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KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - From billion-dollar ponzi schemes to bad mortgages and pay-to-play dealings by public officials, some are asking: Is there a crisis of ethics in America?
The swirl of corruption, fraud and greed stretching from Wall Street to Main Street has many U.S. church leaders saying the answer is a resounding yes -- America is facing not only an economic meltdown, but also a moral one. And they are rushing to bring flocks back into the fold.
"Honesty is honesty. It doesn't matter if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever. A lot of these debacles we're seeing can be traced and sourced back to a lack of good old ethics," said the Rev. Jerry Johnston, who this month launched a 12-part series of sermons on ethics at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kansas, which has about 5,000 members.
Johnston is one of a number of religious leaders and scholars who say the current spate of troubled times are an opportunity to lead more Americans into church pews and to prayer.
"We're beginning to see this across the nation," said Ken Eldred, a California technology company entrepreneur who writes books about the role of religion in business. "There has been a crisis of ethics ... and I think sadly it is quite significant. People think business has nothing to do with faith, that honesty is not always the best policy. But when you take that away, people end up worse overall."
The list of examples of dishonest dealings ranges from disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, who has been accused of fleecing investors out of $50 billion in what may be the largest Ponzi scheme ever, to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by President Barack Obama, to the more than 400 people charged last summer in a $1 billion U.S. mortgage fraud investigation.
"Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," Obama said at his inauguration as president on Tuesday.
Greed and lack of accountability are blamed for the suffocating personal debt borne by millions of Americans and the toxic financial products that led to the decline of several U.S. banks and brokerages.
David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, said the United States needs not just an economic recovery plan but also a "moral recovery plan."
"I think that this transition point is a good one in the life of our nation," said Gushee. "We need ... a renewal of the moral compass to do the right thing just because it's right, obeying not just legal laws but moral laws related to how people need to be treated."
Not everyone saw an ethical decline behind the nation's economic troubles. Gideon Rosen, professor of philosophy and chair of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton, said calling the economic crisis a moral failure was to be expected, but he did not think it was valid.
"It is much simpler and extremely natural for human beings to try to find a moral story that makes sense of a bad outcome," Rosen said. "But this is an economic problem. Greed of a particularly egregious sort has played a causal role but that is not really the deepest feature of this crisis."
Still, Charles Brock, founder of Church Growth International, which aids start-up ministries in the United States and abroad, said the economic meltdown that has led to massive U.S. job losses is fueling a return to church.
"Any time there is a crisis, economic or otherwise... people tend to search for peace and security," said Brock. "The greater the crisis, the greater the return to the church."
Johnston said at his Overland Park church, he was specifically aiming outreach efforts at businessmen and women.
"This is the ideal time to reach that demographic of people," said Johnston. "We will tell them it is time to change things."
Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas; Editing by Eddie Evans