Christianity and the Rise of the Investor Left

Carl Horowitz
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Posted: Aug 25, 2007 12:01 AM

For most of this decade the Left has been riding a wave of popular discontent over highly-publicized corporate corruption, rarely wasting an opportunity to point out scandals at Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and other major companies.  That more than once their officials have been carted away to federal prison confirms the progressives' conviction that capitalism desperately needs moral therapy.    

Much of this opposition is informed by a set of anti-business teachings that are explicitly religious, and from a Christian perspective.  A website, Sunshine for Women (www.pinn.net), features a homily, "What Would Jesus Do?"  The sermon reads in part:  "Jesus Would NOT be on the Board of Directors of a Fortune 500 corporation....Jesus Would NOT lobby politicians on behalf of wealthy corporations.  Jesus Would NOT be a Wall Street trader, a banker for a large national or international banking conglomerate, or participate in the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF)."     

Such sentiments are hardly new.  In Europe, Catholic anti-capitalism has a centuries-long pedigree.  Long after the passing of Medievalism, many have subscribed to the view that business dulls our noble religious impulses.  The Christian Socialist Movement emerged in the early-19th century as a response to what its adherents viewed as the destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution.  From the early-20th century onward, the British Labour Party, more than commonly imagined, has been Christian in character; Tony Blair, far from negating this legacy, shrewdly adapted it to contemporary reality.

Here in America, Christianity and socialism (or at least suspicion of commercial culture), also long allied with one another, became a potent mass movement during the latter half of the 1960s.  Perhaps its most famous alumnus is Hillary Clinton, whose sharp turn to the left during her Wellesley undergraduate years in a real sense affirmed the Methodist Social Gospel of her girlhood.  The appeal of the Religious Left remains high today.  The Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant denominations regularly denounce corporate greed, callousness and dishonesty, backing up their words through participation in boycotts, demonstrations and media campaigns.  Jesse Jackson is in good company. 

It isn't as if this tendency hasn't had critics.  Eighties-era books such as Michael Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism and Doug Bandow's Beyond Good Intentions defended capitalism from a Christian perspective, challenging the case for socialism put forth by their co-religionists.  During this decade, Mark D. Tooley, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy's United Methodist Committee, has written a series of highly effective exposes for Front Page Magazine (www.frontpagemag.com) of Leftist church activism run amok. 

But there is an angle to contemporary Christian progressivism which thus far has gotten too little attention:  shareholder activism.  Religious institutional investors, bent on guiding corporate America down a more righteous path, over the years have been buying large blocks of stock.  More than any single entity, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) serves as the movement's clearinghouse. 

The ICCR, based in New York City, was founded by a coalition of clergy and laymen in 1971 as an offshoot of the National Council of Churches.  The ICCR by decade's end had embarked on aggressive, media-conscious campaigns to oppose nuclear power, block Nestle's marketing of allegedly tainted infant bottle formula, and urge corporate divestment from South Africa.  By 1980, Fortune magazine would describe the center as a "confluence of radical Christian and Marxist thinking."  The center today might disavow the word "Marxist," but its grievances against corporations remain real, far-reaching and grounded in religious conviction.  Given its current network of 275 investor organizations with a combined portfolio exceeding $110 billion, the ICCR, though with a relatively tiny budget, has a lot of weight to throw around. 

Each year, ICCR investors file scores of proxy resolutions at corporate shareholder meetings on issues ranging from global warming to AIDS research to subsidized health care.  They don't necessarily pass, but they do put issues on the table and CEOs on the defensive.  The real effectiveness of this new breed of radical shareholder can be gauged by the action behind closed doors in the form of dozens of ongoing negotiations, or "dialogues," with corporate officials.  By exacting concessions from management to drop certain practices and/or adopt others, shareholder groups are confident they are evolving a morally just society.  

These activists know how to locate, negotiate, win and flatter.  This past winter, for example, ICCR members, owners of a combined two million shares of Wal-Mart stock, submitted a resolution calling upon the company to join a campaign to create a universal, government-managed health care system.  While reluctant at first, Wal-Mart in the end agreed not to challenge the resolution.  Margaret Weber, corporate responsibility director of the Basilian Fathers of Toronto, congratulated the company as "constructively engaged."  And ICCR investors scored a coup in late 2004 when it coaxed the Ford Motor Co. into releasing details of how AIDS affects its operations.  Mary Ann Gaido, vice president of St. Joseph Health System and an ICCR board member, praised the company.  "Ford is doing the right thing for its employees and shareholders," she said.    

