Rotary and the dilemma of religious values

by John Borst, Past President Rotary Club of Dryden

When I first joined Rotary my club held a Friday evening, all day Saturday educational workshop. We covered a lot of topics, but one comment has stuck with me to this day; probably, it wasn’t meant to have such an impact.

The trainer was discussing the role of Rotary in her life and said that “Rotary was her religion”. I was taken aback but I figured she was speaking figuratively to make the point about how important it was in her life.

Yet it seems to me that there is in fact, at the very least, a quasi-religious nature to the organization. Although Rotary professes to be secular, its guiding principles and ethical beliefs are grounded in all of the World’s great religions.

This takes two forms.

The first is the fervor with which some members support the organization. This manifests itself, particularly when someone is critical of some aspects of how Rotary is managed or the nature of one of its many programs.

Some members are so wedded to all aspects of how the organization is managed that it is too much like heresy to even suggest changes to the Manual of Procedures.

The furor over the change in the logo is another example of how symbols exert a strong pull on a person’s identity much as they do with religions and are to be tinkered with at considerable risk.

There is also a somewhat proselytizing nature to many of the key programs such as PolioPlus or the Peace Scholars program . Even such habits as the President’s annual theme appear inviolate to change.
The second form is more important and finds expression in the very mission and principles of Rotary itself. And in many ways, this for secularists and non-believers this is a far more serious issue.

When Rotary was formed American Society was overwhelmingly Christian. When Paul Harris argued that religion and politics should be banned from discussion for the good of fellowship, division was over the different denominations of Christianity not between different religions as it might be today.

This issue is addressed by the Rotary Global History Fellowship which states:

One of the more interesting things about Rotary history is to follow the thinking of Rotary leaders as they work to balance guiding principles that do not always agree. Rotary was originally imageconceived as a service organization that brought business people and professionals together to improve their community through club actions and through a shared commitment to ethical conduct in all aspects of their lives. All community leaders who adhered to these values were welcome, regardless of their religion. To create a harmonious environment for the fellowship that held clubs together, Rotary discouraged religious and political positions. However, the commitment to ethical conduct is essentially a commitment to the golden rule, which is a nearly universal religious principle. Consequently, in 1935, Paul Harris worried that the golden rule probably needed to be abandoned by Rotary to avoid religious overtones, but doing so would deny a core value of Rotary. The solution was the Four-Way Test, which is nothing more than a more detailed articulation of how to follow the golden rule.

The retention of the Golden Rule as a summation of the hopes and ambitions of Rotary has recently met with serious opposition from different quarters. It is not that any appreciable number lack faith in the Golden Rule as a guide in the affairs of men. The objection most frequently heard is that it has so long been identified with religious movements that its adoption by Rotary affords reasonable grounds for the assumption by the uninitiated that Rotary is in fact a religion. It being the case that Rotarians do not consider Rotary a religion, it is probable that the use of the Golden Rule in Rotary literature will be abandoned.
 (Paul Harris, This Rotarian Age, page 91)

Actually it goes beyond high ethical standards and the golden rule. Many if not most clubs say a version of Rotary grace which recognizes the existence of a deity beyond ourselves. This surprises me because I suspect there are many members who do not believe in a God or an after-life.

Even Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self” is imbued with religious principle, a principle common to all of the World’s major religions. I understand that during the discussion on the design of the new branding of Rotary thought was given to revising and updating of this motto too.

Sometimes however, an individual comment demonstrates just how fine the line between Rotary and religion may be.

In a post on a woman as president this response appeared at LinkedIn:

“A masculine privilege is be Rotary President in a honest couple with his wife, in name of the family & the harmonic unity of a legally union to be both one in God law & civil rights.” (The writer belonged to a club in Peru.)

To me it demonstrates the degree to which a very religiously conservative person can find within Rotary an organization she believes to be fully compatible with her religious faith.

One example might be the preference or is it practice within Rotary at both the District, Director and Presidential levels of showing the District Governor, Director and the President with his or her spouse. It is just a little thing but it does send a message that marriage, and family are the ethical norm to be expected within Rotary.

