Putting your money where your faith is

adventistinvestingLast week we looked at veteran Time religion writer David Van Biema‘s fun piece “Is It OK to Pray for Your 401(k)? A Theological Primer.” We’ve been calling for good religion coverage, when possible, of the current economic situation. Van Biema followed up that great piece with a really fun and interesting look at how different religions understand appropriate investment.

For each religion, we learn a bit about the overall philosophy and then some specifics about religion-based investment groups. Here’s how the Muslim section begins:

For centuries Muslims were either out of the Western stock market or burdened with a certain amount of guilt. The Koran states, “Whatever you give as riba so that it might bring increase through the wealth of other people will bring you no increase with Allah.” Since riba means “interest,” this was a powerful dampener on investment for the pious. In 1998, however, the influential scholar Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo released the so-called “Dow Jones Fatwa”, which allowed believers to invest in funds with a degree of what one of his sons termed “permissible impurity”.

Because the Muslim funds are not as dynamic as other portfolios, they experience less growth in bull markets but fewer problems in economic downturns. We then learn about Ave Maria Catholic Values, a fund that won’t invest in companies involved with abortion, contraception, pornography or providing benefits to unmarried couples of any kind.

Ave Maria’s mid-cap blend is not in the Morningstar top 5%, but another, tiny Catholic fund called Epiphany has a large blend that is in its category, and has posted an incredible (given market conditions) growth rate of about 40% from June to September. Epiphany, too, plays doctrinal hardball, basing its screening process on what CEO Sam Saladino says are “a lot of different Church teachings.” Epiphany eschews companies that contribute to Planned Parenthood, tries to avoid those that manufacture weapons or discourage unions. It gravitates predictably toward firms engaged in adult (rather than embryonic) stem-cell research, and, interestingly, to companies in the top-100 firms list of the magazine Working Mother. An Epiphany spokeswoman explained, “When looking for positive criteria to reflect family values, we felt their scorecard fit.” It may be a sign of the changes in the Church that few Catholics would have employed that definition of family values 50 years ago.

So nice to see the distinction between embryonic-destroying stem cell research and research performed on adult stem cells. Epiphany, interestingly, also won’t invest in corporations that pay their CEOs more than $12 million a year. Protestant funds are all over the place. Some avoid the classic “sin stocks” such as Playboy Enterprises. (I imagine that there would be sound financial reasons having nothing to do with morality for avoiding that one . . .) Others use shareholder advocacy to press for causes like fair-trade coffee and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Even though Van Biema didn’t find any investment funds aimed at Jews, he looked guidelines for religious Jews. The only man quoted, a professor of economics at Yeshiva, says that investment in weapons companies is always unacceptable. I imagine that’s not a universal view but we don’t get an alternate perspective. A small quibble and Van Biema packed a ton into this relatively brief story:

The faith side of religious funds is aimed at decreasing sin rather than increasing profit, and doing that well doesn’t guarantee a strong return on investment. Amana’s Salam, observing that there are several other Muslim groups that have not fared as well during the crisis as his own, explains “After you’ve screened for the Islamic criteria, you still end up with 50% of the market available,” and from then on “it’s a matter of good stock-investment skills.” Kathman has written, “If you decide to invest in any of these funds, it should be because you agree with the moral principals [sic] underlying the fund,” not because you think those principles will be the ones that assure a good return.

A nice wrap-up, too. I have been really pleased with some of these recent stories about religion and economics.

Art is from Adventist Review.

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Judging God v. Mammon

worship of mammonCould the Sunday article in The Washington Post‘s Style section on families turning from money to faith have been told without mentioning religion at all?

The article is about how the current economic crisis is forcing families to look to things other than money for satisfaction. Churches and spiritual leaders are involved in this transformation, which is primarily driven by people’s dwindling portfolios and fears of losing jobs or not getting raises. No longer are children going to get everything they want as they have since the Great Depression and oh how those kids will suffer:

At a time when the magnitude of the nation’s economic decline has been staggering and panic-inducing, a quiet resolve is emerging in many middle-class families to take a step back and reconsider their lives in a spiritual or philosophical way, according to interviews with clergy, economists and residents.

