Did Jack Welch's Evangelical Faith Change the Controversial 'Rock Star' CEO of General Electric? | Opinion

Jack Welch
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 11: Former business executive, author, and chemical engineer Jack Welch is interviewed by LinkedIn Executive Editor Dan Roth at LinkedIn Studios on March 11, 2015 in New York City. Mike Coppola/Getty Images for LinkedIn/Getty

This story is being co-published with Religion Unplugged.

The life of John F. "Jack" Welch at some point "went awol from the Catholic Church," said writer Mike Barnicle, the former Boston Globe columnist, speaking from a podium inside St. Patrick's Cathedral on Thursday about his deceased friend.

The truth may be more complicated than that.

Welch died on March 1 at age 84 at his home in Manhattan. He rose from humble origins in Boston to become an engineer at General Electric Co. Rising to the chief executive in 1981, Welch led GE for two decades and saw its market capitalization (the value of its shares on the stock market) rise from $14 billion to more than $410 billion under his leadership. When he retired in 2001, GE was the biggest company on the stock market and Welch was a household name, a best-selling author and a rock star CEO regarded by some as the greatest corporate leader on the planet.

The funeral raised the question of Welch's personal legacy as well as his spiritual life. Welch was known as a pugnacious, counter-intuitive, hard-driving corporate executive. Welch married three times and his third wife, Suzy Wetlaufer, met Jack in 2001 when she was interviewing him for the Harvard Business Review. The two had an affair, which was later exposed by Jack's then wife Jane Beasley. Suzy was forced to resign from her post at the Harvard Business Review. Jack and Suzy then married in 2004, wrote a book together, a weekly column together and started an online business school together.

I met them first in 2009 in the context of that business school when I was covering General Electric Co. for The Wall Street Journal and caught wind of their plans to launch the school. One of the co-founders of the school, Michael Clifford, was an outspoken evangelical Christian who talked about his faith a good deal during my phone interview with him in 2009 and apparently told Jack that I also identified as a Christian believer.

When I showed up at Jack and Suzy's apartment in 2009 to interview them about the business school (also hoping I could get them to talk about GE), Jack welcomed me in and went on the charm offensive, hoping I would write a favorable story about the school he was preparing to launch. He tried to find points of commonality, noting Suzy and I were both journalists.

"What church do you attend?" Jack asked me. "Suzy is Baptist!"

I told him where I attended at the time (Resurrection Presbyterian in Brooklyn, which was a daughter church of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan) and discussed the pastors and church. At that time, Jack indicated he grew up Catholic but didn't really go to church. He indicated it was mostly Suzy's interest.

Five years later, in October of 2014, I made another visit to Jack and Suzy. I'd moved abroad to Germany and then back to New York. I'd entered higher education myself and written about education technology, interviewing Jack a few times in the intervening years. So it was a cordial catch-up visit, once again sitting at Jack's dining room table in a midtown high rise overlooking Central Park. Again, Jack wanted to discuss faith as a common interest.

Welch said he was faithfully attending Family Church of West Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla., where Jimmy Scroggins serves as lead pastor. Welch raved about the sermons at the church and described the one he heard that most recent Sunday. Suzy talked about leading a Bible study and said she was considering launching a TV show on a Christian theme. They told me about the church in Manhattan they attend (the name of which I don't recall).

In classic "Straight from the Gut" style, Jack told me that I seemed like a happier and more grounded person now that I was married, had a child and switched into academia from full-time journalism. I admitted he was right. He also seemed more at peace than I remembered. I wondered if his faith had something to do with that?

"I didn't really understand the Bible before," Jack said, explaining his upbringing was Christian in tradition and that he felt he understood the Bible now as something more applicable to his life. He indicated he understood a different approach to life and faith. I told Jack and Suzy about John McCandlish Phillips, the famous New York Times reporter who kept his Bible on his desk, quietly lived his faith as he covered feature stories and for whom we named a journalism institute.

When Jack passed away earlier this week, I sent a tweet noting that perhaps few knew about the spiritual side of Jack Welch.

A notable journalist friend wrote me a private Twitter message that said, "Did Jack and Suzy speak about the importance of faith before or after their affair?" He noted that celebrities who talk publicly about faith often are the ones battling incredible vice.

Sometimes that is true. As Francois de La Rouchefoucauld once said, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue" in all of us. I wrote to my journalist friend, "Maybe it shouldn't mean faith is absent from public discourse? Maybe it's more of a question of how people discourse about it?"

Welch seemed to keep his own faith very private. Perhaps he didn't want to come across as a hypocrite? I wrote to my journalist friend, "It might have been healthy if he [Welch] came forward and gave an honest account of his missteps in business and in life?"

Often, titanic CEOs and celebrities are careful about their legacy and their image. They are embarrassed and quiet about their misdeeds. Kobe Bryant, for example, was quiet but a few times pointed to his faith as saving his marriage after his marital infidelity and alleged rape. Others such as Justin Bieber and Kanye West talk (and sing) about faith very openly and also seem to own their past mistakes and failures.

At Jack Welch's funeral inside St. Patrick's Cathedral Thursday the Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan presided as the sanctuary was roughly 60 percent full of former GE colleagues, business associates and family members. Tourists wandered into the side aisles to gawk and take pictures. Robert Frank from CNBC reported from outside the church.

Barnicle, who narrated the audio version of the best-selling book "Straight from the Gut," said he and Jack each grew up going to Catholic mass in their respective working-class towns in Massachusetts. He knew Welch as a "guy who never really forgot who he was and where he came from."

"All those years, he never lost his faith," Barnicle said. "Maybe he lost his way sometimes... but he never lost his faith."

Barnicle said he imagined Jack being welcomed by Jesus and the 12 apostles. Would Jack look at the 12 Apostles and say, "Why 12?!"

The honorary pallbearers to carry the coffin from the church included New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, billionaire Barry Diller, former NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack and Home Depot billionaire financier Ken Langone.

Among those proceeding with the billionaires, GE brass and celebrities to accompany the coffin to the hearse were two men of the cloth: Cardinal Dolan and Rev. Jimmy Scroggins.

Paul Glader is executive editor of ReligionUnplugged. A professor of journalism at The King's College in NYC, Glader covered General Electric from 2008 to 2011 during his 10-year career as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. He is on Twitter @PaulGlader.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Did Jack Welch's Evangelical Faith Change the Controversial 'Rock Star' CEO of General Electric? | Opinion | Opinion