Interestingly, when one visits Christian churches in much of Europe, Canada, and even South America one finds a growing abundance of grey hair and dwindling number of young members not dissimilar to Rotary itself.

I expect this dilemma is not going to go away anytime soon. There is however, need for a review of Rotarian practices. Some through long time use may no longer be questioned, but which, if reflected upon for their hidden religious meaning, may be in need of reconsideration.


About John Borst

John Borst’s career in education spans the years 1960 to 1996. During those 36 years, he spent an equal amount of time working int he English language, Public and Catholic school boards. Borst taught in both elementary and high school environments. Positions of responsibilities held included department head in Geography, curriculum coordinator of Social and Environmental Studies, Principal, Education Officer with the Ministry of Education, Superintendent of Schools, and Superintendent of Student Services. Borst retired in 1996 as Director of Education for the legacy Dryden Board of Education. During this time, Borst has lived in the Ontario communities of Brampton, Toronto, Newmarket, Thunder Bay, Aurora and Dryden. Currently, Borst splits his time between Dryden and Toronto. Since retirement, Borst has served as a Supervisory Officer with a remote School Authority; been a freelance writer of articles on education in particular for Education Today, the magazine of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA); founded and edited from 2006 - 2010 the Education blog Tomorrow’s Trust: A Review of Catholic Education; and from 2003-2010 was a trustee of the Northwest Catholic District School Board.
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11 Responses to Rotary and the dilemma of religious values

  1. DrO says:

    From the history, Rotary was conceived as a business networking organization that developed into a service organization.

  2. Björn Klemming says:

    As Rotarians we should emphasize that we are primarily a business networking organization that through the competence and resourcefullness of our members can provide social and humanitarian good.

  3. Dan Sockle says:

    An interesting look at Rotary’s culture, values and that ever-present elephant in so many clubs – wrestling with matters having religious or political implications. Instead of wringing our hands, minds and hearts over what words or practices are based in Christianity or any other faith or belief system, I suggest that Rotary consider a little reverse engineering. I once saw this on a demonstrator’s sign (photo on the Internet): “We were all humans until: RACE disconnected us, RELIGION separated us, POLITICS divided us, and WEALTH classified us.” In my opinion, truer words were never spoken to bring clarity to the issues that unnecessarily and often artificially divide us today. Whether via the “4-Way Test” or “The Golden Rule” it is high time that we recognize that the underlying message is that we are all humans, regardless of ethnicity, color, religion, culture or politics. We are in this world together. We had better start putting emphasis on our common interests and shared values, striving for mutual understanding and respect. So what if we throw in a “4-Way Test” or “Golden Rule” that everyone should abide by as human beings?

  4. In my district, there are people of many different religions, and we all accept each other for who we are. I totally agree with Dan Sockle’s comments. When I meet people of different ethnicities, race, religion, sexual orientation, culture or politics, I smile at them and introduce myself. I want everyone on this planet to get along and care about one another. Yes, we are all different, but I believe we are also alike and we can help each other by just getting along and believing in equality for all. The most important lesson in life I’ve learned is to never judge others. I wish I could convince everyone to believe in that. Yes, I live by the Golden Rule, even though I’ve stopped going to church many years ago because I realized that the higher being (for me) is in nature, not in a church. That is where I find my peace. Plus, becoming a Rotarian has also been the best decision I’ve ever made because there are so many like-minded people who are the best humanitarians I’ve ever met in my life. We all must keep doing good via “Service Above Self.”