It may be a natural response to crisis, but some, including Platais, suggest that the accumulated loss and turmoil have produced a will to find meaning in other ways: refocusing on relationships and values, helping people in need. Many parents are talking to children about buying less, saving for what they really want and delaying gratification.

“We have to go back to the things that are really important, which aren’t things at all,” Platais said. “They are people and relationships, and it’s love and your faith and your neighbors and the people you take care of.”

This concept is easier for those whose losses are few or more abstract — say, in retirement accounts that might not be touched for a decade. It is tougher for those who feel immediately imperiled by the downturn, who have lost homes, jobs or money they need now.

The article describes these families as if they were sinking ships. All that has mattered up until now in keeping these Titanics afloat was money to buy stuff and the hopes of more money to buy more stuff. Now that’s no longer the case for the average middle class American. A vague sense of “spiritual prosperity” is going to take the place of materialism. I don’t get a very good sense from the article what that is, nor do I get a sense that the people who are talking about “spiritual prosperity” know what they mean by spiritual prosperity.

The vague sense of spiritual prosperity could have been re-enforced if more authoritative sources were quoted, such as the Old or New Testament. An appeal to historical examples beyond the Great Depression could also have backed-up the concept portrayed in the article.

The article leaves me with a couple of thoughts as journalists strive to cover the spiritual side of the economic crisis.

My first thought is that this article plays the story fairly straightforward in the sense that materialism and faith are equally valid methods of maintaining happiness within a family. The article reminds me of a fashion piece describing the shift into the winter seasons. The summer fashions will slowly disappear, and as much as we liked the summer styles, it is just time to move on. Once the economy gets better, will it be OK to return to materialism since that seems to be what everyone wants anyway? In that sense, the article is fairly objective.

In a significant way, readers are left to decide for themselves the value they wish to place on materialism. And I liked that. Unfortunately, I came away from the article with little idea of what it means to grow my “Spiritual Prosperity.”

Second, I hope we see some coverage of the prosperity theology, which teaches that genuine religious faith and acts result in people prospering financially. Along with this, I would hope journalists take the time to read the most profound book of Job in preparing to interview people who teach this version of the Gospel. The story of Job should generate some interesting questions for people who believe that one’s material worth is tied to their spiritual devotion.

Image of the 1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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To pray or not to pray

stock market crashOne of the hardest questions to answer for young reporters is this one: What is news?

One of the simple, but almost useless, definitions of “news” is this: What people are talking about. OK, but which people? In the newsroom? In the offices of major advertisers? The weather is news. But is last night’s episode of “The Office” really news? A1 news?

I thought of this the other day when I clicked on veteran Time religion writer David Van Biema’s feature called “Is It OK to Pray for Your 401(k)? A Theological Primer.”

Well, it’s not hard news. But it’s certainly what people are talking about — including the religion angle. Be honest. Didn’t you think about that? Didn’t you think twice about how to pray for, uh, the market? Thus, Van Biema writes:

TIME talked to Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clerics about the kind of prayer that is appropriate in a time of possible economic peril and found strong agreement on some basic advice.

“People absolutely need to know that it’s natural to ask God’s [personal] help in times of crisis,” says James Martin, a priest, editor at the Jesuit magazine America and author of the book My Life with the Saints. “It’s human and we can’t not do it.” Martin points out that the Psalms — in many ways the Western model for all personal prayer — are full of such special pleading. And in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus doesn’t forget to include “give us this day our daily bread.”

Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, also recognizes the legitimacy of the “help me” prayer, noting that the third of four prayers that religious Jews are expected to recite after meals asks God to “grant us relief from all our troubles. May we never find ourselves in need of gifts or loans from flesh and blood, but may we rely only upon your helping hand, which is open, ample and generous.” Says Shamsi Ali, imam of the huge Islamic Cultural Center on 96th Street in Manhattan: “In this kind of situation, Muslims turn their face to God and say, ‘Almighty God, we submit ourselves fully to you, heal us and strengthen us. What you give, no one can prevent, and what you prevent, no one can give.’ “

Where some people veer off the doctrinal charts is with prayers for, well, windfalls that show up in their bank accounts. In other words, praying for protection and wisdom and even for God’s blessing is different than a prayer for wealth or divine intervention in the market. Does God act in that way? Most theologians would say that question is above their pay grade.

So this is a valid religion feature, creating a bridge between hard news and the daily bread concerns of readers.

