November 19th, 2006

In Business, Is the Christian Symbol a Sign of Faith Or Merely Bait?

By Gary White
The Ledger [Lakeland, FL]

The Rev. Bob Hovey knows Scriptures, not shift gates or struts. So when his truck needed a repair a few years ago, Hovey asked a friend to recommend a mechanic who wouldn’t take advantage of his automotive ignorance.

Hovey felt reassured even before handing over the keys upon his arrival at Quality Auto & Marine Service in Lakeland. He noticed a familiar and welcome image on the sign posted at the business: a stick figure of a fish, a symbol commonly used to denote Jesus Christ.

“There’s no doubt about it, I would use a Christian business owner,” said Hovey, pastor at Shepherd Road Presbyterian Church in Lakeland. “It means you can trust them, or should mean that can trust them, to do you right and be fair and honest and do excellent work.”

Hovey said that’s the case with Ray Velez, owner of Quality Auto & Marine, to whom he also entrusts his boat. And while Hovey found Velez’s avowedly Christian business by accident, he knows it’s easy to seek out such companies deliberately.

Businesses ranging from auto shops to roofers, lawn services, locksmiths, pawnshops and even a law firm display the Christian fish symbol in their Yellow Pages ads, and separate publications - such as the Shepherd’s Guide, a national brand of regional business directories - exclusively list Christian-owned merchants.

Velez has displayed the symbol in his ads and on his sign and business cards since opening his shop in 1993. Why?

“Because we are Christians, and we operate in a godly manner,” said Velez, 42, who attends the nondenominational Tree of Life Family Church. “We follow God’s principles and treat everybody fairly and honestly.”

The semiotic declaration appeals to Hovey and many others in Polk County, but not to all. The Rev. Daphne Johnson, pastor of Lakeland’s College Heights United Methodist Church, might seem an ideal target for such advertising, but in reality she’s turned off by commercial use of the ancient religious emblem.

“As far as seeing the symbol in the newspaper or in the Yellow Pages, as to whether that would make me call them or not, it probably would not, because I tend to feel they’re using it as a marketing scheme,” Johnson said. “I’m actually kind of skeptical about the use of the symbol.”

ancient symbol

The identification of Jesus with a fish traces to the first centuries of the church. The Christian connotation stems in large measure from the use of “ichthus,” the Greek word for fish, as an acrostic for the phrase “Jesus Christ God’s Son is Savior.”

These days, many Christians exhibit the “Jesus fish” - sometimes with a cross covering the head - on license plates or metal ornaments affixed to their vehicles.

Philip Sanders, owner of Safeway Garage Doors in Lakeland, ordered the fish outline included in his company’s Yellow Pages ad, where it floats among logos for various brands of garage doors, the symbols for Visa and MasterCard and a “seniors discount” icon. He also advertises in the local Shepherd’s Guide, which requires clients to sign a pledge of Christian faith.

Sanders said customers often notice the fish.

“Many people actually mention the fact they came to us because they saw that there, and some of them want to make sure that we are not just putting it in there to get their attention without having anything behind it,” said Sanders, 33.

Some cultural critics worry about the combining of faith with business integrity. Gary Ruskin, the leader of a national non-profit organization that strives to contain the commercial realm, decries the religious branding of businesses as part of a “commercial creep” invading organized religion.

“It’s not the proper role of the church or Christian symbols to hawk wares,” said Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, co-founded by Ralph Nader. “The church has a higher calling than this.”

Ruskin cites Jesus’ words from the Book of Luke: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Sanders insists he is not exploiting his religion for profit by using the fish symbol but instead broadcasting a code of behavior, just as large companies do by posting mission statements. Sanders cites another biblical passage in defending the practice.

“The Good Lord told us in my faith to let our light shine, and that’s exactly what it is,” he said. “If you’re doing good, people want to let the good you’re doing be known.”

