Business investment in faith, tolerance

`FIND yourself through faith.'' ``Worship this week.''

``In a world looking for answers, maybe God is the place to start.''

For almost four decades, these public-service advertisements have appeared in the media under the low-profile sponsorship of Religion in American Life Inc.

Since 1949, RIAL, a nonprofit group of business and professional people based here in New York, has quietly hawked its wares rather than itself. The product is neither soap nor soup. It is faith, brotherhood, and religious tolerance.

The Rev. Alan J. Sorem, RIAL's president and chief executive officer, points out that his organization is broadly devoted to ``promoting religion in America.'' But the thrust, he stresses, is interreligious rather than ecumenical -- the group has no specific denominational ties, and its prime aim is to promote the goals of religion, rather than one church or another.

``We need to create a sense that religion in this country [is] part of its fiber and background,'' says Mr. Sorem, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

RIAL reaches across the board to Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others for its support. The business community -- including many large corporations -- contributes about one-third of its comparatively modest $500,0000 annual budget.

In addition to its advertising campaign stressing the importance of religion in American life -- which is carried on in conjunction with the National Advertising Council -- RIAL is involved in other educational and public-service pursuits.

Among them:

It conducts, in association with the business community, periodic seminars on morality and ethics. A recent gathering focused on corporate philanthropy, the press, law, science, and technology.

It publishes a ``worship directory,'' which is available in hotels, motels, and other public places.

It issues periodic reports on the state of religion and morality in the United States. These have included survey findings of Americans' churchgoing habits, conducted by Dr. George Gallup Jr., president of the Gallup Organization and executive director of the Princeton Religious Research Center.

It presents ``role model'' awards to business, civic, and religious leaders who attribute their professional successes, at least in part, to spiritual commitment.

Over the years, RIAL has also woven into its advertising campaigns a commitment to racial justice and family and community values.

In the wake of Hitler's treatment of Jews before and during World War II, it has been a catalyst between Christians and Jews searching for a positive way to breaking down religious bigotry.

During the 1960s, an era of increased interest in civil rights, it adopted the themes ``Practice what you pray'' and ``Put your faith to work every day'' in urging interracial understanding and a breakdown of the barriers of bias.

And in the mid-l970s, during the nation's bicentennial, RIAL emphasized the value of religion in the development of American democracy.

A few years later the group latched onto the Year of the Child logo, campaigning for increased parental guidance and community protection for youth.

Of late, RIAL has lobbied again for strengthening ties between parents and children -- encouraging wholesome family activities and attendance at church and Sunday school. ``With God, find your way'' has been a major theme.

``Today, we have a strong concern for children and the family,'' the Rev. Sorem explains. ``We focus on teen-age suicides, drug abuse, and runaways.''

RIAL's president firmly believes that ``churches and synagogues offer stability and morality'' in an unsettled society. ``We must give them [the American public] something to believe in.''

Despite RIAL's constant alertness to be relevant to society's current needs, Mr. Sorem admits that in recent years strong emphasis on ``individualism'' has thinned the ranks of churchgoers, particularly among mainstream religions.

But he says that religious institutions are beginning to address their problems and that they are definitely ``worth their salt.''

The Rev. Martin E. Marty, a prominent Protestant theologian, agrees with RIAL's premise that ``religion is a good thing.'' But he also points out in a RIAL study that religion ``is a great force for conflict and death in many parts of the world . . . [and] it has often dulled and repressed people.''

Mr. Marty, a University of Chicago scholar, praises the business-oriented group for making the case ``for free religion in a free society.''

RIAL's annual award for ``devotion to religion, distinction in career, and dedication to humanity'' is established in the name of Charles E. Wilson, former head of the General Electric Company and a prominent American Baptist. The first awardee, in 1973, was Erwin D. Canham, who had been editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

Recently honored were Paul H. Smucker, chairman and chief executive officer of the J. M. Smucker Company (jellies and other food products) and US Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois.

Both acknowledged reliance on God for guidance and protection as being key to both personal success and global understanding.

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