As I read it I thought of a column that I wrote a few years ago, hours before a hurricane knocked out the power in our home in West Palm Beach, Fla. How do you pray when a hurricane is headed your way? Pray for it to hit someone else? Vanish into thin air? It’s interesting, I think, that the doctrines that apply to hurricanes are also very useful during storms in the marketplace.

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No interest? No problem.

Structuring Islamic  Finance Transactions coverOver the past few years, we’ve seen stories about Muslim rules prohibiting interest payments. Usually these stories are in a non-US context and deal with Muslim banking in general. But this wonderful Associated Press story looked at the issue in a distinctly American context:

Mohamed Nurhussien faced the usual challenges of a low-income worker trying to buy a home, with one big difference: As a Muslim he was forbidden by his religion to pay interest.

The 54-year-old Eritrean immigrant with five children thought his only option was to save enough money to purchase a home outright, with cash earned from his job at a security company.

Then he heard about Habitat for Humanity. For some Muslim immigrants like Nurhussien, the Christian homebuilding charity that offers zero-interest loans has become a real godsend.

The story looks at the growing number of Muslim families that have benefited from Habit for Humanity programs. The reporter also speaks with Samuel Hays, a Harvard Business School expert on Islamic finance.

Intermediaries often buy homes, then sell them to Muslim families with a markup that reflects a reasonable rate of return for the money that sellers have tied up in the property, Hayes said.

“It’s comparable to a mortgage with the interest rate built in,” he said.

The difference may seem minor, but to many Muslims, it is an important distinction because they believe God knows the difference, he said.

Imams such as Johari Abdul-Malik are also brought into the story. He says he learned about Habitat for Humanity programs when a Presbyterian minister friend invited him to a fundraiser:

“So many people in the promotional film that were building homes were Muslim,” Abdul-Malik said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Something’s wrong with this picture. Churches are stepping in and building Habitat homes for Muslims. We’re not going to stand by and not help build homes for others.’

“It really put a bee in my kufi.”

He’s now working to increase Muslim presence in Habitat leadership. How does Habitat, a distinctly Christian organization, feel about that? The AP asks and finds out that local directors have no problem. Nashville Habitat executive director Chris McCarthy reports:

She said she’s proud of the diversity of local Habitat neighborhoods and that little racial or religious tension is apparent among Habitat families. Most Muslim families even happily accept the Bible that U.S. Habitat groups traditionally give to new homeowners along with the keys.

For a somewhat brief story, the AP did a great job of looking at the issue from multiple sides and not leaving gaping holes. I hope we see more such stories on finance and religion.

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God looks on

Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by MichelangeloEarlier today I was pondering the differences between the 2008 presidential election and the 2000 presidential election. Religion and religious issues were a big deal in 2000. Also different in 2000 was the fact that the nation’s economy wasn’t completely tanking, and the country wasn’t involved in two major wars thousands of miles from home. In 2004, the country was at war, but the economy was relatively stable, at least it appeared to be. Again, religion was a significant part of the national conversation, particularly after the election.

Now things are different. Religion and religious issues are hard to come by in the national conversation, particularly in the presidential debates.

The French news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP), noted as much early Monday in an article detailing religion’s “lesser role” in this year’s presidential election:

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Scratch the surface of any US elections, and religion can usually be found not far below. But this year it seems to be playing less of a determining role than in the past, experts say.

Religion divides the electorate and weighs heavily on a society in which eight of 10 Americans say they believe in God. In 2004, evangelical Christians were seen to have helped President George W. Bush win a second term.

But with just three weeks left before the November 4 vote, economic concerns have taken center stage in this White House race, pushing morality-related issues to the sidelines.

The article cites the Pew study as evidence that the “religious landscape and electoral preferences” have changed little over the last four years. The big difference, according to the article, is that neither candidates, Democrat Barack Obama nor Republican John McCain, have focused on “abortion, sexual education and gay marriage.” There is no real good answer for that other than the fact the economy is on everyone’s mind. But does anyone think that if the economy was just fantastic McCain or Obama would be talking about abortion, sex ed or gay marriage?