Such campaigns rest on the idea of society as a coalition of "stakeholders."  "A stakeholder," writes environmental activist Harry Van Buren in a recent ICCR report, "can be defined as any group or individual who can affect or is affected by a firm's activities.  There are lots of stakeholders to consider, including employees, communities, stockholders, suppliers, governments, and activist groups."  That would seem to cover just about everyone.  Common sense ought to dictate that it is well-organized spokesmen who presume to speak for "stakeholders."  ICCR-affiliated shareholders think they fit the bill.  As latter-day Trojan horses, they can rattle corporate cages from the inside.    

The "stakeholder vs. shareholder" dichotomy builds on latter-day hardcore anti-corporate criticism.  In his 2004 book, The Corporation:  The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan sees the world as hostage to moral squalor created by unaccountable corporate oligarchs.  For him and similar critics -- Thom Hartmann, Marjorie Kelly, Ted Nace and the ubiquitous Ralph Nader come to mind -- corporations, unless exposed and opposed, will ravage the environment, exploit workers, cheat consumers, ignore the poor, threaten public health, and wage covert war against indigenous peoples.      

 Religion has become indispensable in this battle.  Sojourners magazine editor-in-chief Jim Wallis recently wrote that Jesus Christ would have opposed "capital gains tax cuts for the wealthy and food stamp cuts for the poor."  PBS talk show host and former President Johnson press secretary Bill Moyers, an ordained Baptist minister, made his ire at "corporate activism" known in June in a speech before members of the United Church of Christ General Synod at the Hartford Civic Center:   

You have raised a prophetic voice against the militarism, materialism, and racism that chokes America's arteries.  It's a mystery to me.  Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me'...You have to wonder how this so-called Christian nation leaves so many children to suffer...For 30 years, we have witnessed a class war fought from the top down against the idea and ideal of equality.  It has been a drive by a radical elite to gain ascendancy over politics and to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that checked the excesses of private power.  

The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and its affiliates operate very much in this spirit.  They view business and the general public as part of a broad economic "church."  Just as business must exhibit a moral conscience in its dealings, people have an obligation to invest only in businesses having a conscience.  Consider this appeal by the Unitarian Universalist Association several years ago:

Before socially responsible investing, we would pray for peace on Sunday, and invest in war on Monday through Saturday.  There were painful contradictions around espoused values and then what really happened to investment of dollars.  In your congregation, ask whether the leaders of the congregation feel that moral imperative to do that kind of examination.  Then take steps to make an approach that is sensible and can work.          

There is an irony here.  In becoming shareholders, religious socialists have become part of the very capitalist system they profess to disavow.  This paradox, argues George Washington University political scientist Jarol Manheim, can be explained by the fact that while the Left may dislike most of the people who run corporations, they also see corporations as prizes to be won.  To change the system, he observes, activists have adopted a strategy of infiltration and pressure from within.  Religious as well as civil-rights, environmental and labor activists have become skilled hardball negotiators, often winning the cooperation (and perhaps capitulation?) of business executives.    

Many on the Right now play the game, too.  Conservative and libertarian organizations introduce resolutions, launch boycotts, and start affinity mutual funds.  Leftists put their assets in Domini Social Investments, the Family of Faith Endowment Fund, and the Headwaters Fund; Rightists have the Free Enterprise Action Fund, Ave Maria Mutual Funds, and The Timothy Plan.  But at the risk of appearing logically inconsistent, there is an important distinction to be made here.     

What Leftist shareholders want is not simply reform, but revolution on the installment plan.  They seek to permanently alter the relationship between corporation and society in ways that effectively would render CEOs and boards as stakeholder wards.  Yes, Rightist traditionalists on occasion have put forth their own brand of radicalism.  But as their spectacularly ill-advised and unsuccessful boycott of Disney demonstrated, such campaigns can misfire.  Moreover, for sheer audacity, tenacity and focus, the Religious Right has proven no match for the Religious Left.   

Supporters of free enterprise can fight back by emphasizing the following point:  Corporations are creatures of specialization.  That is, companies exist to sell goods and services, not to serve as political mediators between interest groups, ever vulnerable to capture. 

Back in 1970, the late Milton Friedman wrote, rather famously, that "there is one and only one social responsibility of business -- to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."  What would Jesus say to that?  Religious Leftists might have some insights, but they might wait until after creating a few successful corporations before sharing them.