05/22/2013 11:40 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

Sin, Corruption and What Religions Can Do About It

There's plenty of sin in the air these days: sins of commission, sins of omission, all seven of the original deadly sins (to remind, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony). Actually Mahatma Gandhi's 1926 seven social sins are also very present:
  1. Wealth without work
  2. Pleasure without conscience
  3. Knowledge without character
  4. Commerce without morality
  5. Science without humanity
  6. Religion without sacrifice, and
  7. Politics without principle
Google returns almost 110 million hits for the word corruption, close kin of many of the sins. Whether it's Syria or Bangladesh or Nigeria or Russia or Washington, D.C., corruption is high on the blame list for almost any social dysfunction or ill.

Fingering corruption is eminently reasonable, because corruption means that resources intended for a public purpose are diverted to another use, especially someone's pocket but also their political coffers. Then the public purpose falls by the wayside. Schools that collapse when a mild earthquake strikes, roads where potholes open within months of construction, a sports hero dethroned and awestruck young people shocked, huge overruns on a massive hydropower plant, tax revenues that fall far short of the challenge they were supposed to meet: the culprit seems close at hand: corruption.

But two questions are too seldom asked with the rigor they deserve: What can be done to curb corruption, and what can religious ideas, leaders and institutions do to help?

The answer to the first question is reassuring: We know lots about how to curb corruption. Some of the keys are earthy and practical: clear laws about what's acceptable that are enforced and a real possibility that the guilty will be punished (ending impunity). But beyond that it's a question of "fire from above," meaning leadership and leaders who model what should be, and "fire from below," starting with family values and a community culture. There are remarkably effective networks (Transparency International among them) and gifted and courageous people leading the charge for honesty and decency in public life.

That's true also in situations where corruption is so embedded in a system and culture that it is hard to find an honest soul or institution. The situation can change, often surprisingly quickly (witness Singapore, written off as a hopeless corrupt swamp not so long ago). Change happens often with an initial shock therapy: arresting prominent sinners, making clear that the rules of the game have changed. But then the laws and systems need positive reforms. Scholar Robert Klitgaard points to the unexpected truth that the more detailed regulations the more likely there is to be corruption, especially if they can't be enforced in practice. So simplify and open the books. And starting in families and schools the principles of honesty and trust need to be instilled.

Many in America today (and in many other parts of the world) hope and expect that religion can be at the forefront of the kinds of change we know can take place and so earnestly desire, change that will set us back on paths of virtue and honesty. But what, really, can religious ideas, institutions and leaders do? They come, of course, in all sizes and shapes and are cast in very different roles. But surely they all belong out front.

Our religious leaders have a mission to speak truth to those in power, to call problems by their name, whether it's a sleazy deal for a shopping mall or unwise drone strikes. This happens: earnest sermons, fire and brimstone speeches. It's part of the solution, awakening conscience, strong voices speaking for righteousness, stirring the lagging spirits and apathy in pews.

But that's not enough. That's where leaders schooled in philosophy can help make the links clearer, between what the political leadership says in contrast to what they do. They can point toward better paths. Tell stories and parables that teach and inspire, pose the tough questions.

But there are two other areas where action is sorely needed. The first is to deal with the uncomfortable truth that many religious institutions do not have their own houses in order. Whether it is simple bookkeeping or clear mechanisms of accountability or the large questions of models it's hard to imagine a shift in culture among people who trust in leaders if those leaders do not set a good example. Many religious entities have not caught up with modern demands for transparency and accountability and living life as if it will be reported on in a public place tomorrow. Setting the house in order is vital.

And the second action area is to master some of the practical tools that can make a difference both in creating a culture of integrity and a system where rules are clear, known and followed. Here again the challenge is to light the "fires from above," with pithy and meaningful strategies, strong words of wisdom and a strategic appreciation for the challenges of governance. And then to fan the flames of fires from below, flames that come from people's instincts for fairness and honesty, their desire for a decent community and a nation that gives them pride.

Religious ideas, leaders, institutions and communities are missing links in much of the public conversation about public integrity. That is not as it should be. Powerful communication skills, a true pulpit, a clear ethical compass, vast experience of how communities live and view the world, and caring for a path of virtue: surely that's a recipe for real influence. Now, with a strategic sense, housecleaning at home and knowledge of practical tools, the sky should be the limit. Amen.