The article gives readers yet another example of a curious description of that tricky term “Evangelical Christians.” I wish I knew where the author of the article gathered this information since it’s not entirely inaccurate. However, that’s not to say that it is entirely accurate either, if that’s even possible anymore in a news article when it comes to defining evangelical Christians:

Evangelical Christians, who favor a strict interpretation of the Bible and include Baptists, Mennonites and Pentecostalists, formed the core of an electoral coalition that was at the heart of Bush’s 2004 reelection. Seventy-eight percent of evangelical whites voted for him.

“These voters very strongly supported President Bush in 2004, and in our 2008 survey, they are supporting Senator McCain at almost the same level, a little bit lower, but almost the same level,” Green pointed out.

The choice of conservative, devout Christian, Sarah Palin as his running mate has boosted McCain’s support among the religious right.

Favoring a strict interpretation of the Bible could mean so many things and yes, Evangelical Christians include those groups, but as a Presbyterian who considers himself an evangelical in the broad sense, I feel a little left out. (Also, Pentecostalists? Oh those Europeans. Generally we call it just Pentecostals.)

The article also contrasts the political views of evangelicals and mainline Protestants with an interesting description: they’re “classical Protestants.” Here’s more:

However, opinions are a lot more divided among classical Protestants.

“Mainline Protestants are very evenly divided between McCain and Obama in our 2008 survey, much as they were in 2004 and 2000,” Green said.

That is due to the fact that Obama is himself a Protestant belonging to what he describes as the classical branch of the church.

There’s nothing wrong with the term classical Protestants, but the reader is left to assume the article is referring to mainline denominations, whatever that means.

To get a better, more nuanced sense of how religion plays a role in politics, check out this NPR interview with Christopher Bader, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, on how a person’s image of God’s personality influences the way people vote (see more here). Perhaps it’s time to do away with these labels and start describing people’s views with regard to how they view God personally?

Image of a detail of the Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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Another debate without much religion

The big issue in tonight’s debate was the economy yet again (with foreign policy as the side dish). The closest the candidates came to discussing issues of morality or faith was both candidates’ criticism of Wall Street for corporate excess and greed and McCain’s frequent calls for faith in the American people.

Obama did mention that the country has a “moral commitment” to providing healthcare to people without health insurance. McCain mentioned that America is the greatest force for good in the world. We send our military troops everywhere — as peacemakers.

The transcript includes none of the following words: God, faith, pray(er), church, Islam, or Christ(ianity).

Michael Paulson’s Articles of Faith blog over at The Boston Globe noted that there was “[a]n unexpected twist in an otherwise religion-free presidential debate tonight” when moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC News alluded to Buddhism:

Brokaw, of NBC News, introduced the final question, from Peggy in Amherst, NH, by saying “it has a certain Zen-like quality.” He then proceeded to ask the question, “What don’t you know, and how will you learn it?” that both candidates blew past on their route to closing statements.

Paulson notes that the debate contained religion issues arising out of the Middle East involving Israel, terrorism and avoiding another Holocaust as a “moral” duty.

Mark Silk at the Spiritual Politics blog has a nice entertaining run-down, live-blog style, of this evening’s debate.

There was an excellent (but short) discussion between the candidates regarding the candidate’s policy regarding the use of military force where the United States’ national security is not a risk. The answers were cloaked heavily in terms of moral duty and the country’s national interest in intervening. Obama noted that, “there is a lot of cruelty around the world,” that we can’t be everywhere and the U.S. must rely on its allies. McCain said you have to be careful when you send American soldiers into harms way.

UPDATE: I neglected to notice last night Christianity Today‘s live blog of the debate:

There were seven references to God in the vice presidential debate. Tonight, zero. McCain said “my friends” or “my friend” 22 times, but there was little faith talk from either candidate tonight.

Maybe the closest was Obama’s line when referring to McCain’s approach to health care: “So what one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away.” Sounds a tiny bit like Job’s “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.”

Could the Job reference be counted as religious code talk?

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Praying about the economy

prayingBernankeMany GetReligion readers have been anxious for more religion stories that deal with the economic crisis.

In addition to the Time piece Doug highlighted, National Public Radio had an interesting story about how church leaders are responding to the country’s financial mess. Reporter Linton Weeks spoke with Episcopal, United Church of Christ and Orthodox clergy about what they’re doing to help parishioners who have been negatively affected.

