Faith and finances do mix

What do faith and finance have to do with each other? A national survey released last week shows that more than half (56 percent) of Americans who invest in the stock market are interested in bringing their religious or ethical values to bear on investment choices. For those who call themselves religious, that figure rises to 62 percent.

"Many in the financial world mistakenly see religion and values mixing with investment only for a small niche of investors," says John Liechty, president of MMA Praxis Mutual Funds, the Mennonite group that sponsored the study. "This survey reveals that religion and ethical issues are cutting a much wider swath across investing."

The survey, "Where Faith and Wall Street Intersect," involved interviews with more than 1,000 investors by Opinion Research Corporation International.

Some 38 percent of investors said they now invest in "socially responsible funds," but more than 80 percent were not aware of the existence of religiously oriented mutual funds. Religious funds - there are about 50 - account for only a small percentage of total mutual fund assets. But 12 new religious investment products were launched between January and June 2001, according to Carlisle Social Investments. These included an MMA Praxis fund, Catholic index funds, and an Islamic fund.

The religiously oriented funds fit within the category of socially responsible mutual funds, and often have similar policies of avoiding investment in companies with poor environmental, safety, equal-employment, or sweatshop-labor records. Religious funds tend also to avoid the traditional "sin" industries: alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. Some, such as Mennonites and Catholics, in line with their values of peacemaking and nonviolence, avoid firms that sell weapons.

The issues of greatest concern to those interviewed were product safety, sweatshops, environmental record, labor relations, equal employment, and high executive compensation.

Some individual funds and their records can be found at www.socialfunds.com.

Other examples of funds include those of Lutheran Brotherhood, the Amana funds for Muslim investors, the Timothy Plan and Noah for evangelicals, and American Trust Allegiance for Christian Scientists.

"There is enormous potential for growth of investing that takes into account the religious values of tens of millions of Americans," suggests Steve Bowers, director of MMA research.

The survey showed that 56 percent of religious investors who had been unaware of the existence of such funds would be likely to consider buying the financial products. African-Americans were particularly keen (65 percent).

Women were more interested than men (63 to 49 percent) in incorporating their faith into financial decisions.

Methodists shed reserve, reach out

Evangelicals have never been shy about using TV to woo "the unchurched," but traditional Protestant churches have been much more hesitant suitors. This week, however, the United Methodist Church is "stepping out of the old notion of quiet reserve," says the Rev. Larry Hollon, the church's communications chief. On Sept. 4, the UMC launched a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign that will be carried on 15 cable networks as well as CBS.

Called "open hearts, open minds, open doors," the campaign aims to reach people unfamiliar with the language of faith or who may have had unhappy experiences with religious organizations, Mr. Hollen says. And it tries to share its messages in ways different from the usual fast-paced ads.

Pilot efforts suggest that it could have an impact - nearly 40 percent of the viewers polled showed an interest in visiting a UMC congregation after seeing the ads.

Many local congregations plan an "open-house month" during September, and regional training sessions have helped members consider "a variety of ways to be welcoming communities." The UMC is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the US, with some 8.5 million members.

Bestsellers get a playful poke

Some in the world of faith are aiming not only for the heart but also the funny bone. Billboards display God's sense of humor, hip ads nudge people to consider the ministry, and "The Simpsons" satirize the peculiarities of US religious experience. Now it seems evangelicals are taking on their own with new books that parody some of the most popular Christian bestsellers (apart from the Bible, of course). Two professors at a Christian college, Nathan Wilson and Douglas Jones, distressed by "marshmallow theology," have written takeoffs on the "Left Behind" series on events leading to the end of the world (42 million in print), and on "The Prayer of Jabez." Their works are titled "Right Behind" and "The Mantra of Jabez" (both Canon Press).

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