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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, September 15, 2010}

I see it quite often, and often when I least expect it. I ran into it again this week in the course of fixing my car. And whenever I see it, it always gives me pause. It makes me feel different, awkward, an outsider. It’s the Christian Business Directory, and it’s all over town.

As a Jew, what should I or any non-Christian think when a business owner chooses to self-identify their firm as a Christian one? After all, it’s a free country. It seems to me that the right to publish a book of Christian businesses ought to be doubly protected under the Constitution, both under the free exercise clause and under constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. So I hope that the right of publishers to publish and of businesses to advertise in such a directory will always be secure in America.

That said, I don’t have to like it. And after giving the matter some thought, I’ve decided I don’t.

Let me say up front that I can’t recall any problems with a good or service purchased from a self-identified Christian business. My most recent experience was exemplary. I believe this firm takes integrity seriously and they have absolutely earned both my trust and my business. So what exactly do I find so troubling about the CBD, or indeed the idea of any religiously oriented business directory?

Part of it, I think, is the implication that businesses who self-identify as members of a particular faith group are somehow more trustworthy, more ethical, and more deserving of your business than those who are not. This is never actually stated, but it’s clearly implied. It’s certainly hard to imagine any advertisers who would object to such a characterization.

While I suspect such beliefs are widely held, if not necessarily discussed in polite company, I’m not aware of any objective evidence to support such a claim. So I do not believe it. But more importantly, as a business owner, what exactly does that say to your non-Christian customers? Are we by implication less trustworthy? Less honorable? More likely to complain? More likely to try and rip you off? I don’t believe this is the intent of this kind of publication, but some sort of gut reaction like this on the part of customers who don’t share the theology of a particular business seems inevitable. At the very least, advertisers ought to be aware of it.

The publishers of the CBD, to their credit, state their motivations very clearly. Among other things, they believe that “Christians should support their brothers and sisters in the Lord, when possible.” While ultimately I believe people should be allowed to patronize (or boycott) any businesses they want, mixing theology with economics in this way strikes me as a particularly bad idea.

What if everyone put this concept into practice? What if Jews only patronized Jewish businesses, Muslims only Islamic ones, Pagans bought only from Pagans, and atheists from atheists?

We are evolutionarily shaped to group ourselves into tribes, to be most comfortable with and to trust only people who look and/or think like we do. That instinct may have enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce thousands of years ago, but like so many others it’s poorly suited for the world we now live in. Instead of giving in to it, we should be fighting it for all we’re worth.

One of the great things about a capitalist economy is how it helps us do just that. A dollar doesn’t care who spends it, it still buys the same things. Ideally, the best good or service for the money is something that should be valued and bought by everyone. The theological convictions held by the buyer and seller shouldn’t matter.

Without the leveling force of dogma-free capitalism, I worry that America becomes at risk for increasing factionalism. If people do business only with those who share their faith, we move closer to being not one but many nations under God. I would rather not see that happen.