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Social conservatives rally an investor army

They have long used boycotts to sway policy, but now social conservatives are aiming to put their savings where their beliefs are.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2007

Mike Stack, an ultrasound technician in Royal Oak, Mich., was volunteering at an antiabortion pregnancy crisis center about three years ago when he had a rude awakening.

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While reading a special interest newsletter, he learned that the company handling his investments was a contributor to abortion provider Planned Parenthood. That got him wondering about his mutual funds: Did they own shares in companies with links to abortion practices?

"I thought, 'Jeez, I'm doing all this work to try to end abortion, and my money is supporting it,' " says Mr. Stack, a devout Roman Catholic. Within a few months, he was working with an antiabortion financial planner who helped him build an investment portfolio consistent with his beliefs.

Socially conservative activists believe the nation is full of people ready to have an awakening like Stack's. "Morally responsible" or "val­ues based" investing, they say, has been an underutilized tool in their quest to rid society of abortion, pornography, and domestic-partner benefits for homosexual couples. It's a tool whose time has come, they say.

Social conservatives will have an opportunity to hear a lot more about investing that reflects their values. That's in part because this summer, the American Family Association will embark on a first-time mission to encourage its 2.8 million online members to purge their portfolios of companies that support a "gay agenda" and other "antifamily" practices. [Editor's note: The original version misstated that Women of Faith had committed to promoting ethical investing at 28 inspiration events it has organized this year. The group has made no such commitment.]

Hitching conscience to capital

Anecdotes, too, suggest a conservative wave of hitching conscience to capital. For example, four years ago, only about 15 percent of John Vleko's financial planning practice in Southfield, Mich., was dedicated to antiabortion investments. Today, it's more than 60 percent. But he believes many investors still haven't made the connection.

"Millions of people who feel so fervently about the causes that touch their hearts are helping to fund the enemy," Mr. Vleko says. "When people find out they possess this kind of moral leverage, I think we will see an increasing tsunami of taking money away from companies that are promoting the culture of death and spewing all this garbage that's coming out of the entertainment industry."

For most social conservatives, values-based investing represents new territory. Although what's known as socially responsible investing dates to the Vietnam era, socially conservatives have rarely been involved, says Tim Smith, president of the Social Investment Forum, a network of socially concerned investment organizations. One reason: SRI on the whole has embraced a number of traditionally liberal causes, such as shunning weaponsmakers – something that has held scant appeal for hawkish conservatives and those preeminently concerned with raising standards for sexual morality.

"We're talking about two universes here," Mr. Smith says. "The conservative Christian groups obviously see the world through a very different set of spectacles than, say, the Calvert Group or the Presbyterian Church (USA). So there's very little room for either interaction or cooperative effort."

Conservative activists have long used money to advance social change, but they've deployed it, not as investors, but as political donors and consumers. The AFA, for instance, used a boycott in the late 1980s to pressure 7-Eleven stores to stop stocking pornographic magazines. More recently, the group's members successfully urged advertisers on "The Book of Daniel," a television show about a clergyman with a drug habit, to withdraw their support. Show creator Jack Kenny last year said AFA's pressure was behind NBC's decision to cancel the show in January 2006 after just four episodes.