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FIRST-PERSON: Election mess reflects need for ethical professionalism

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–This election mess highlights the blurring of a key distinction, business versus profession. Both have their honorable place, and society suffers when you slight either.

Business says, “The customer is always right.” A profession says, “The customer is often wrong.” Of course, you can qualify this in several ways. Good businessmen have moral limits. Good professionals have devoted customers. But there is a different emphasis.

Imagine a grocer/businessman who cuts back on his stock of Twinkies because they’re becoming too popular. He simply won’t be party to this craze. Instead, he doubles his stock of legumes in hopes that this will spur more healthful eating habits. Did I say grocer? Make that “ex-grocer.”

A savvy secular bookseller may stock some shelves with New Age blather, but he’ll also have the business sense to offer Christian books. If he doesn’t, another businessman will step in to gain an advantage. Such is the way of business and the trades. They’re responsive to what the customer wants. The bricklayer says, “Of course, Mrs. Jones, I’d be happy to make you a planter in the shape of your husband, Bob.” The charter bus company will gladly take you to a kazoo band concert in the desert. And if there is a market for cat mittens, you’ll find a vendor.

Businessmen give us a wide world of choice, and they keep the economy perking. They bring us church vans, church fellowship coffee and pulpit mikes. So three cheers for business, but thank God that business is not the whole story.

Those in the professions are not as accommodating. I don’t want to hear my doctor say my cholesterol is high, but he says it anyway. I don’t appreciate the journalist’s report that crime is up in my neighborhood. A potential litigant resents his or her attorney’s suggestion that a suit would be frivolous. Students are grumpy when the dean says the university won’t cheapen a degree to win their enrollment. Churchgoers chafe when a preacher presses them to tithe, asking: Who does he think he is?

Well, to put it grandly, they are guardians of a trust. At their best, they’re committed to truth, justice, sanity and excellence whether or not you want it. Such is the noble side to the professions of law, ministry, journalism, education and medicine. These are the folks who champion a body of understanding and an ethic in the face of whining and subterfuge.

In recent days, we’ve seen plenty of the ignoble side. Journalists run roughshod over discretion to deliver the quick projections we desire. Whether through the wish to be first or the fear of being last, they hustle damaged goods our way, indifferent to the harm they might do. They wanted to tickle the public’s antsy fancy more than get things right.

Ministers prostitute the sacred desk to serve up half-baked, extra-biblical, contra-biblical and sub-biblical party lines, mindful of the power links their churches enjoy with other churches, politicos and their programs.

Disoriented congregations lap it up.

And what can we say of the attorneys? Can you name a maneuver so corrupt that you cannot find many lawyers to advance it? When the lawyers should be answering their sweaty patrons, “Are you kidding? No way I’ll represent that,” many are scrambling to paste together whatever shallow, self-serving, overwrought argument they can to get their way. And if the tables turn, they’ll argue just as strongly and cheaply the opposite way, for the point is not truth, but winning.

True professionals will walk away from a doubtful scoop, a shabby case, a cheap degree, a pointlessly risky procedure and cheesy worship, whatever the stakes. As we think on “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report,” we might well consider the professional ideal and pray for its prosperity.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and former president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo.

    About the Author

  • Mark Coppenger