We may believe in the separation of church and state, but does religion have a place in business? Just ask the business leaders who base their companies on their religious beliefs. Many faith-based businesses stick to their principles but often come under fire for some of their more controversial stances. Take David and Barbara Green, who started Hobby Lobby. The arts and crafts store founders made headlines when they refused to provide birth control to their employees as outlined by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), otherwise known as Obamacare, because of their faith. And then there's Dan Cathy. The son of Chic-fil-A founder Truett Cathy echoed his father's belief in the traditional marriage model when he polarized the same-sex marriage debate, drawing harsh criticism from the gay community as well as politicians.

But both families are known for more than just their controversial religious views. Like most religious company owners, the Greens donate to several charities and also provide discounts to various organizations. The Cathy family also places a large emphasis on philanthropy. Truett and Jeanette Cathy founded the Winshape Foundation with the goal of training faith-based leaders by providing faith-based opportunities to support their own communities and those abroad.

But Hobby Lobby and Chic-fil-A aren't the only companies with religious founders. Other well-known business leaders place a large emphasis on their religious faith as well—some who may not be so apparent or obvious. Here's a list of business leaders who use—or have used—their faith to help drive their philanthropic efforts.

Key Takeaways

  • Faith-based businesses have a long-standing history in the United States.
  • A devout Christian, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
  • J.C. Penney's founder believed in treating others the way he wanted to be treated.
  • The Walton Family Foundation is headed by the descendants of Walmart founder Sam Walton and tackles social and environmental issues.
  • Singer, songwriter, and actress Dolly Parton created the Dollywood Foundation, which sends books to young children.

Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas was the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Wendy's. Named after his daughter Wendy, it is the third-largest hamburger chain in the world. Before his death in 2002, Thomas starred in more than 800 Wendy's commercials and became a household name and face.

As an adopted child and devout Christian, Thomas had a heart for philanthropy. He founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit organization that makes the adoption process easier and more affordable. He also supported St. Jude Children's Cancer Research Center along with numerous other charities.

James Cash Penney

James Cash Penney was an entrepreneur who, in 1902, became a partner in a store he would later purchase from his partners. He called it the Golden Rule Store because he believed in treating others the way he wanted to be treated. That name was phased out by 1914 when it became J.C. Penney. The store would eventually expand to become a nationwide department store chain with as many as 2,000 locations open for business. However, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May 2020. Its stock was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange and began trading over-the-counter on the Pink Sheets.

Penney was born in Hamilton, Missouri, in 1875. His father was a Baptist minister who shaped his religious beliefs throughout his life. Penney was not only a 33rd degree Freemason who gave of his time and resources, but his legacy is carried on through the Penney Family Fund, a foundation that provides financial backing to advance causes dealing with human rights, the environment, and community needs. The fund has no affiliation with the retail company or any of its corporate charity programs. Penney died in New York City in 1971 at the age of 95.

The right to refuse service to someone based on your religious beliefs can have negative consequences for your business.

Sam Walton

Walmart founder Sam Walton got his start working as a clerk at a J.C. Penney store but later opened the first Walmart (WMT) in 1962. By 1967, the family-owned 24 stores earning $12.7 million in sales. There are now nearly 12,000 locations that employ 2.2 million people across 27 different countries.

Walton was a Presbyterian and an active philanthropist. The family established the Walton Family Foundation to take on social and environmental issues. It is headed by the descendants of Sam and his wife Helen. According to the foundation's website, it issued more than $595 million in grants in 2018. Although the foundation keeps a low media profile, Businessweek named the Walton family as one of the 50 Top American Givers in 2008.

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton may be the best-known female country singer in history. She has written more than 3,000 songs and sold more than 100 million albums. She has starred in 17 big-screen and TV movies and has owned restaurants and lines of wigs sold by Revlon (REV). She believes that her talents come from a higher power and has gone on record saying that she has a strong religious faith.

Her philanthropic efforts center on the Dollywood Foundation which oversees Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. The program mails a book to every child who is enrolled from birth until they begin school as kindergarten students. The program has expanded internationally, distributing more than 2.5 million books each year.

The Bottom Line

Both Hobby Lobby and Chic-fil-A made headlines and created controversy, causing people to question whether religious views should be an influential part of a business. Other business leaders like those mentioned above—who represent only a small number of religious leaders in business—however, not only speak openly about their faith but actively work to benefit their communities, demonstrating that religion and compassion often go hand-in-hand.