How Davos found God
January 28th, 2011
09:39 AM ET

How Davos found God

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

In addition to the corporate and political bigwigs leading talks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week is one not-so-usual suspect: an evangelical minister.

"There is some real soul searching going on here," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, an American Christian activist who is moderating sessions at this year's summit. "The question is how do you embed values in the culture of companies in a way that would change behaviors?"

The World Economic Forum's organizers appear to agree.

Since the banking crisis shook global markets more than two years ago and contributed to a worldwide economic slump, the annual Davos summit has invited dozens of religious and spiritual leaders to hash out issues like business ethics and the morality of markets in the company of presidents and corporate titans.

Besides headline grabbers like United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, attendees at this year's summit include the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, the Anglican Bishop of London and the founder of a Zen Buddhist center in New Mexico.

Wallis, for his part, moderated sessions this week on "Defining Shared Norms" and "A Values Framework for New Realities." Another session, led by a Harvard Business School professor, offered instruction in "Mindful Leadership" and included a 40-minute guided meditation that leaned heavily on Buddhism.

Somewhat to the surprise of religious leaders attending this year's summit, many in the high-powered crowd appear to be genuinely interested in such topics.

"I've been pleasantly surprised by how full the faith and values sessions are, and with business leaders asking really searching questions," says Eboo Patel, a Muslim American youth leader attending Davos for the first time. "I think they get it."

The surge in discussions around faith and morality at Davos reflects a broader resurgence in interest in business ethics since the housing and banking crises of the late 2000s, which many experts blamed largely on greed and deceptive business practices.

"In the post-crisis environment, there's a general recognition that we all need to take time to reflect on what our values are," said Pierre Gentin, the global head of litigation for Credit Suisse, who has participated in the so-called faith sessions at Davos.

"How do we implement those values in our professional and personal lives?" he continued. "The status quo was shaken up in a very significant way, and we have an opportunity to focus on values to avoid a repeat of recent years."

In 2009, the World Economic Forum launched a Global Agenda Council on Faith and Values to wrestle with those kinds of issues.

"It was about how to correct the gap between our stated values and our actions," says Saadia Zahidi, head of special constituents for the World Economic Forum, who helps coordinate the council.

"We felt the voices of religious leaders could be important in issues like decision making and the economy," she said.

Wallis' recent book, "Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street," grew out of the council's early sessions.

As the chair of the group, now called the Global Agenda Council on Values, Wallis has spent a lot of time at recent Davos summits chiding titans of industry for operating in what he considers to be a values-free zone.

"You all thought you don't need to bring virtues or values to bear on economic decisions, that the invisible hand of the market will take care of itself," he said, recalling one of his presentations at last year's summit. "But what do you do when the invisible hand lets go of the common good? You could here gasps in the room."

As anti-corporate as that message may sound, Credit Suisse's Gentin says that there's been a fair amount of receptivity among Davos participants.

"It's important that people realize that businesspeople are part of a larger community and that there's a great deal of good will and effort into trying to do the right thing," he said.

Founded in 1971, the World Economic Forum first took serious interest in religion after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Davos conferences in the years that followed featured sessions on bridging the gap between the West and the Islamic world.

Among the participants in those discussions was Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who attracted immense media attention last year after his plan for an Islamic center near New York's ground zero triggered a national controversy.

"The people who were there were from the business or political world," Rauf says of his first years attending the Davos summits. "Religion was not something they were equipped to tackle. In Europe, religion is considered something that's private. You keep it in the attic or the basement but you don't bring it to the dining room."

The post-September 11 sessions changed that somewhat, but Rauf stopped attending Davos summits in the late 2000s because he said the sessions didn't lead to actual initiatives that could translate discussions into action.

"In the beginning there was a lot of excitement around doing things, like an Islamic film project, but taking something from idea state to development stage takes a lot of effort," Rauf says. "Ideas were discussed, but there wasn't much in terms of projects."

Wallis echoed some of that frustration. He says the Global Agenda Council on Values has begun work on creating actual tools for business leaders, companies and even nations to perform what he calls "values assessments."

"The next step is moving to what change will this make," he says. "None of us are content to have values seminars to just feel better about ourselves. This has to change behavior."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Economy • Leaders

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.