Norm Harritt, owner of South Florida Gun & Pawn in Lakeland, not only opts for a large fish symbol in his Yellow Pages ad, for years he also had an artist paint a Nativity tableau on the shop’s front window at Christmas time. Harritt, a former corporate executive who operates the shop as a semi-retirement venture, said he broadcasts his Christian faith in part to combat the unsavory reputation of pawn shops.

“To a certain extent I do put it (the fish symbol) on the ad as a stimulant to business, but on the other hand I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” said Harritt, who attends Lakeland’s Victory Church. “You could take the other side and say people who are against the so-called religious right are going to take offense to it, and my reaction to that is, ‘So be it.’ I’m a Christian, and if people don’t like it, that’s OK.”

Johnson questions using the fish as a Christian version of the Good Housekeeping seal, but she knows of no scriptural basis for condemning the practice.

“I don’t see where there’s any biblical edict that would say one way or the other whether you should use this,” Johnson said, adding she would object “only if the business does not practice honest or fair business, then it may give people the wrong idea of what a Christian is supposed to be. But they’re not doing anything theologically wrong, as far I can see.”

ETHICAL ISSUES

D. Dixon Sutherland, a professor of religious studies and director of the Institute for Christian Ethics at Stetson University in DeLand, said businesses that display religious signs are appealing to people of the same faith as potential customers or are pledging to operate under their interpretation of Christian principles. Either approach, he said, raises troubling questions.

Sutherland cited the late economist Milton Friedman’s axiom that the chief ethical responsibility of any business is to make as much money as possible within legal guidelines. Sutherland raised the hypothetical case of a business that must choose between bribing a customs official in Indonesia to get a crucial part or laying off employees. Which is the Christian act?

“Even if their intentions are the best, they can still get caught in some choices not between good and bad but bad and worse,” Sutherland said. “If you’re going to make a Christian association to your business with the assumption there are absolute goods and absolute evils and you’re not going to choose the evils, you’re setting yourself up for delusions.”

Sutherland also questioned the “ethics by association” idea implicit in the religious branding of a business. But Velez insists he’s not proclaiming superiority over other garages by displaying the fish symbol."We’re not implying that, because there are people out there who do operate in an honest manner,” Velez said. “We’re not trying to make anyone look bad at all. We just say it’s what we stand for.”

a Jewish perspective

Eddie Fox, rabbi of Lakeland’s Temple Emanuel, expressed ambivalence about the practice. He said businesses in Jewish enclaves often display a mezuzah - a small case containing a tiny scroll affixed to a doorpost - in keeping with a custom described in the Torah."I applaud anybody who wants to identity themselves with their religion, if it’s done not for the purpose of bringing in business,” Fox said. “I think - what’s the motivation? If you’re doing it because it gives you a feeling you’re serving God in everything you do, I think that’s wonderful because religion is what you do outside church. But if you’re doing it to let them know, ‘This is a place you can trust,’ that’s different.”

Johnson raised a similar concern.

“It certainly could be read that way - ‘Use a Christian business because they’re the only ones who can be fair’ - and that’s obviously not true,” she said. “If you deal with people day in and day out, there are Muslim businesspeople who are good, quality businesspeople, and Jewish businesspeople who are good, quality businesspeople you might very well pick over the person who sits next to you in the pew.”

Hovey, the Presbyterian minister, has a different perspective. Though acknowledging that some non-Christians abide by high ethical standards, he said, “Side by side, I would rather give my money to a Christian and a Christian business than a non-Christian and a non-Christian business. Absolutely, I’d give to the Christian every time.”

Religious authorities say Christians shouldn’t be expected to quarantine their faith from the secular world. Johnson, though put off by overtly religious advertising, said Christians are bound to blend their beliefs with their daily lives, whether that involves running a business or raising a family.

Hovey, Johnson’s fellow pastor, agreed.

“For a Christian, all life blends with Christianity,” he said. “You don’t take off your faith when you go into your business. I think for a Christian it’s certainly not thinking you’re using it (the symbol) for profit. You’re simply making a statement, which is a fairly unpopular statement, it seems, more and more these days, that you follow Jesus Christ and operate your business in such a way that brings glory to him. I think it’s pretty bold. I love it.”

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