Saturday, August 11, 2007
Religious activists with a moral agenda for corporate America used to rely primarily on consumer boycotts and sympathetic lawmakers to get the attention of Wall Street.
But now their toolbox is growing -- and there's a lot more money it.
Over the past decade, America's market for religious investment products has grown by more than 3,500 percent, according to data from fund-tracker Morningstar Inc.
During the same period, faith-based mutual funds, which routinely agitate for social change in corporate board rooms or shun stocks they deem immoral, grew from about $500 million to more than $17 billion.
What's emerging, observers say, is a market-based response to popular demand for ways that people of faith can make their voices heard on issues closest to their hearts. And people of faith -- especially social conservatives -- are seizing what they see as a new opportunity to make a difference.
"It's just a matter of growing up" and adding more sophisticated tools for advancing an agenda, said Ronald A. Simkins, director of the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion & Society at Creighton University in Omaha. "Now, instead of boycotting Disney, they'll be investing in Fox Family Films."
Religious conservatives are mobilizing to attach a voice to the cash they have on Wall Street. For example, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association is for the first time urging its 2.8 million online members to purge their investment portfolios of companies that support a "gay agenda" or "anti-family" practices.
Yet, as social conservatives increasingly tether their agendas to their investments, they're hardly walking in lockstep. On the contrary, they're choosing among a range of religious financial products -- including 16 families of faith-based mutual funds -- that vary in how they define corporate responsibility.
Evangelicals, for instance, are getting behind more than one vision. Some have contributed to the $600 million Timothy Plan, a family of mutual funds with evangelical roots and a pledge to avoid "securities of any company that is actively contributing to the moral decline of our society." Translation: screening out companies -- including many in the benchmark S&P 500 Index -- affiliated with pornography, abortion, gambling, tobacco, alcohol and non-married lifestyles.
However, evangelicals are also behind much of the $900 million invested with the politically enigmatic Mennonite Mutual Aid Praxis Mutual Funds. This group avoids companies such as Pfizer, which fund managers regard as manufacturers of abortion products. But it also lobbies on behalf of shareholders for eco-friendly corporate policies, and its pacifist orientation screens out stocks in defense contractors and bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury.
MMA hears evangelicals saying " 'I want more,' " said Mark Regier, the MMA's stewardship investing services manager. " 'As an evangelical or conservative Christian, I do care about the environment. I do care about human rights. I do see the sense in being engaged with companies and encouraging them to move to more positive positions on social issues." '
Roman Catholics, too, are taking their faith in different directions on Wall Street. For instance, the KLD Catholic Values 400 Index attracts investors concerned not only about abortion but also environmental protection and discouraging overseas sweatshops. AHA Socially Responsible Equity Fund says it embraces the teachings of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ave Maria Mutual Funds, with about $550 million in assets, sticks with just three criteria that it regards as paramount: no abortion products or services; no pornography production or distribution (including hotels where room TVs offer adult programming); and no employee benefits for unmarried couples.