098



Error Covariance for selfid and literal = 0.069




attend = 0.68*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.45 , R² = 0.50

(0.023) (0.018)

29.29 24.57

import(relig) = 0.88*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.23 , R² = 0.77

(0.022) (0.015)

39.86 15.69

thotgod = 0.83*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.36 , R² = 0.66

(0.021) (0.015)

40.15 23.59

id_god = 0.88*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.25 , R² = 0.76

(0.022) (0.014)

39.62 17.50

Error Covariance for import and attend = 0.11



Error Covariance for thotgod and import = 0.10




Moral Absolutism

abvalues = 0.58*MORALAB, Errorvar.= 0.63 , R² = 0.35

(0.028) (0.024)

20.66 25.80

strict(rules) = 0.74*MORALAB, Errorvar.= 0.43 , R² = 0.56

(0.032) (0.024)

23.18 18.15

taxtrue = 0.53*MORALAB, Errorvar.= 0.65 , R² = 0.31

(0.029) (0.029)

18.60 22.51


Ethical Decision-making Criteria

morality = 0.71*WRKDECIS, Errorvar.= 0.39 , R² = 0.57

(0.042) (0.032)

17.00 12.20

people = 0.64*WRKDECIS, Errorvar.= 0.54 , R² = 0.43

(0.037) (0.024)

17.42 22.52

employer = 0.47*WRKDECIS, Errorvar.= 0.70 , R² = 0.24

(0.032) (0.025)

14.63 27.89


Structural Equations*

WRKDECIS = - 0.13*RELCONS - 0.039*RELIGITY + 0.68*MORALAB + 0.070*EDUC

(0.048) (0.055) (0.070) (0.022)

-2.77 -0.70 9.63 3.13

+ 0.27*INCOME + 0.24*OCCUP, Errorvar.= 0.52, R² = 0.48

(0.055) (0.059)

4.83 4.01

RELCONS = - 0.15*EDUC + 0.20*SEX - 0.32*INCOME + 0.33*MARRIED - 0.20*OCCUP

(0.018) (0.046) (0.049) (0.051) (0.052)

-8.15 4.35 -6.62 6.44 -3.89

+ 0.37*OTHRACE, Errorvar.= 0.82, R² = 0.18



RELIGITY = 0.72*RELCONS + 0.0099*AGE + 0.099*EDUC + 0.31*SEX,

0.032) (0.0015) (0.015) (0.036)

22.36 6.58 6.49 8.59

Errorvar.= 0.48, R² = 0.52

MORALAB = 0.21*RELCONS + 0.53*RELIGITY + 0.0094*AGE + 0.081*EDUC

(0.040) (0.045) (0.0018) (0.019)

5.30 11.75 5.16 4.24

+ 0.18*OCCUP - 0.45*OTHRACE, Errorvar.= 0.50, R² = 0.50

(0.048) (0.069)

3.81 -6.52



*Variables treated as exogenous and without measurement error: age, female, non-white race, education, income, and occupations with more opportunity for unethical behavior.





Model 2: Ethical Behavior at Work



Measurement Model


Religious Conservatism

denom = 0.65*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.60 , R² = 0.41

(0.022) (0.021)

29.82 28.78

bible(rules) = 0.54*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.71 , R² = 0.29

(0.024) (0.020)

22.08 35.59

literal = 0.91*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.29 , R² = 0.74

(0.024) (0.023)

37.99 12.59

selfid(liberal) = - 0.51*RELCONS, Errorvar.= 0.70 , R² = 0.27

(0.023) (0.024)

-21.78 29.88

Error Covariance for literal and bible = 0.13



Error Covariance for selfid and literal = 0.063




attend = 0.69*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.46 , R² = 0.51

(0.024) (0.018)

28.21 25.37

import(relig) = 0.89*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.22 , R² = 0.78

(0.025) (0.014)

35.51 15.38

thotgod = 0.84*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.36 , R² = 0.66

(0.023) (0.015)

36.00 24.30

id_god = 0.89*RELIGITY, Errorvar.= 0.26 , R² = 0.75

(0.025) (0.014)

35.57 18.93

Error Covariance for import and attend = -0.11



Error Covariance for thotgod and import = 0.093



Moral Absolutism

abvalues = 0.55*MORALAB, Errorvar.= 0.65 , R² = 0.32

(0.028) (0.024)

19.72 26.99

strict(rules) = 0.77*MORALAB, Errorvar.= 0.39 , R² = 0.61

(0.034) (0.027)

22.47 14.60

taxtrue = 0.52*MORALAB, Errorvar.= 0.59 , R² = 0.31

(0.029) (0.028)

17.98 21.21

Ethical Conduct at Work

late = 0.65*WRKETHC1, Errorvar.= 0.56 , R² = 0.43

(0.028) (0.024)

23.00 22.86

bent_rules = 0.48*WRKETHC1, Errorvar.= 0.69 , R² = 0.25

(0.026) (0.022)

18.27 31.21

equipment = 0.63*WRKETHC1, Errorvar.= 0.60 , R² = 0.40

(0.027) (0.025)

22.85 23.75

timeoff = 0.38*WRKETHC1, Errorvar.= 0.35 , R² = 0.30

(0.025) (0.031)

15.27 11.08

bent_truth = 0.56*WRKETHC1, Errorvar.= 0.58 , R² = 0.35

(0.030) (0.026)

18.39 22.35

Error Covariance for bent_truth and late = 0.15



Error Covariance for bent_truth and bent_rules = -0.14




Structural Equations*

WRKETHC1 = 0.48*RELCONS - 0.068*RELIGITY - 0.0028*MORALAB + 0.017*AGE

(0.055) (0.061) (0.053) (0.0020)

8.80 -1.12 -0.053 8.23

- 0.48*OCCUP, Errorvar.= 0.66, R² = 0.34



RELCONS = - 0.16*EDUC + 0.19*SEX - 0.41*INCOME + 0.42*MARRIED - 0.16*OCCUP

(0.017) (0.045) (0.050) (0.050) (0.049)

-9.41 4.25 -8.18 8.57 -3.19

+ 0.31*OTHRACE, Errorvar.= 0.79, R² = 0.21



RELIGITY = 0.77*RELCONS + 0.0071*AGE + 0.087*EDUC + 0.29*SEX,

(0.035) (0.0015) (0.014) (0.036)

21.83 4.84 6.04 8.15

Errorvar.= 0.41, R² = 0.59

MORALAB = 0.16*RELCONS + 0.58*RELIGITY + 0.012*AGE + 0.049*EDUC

(0.045) (0.051) (0.0019) (0.018)

3.49 11.23 6.28 2.67

+ 0.19*OCCUP - 0.42*OTHRACE, Errorvar.= 0.49, R² = 0.51

(0.047) (0.070)

4.14 -6.01


*Variables treated as exogenous and without measurement error: age, female, non-white race, education, income, and occupations with more opportunity for unethical behavior.



© David Sikkink 2000
The Diversity of Christian Schools | God, Politics, and Protest | Education and Black/White Segregation in Neighborhoods and Schools | Ethics in the Workplace
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