  5. Dan Sockle says:

    Rotary, as an international organization, and NGO (emphasis on the “N”) is arguably best positioned to do things that political and religious leaders either cannot or will not – that being to put emphasis on commonalities instead of differences. I hope that RI leadership will see that this might be the most important issue for Rotarians to constructively and definitively confront – defaulting to “engagement with a purpose” rather than the avoidance of these two “taboo” topics that have been imbedded into our upbringing and culture for decades. Let us lead by example and energize our presence within the UN, possibly in collaboration with the Chaplaincy presence in this world body. My take on “Chaplaincy” is that those who agree to assume this function in an organization do so with the understanding that he or she will set aside their ordained faith in order to deliver spiritual support to people of all ethnicities, religions and cultures – focusing instead upon the commonalities we all share as human beings. This is a most timely post from John Borst and, in my opinion, goes to the heart of what Rotary is, or should be, all about. RI helped in the founding of the UN, certainly had a role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is long overdue for re-asserting itself both within the UN and through collaborations with other NGO’s around the world. Let us lead by our deeds and, hopefully, inspire our political and religious “leaders” to higher levels of genuine transparency and accountability – to the people and ideals they claim to champion.

    • Anonymous says:

      Sharing a perspective regarding ” I suspect there are many members who do not believe in a God or an after-life.” When I first joined Rotary, a big part of the appeal was that it was presented to me as a non-secular organization of business professionals. I was raised Protestant but my life’s journey has led me to be agnostic. I don’t know if there’s a loving Creator or not, but from what I observe, my feeling is that nobody is listening to our prayers but ourselves. Most of my friends’ volunteering activity is organized by churches. I’m no longer comfortable in church and I was excited to find Rotary as a secular organization. So my first meeting, when the Sargent-at-Arms led a prayer, I felt surprised and a little disappointed. I didn’t let that dissuade me from joining. I’m proud to be a Rotarian–it’s one of the best decisions of my life. My Club is now looking for a new S-a-A to and I want to help but I can’t if one of the duties is to lead the prayer. It’s honorable to listen respectfully during a prayer but for me to actually lead it would not be Truth. Some clubs in my area seem entirely very devout Christian and even have a full committee dedicated to the prayer. When I work with those people I get invites to Bible studies and church services and have to gently decline. They are really warm and caring people, and it actually means a lot to me to be invited to join them with open arms. I don’t want to change my friends’ traditions or offend anyone, but their unconscious pressure to take part in their theism often puts me in an uncomfortable position. I don’t feel like I can be open about my beliefs and practice Service Above Self without service to a deity. It makes me feel like an outsider. I wonder if anyone else in my club has similar beliefs or feelings.

      • Dan Sockle says:

        Well, Anon, most of the clubs I have experienced have “Words of Inspiration” instead of a slot dedicated solely to prayer. It would then be the Rotarian’s choice of humor, a poem perhaps, or prayer – and everyone simply respected whatever his or her choice. That seems fair to me.

      • Omotunde Balogun says:

        My Club allows one or two minutes of silence for everyone to say their prayers as they deem fit. This has gone down well with everyone because we all have our different beliefs. Also, in Nigeria because of our ethnics differences which can be divisive, we do not allow discussions on religion, politics and ethnicity.

        We get along so well at the Club that I wish my country will borrow a leaf from Rotary.

  6. Rayfield Boutcher says:

    If it’s not broken – don’t break it. Let us get on with providing Service Above Self.

  7. Ed Thompson says:

    I often wonder what the world would be like if the common belief was no “life after Death”. Would we have Armies? Wars? Suicide Bombers? Weapons of Mass Destruction? Suicides? Or are we humans “wired” to “wipe out” our “made up enemies” even if we risk an early death to do the “wiping out”. Perhaps the courtesy of insisting that a friend go first through a door, would change to going last!

    Ed Thompson

  8. I have to admit that I really appreciated running into the post, particularly as I just raised this question myself to my Rotarian group (if you’d like to see the post, you can find it here… ( I find the debate very interesting, particularly as Herbert Taylor himself did not take credit for the Four-Way Test itself, but rather attributed its creation to prayer. In questioning my Rotarian list members, I received many very impassioned “hell no!’ responses as well as equally fervent “Prayer MUST be part of Rotary because we’re doing God’s service.” But, the argument can be: what God/whose God? I’m about to write the follow up email sharing Rotarians’ responses — I’m sure it’ll lead to another lively discussion. If you’d like to join the email list, feel free to click on the link here:

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