The Episcopal priest says she has seen an increase in attendance, particularly on weekdays, and is offering extra prayer sessions and career counseling to help people cope. The UCC pastor has a different response:

Across the country at the Parkrose Community United Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., the Rev. Chuck Currie has noticed that his congregation is rife with “fear and distrust of leaders.”

He tries to calm the flock by saying: “Ultimately, our hope rests with God.”

But, he adds, “economic problems are moral problems and how we respond speaks about our relationship with God and to the world.”

Parkrose is no megachurch. With 114 members, it’s a small house of worship in a modest neighborhood of low-income and elderly people. “We have a responsibility,” Currie says, “to care first for those Jesus called the ‘least of these’ in society: the poor, homeless, sick, children and the elderly.”

I think it’s great to speak with a pastor who looks at the problem morally and who looks at the issue as having spiritual and earthly dimensions. I’m really not sure about this, but I’m wondering if the reporter should have identified Currie as being rather outspoken in his support of Obama. Is it relevant? Does it matter? I’m honestly not sure.

There was another part of the story I wasn’t quite sure about:

The current meltdown comes at an especially inopportune time — stewardship season.

Many churches calculate their finances according to the calendar year, and the first of October traditionally marks the time when preachers are talking about money anyway. On any given Sunday, you are liable to hear the pastor refer to the Apostle Paul, who quotes Jesus as saying: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

We don’t pledge money in my church but a quick Google search showed churches with stewardship drives in the winter, spring, summer and fall. And I’m not sure about hearing Acts 20:35 on “any given Sunday.” Liturgical churches have a lectionary they follow. In my church (we follow the historic one-year lectionary) we heard this reading on July 13. I guess technically it’s true that you might hear the verse on any given Sunday but that would go for any verse in the Bible. Perhaps it was just journalistic license but I think stewardship issues are quite sensitive and should be handled carefully.

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Mortgaging souls

DollarTime‘s headline of “Maybe We Should Blame God for the Subprime Mess” does an injustice to David Van Biema’s brief and informative update on prosperity theology’s march through the contemporary church.

The results of that march are ugly. Christians who were persuaded that faithful believers will prosper sometimes ended up believing that a sudden decrease in their monthly note was the work of God, rather than of unethical and irresponsible lenders.

Van Biema turns to religion scholar Jonathan Walton, who will soon publish the book Watch This!: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, to help make sense of how prosperity has retained loyalty among some believers:

. . . Walton suggests that a decade’s worth of ever easier credit acted like a drug in Prosperity’s bloodstream. “The economic boom ’90s and financial overextensions of the new millennium contributed to the success of the Prosperity message,” he wrote recently on his personal blog as well as on the website Religion Dispatches. And not positively. “Narratives of how ‘God blessed me with my first house despite my credit’ were common. Sermons declaring ‘It’s your season to overflow’ supplanted messages of economic sobriety,” and “little attention was paid to … the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM to subsidize cars, clothes and vacations.”

One quibble with Van Bienma’s report: Saying that prosperity theology is “a type of Pentecostalism” gives short shrift to a Pentecostal denomination like the Assemblies of God, in which the church’s top councils have distanced themselves [PDF] from the prosperity teaching that a positive confession will guarantee a Christian’s well-being.

Reporting on prosperity also would benefit from D.R. McConnell’s argument, in A Different Gospel, that prosperity theology owes far more to pastor and New Thought devotee E.W. Kenyon than to anything in the Bible.

Van Biema’s closing paragraph brings home the emotional and spiritual wreckage of prosperity theology that’s left unchecked by pragmatism:

Brownsville [Assembly of God] is not even a classic Prosperity congregation — it relies more on the anointing of its pastors than on Scriptural promises of God. But the believer’s note to his minister illustrates how magical thinking can prevail even after the mortgage blade has dropped. “Last Sunday,” it read, “You said if anyone needed a miracle to come up. So I did. I was receiving foreclosure papers, so I asked you to anoint a picture of my home and you did and your wife joined with you in prayer as I cried. I went home feeling something good was going to happen. On Friday the 5th of September I got a phone call from my mortgage company and they came up with a new payment for the next 3 months of only $200. My mortgage is usually $1,020. Praise God for his Mercy & Grace.”

Image: Courtesy of PDPhoto.org.

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