A person cannot worship both the Almighty and the Almighty Dollar, the prophets teach. It is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye, says Jesus, than for a rich man to get to heaven. Obsession with money? Nothing less than the root of all evil.
It's not just Christianity and Judaism that warn people to be careful about their relationship with money. Islam rejects usury; Buddhism condemns greed as one of the three great poisons. Considering all this, it would be understandable if one concluded we should be afraid, very afraid, of money and what it can do to the soul -- or, far more likely, engage in some serious compartmentalizing when it comes to our financial lives and our faith lives.
This is why it's fascinating to see a rising current of people of faith and spirituality not taking poverty vows, not separating finance and faith, but embracing capital as a potent vehicle for the expression of their belief.
You've heard of values voters; these are your values investors. Microfinance providers, venture capitalists who fund only people and projects enhancing the common good, everyday church people who make sure their investments promote the same values as their donations -- they are all part of an increasingly visible contagion trying to transform how we deploy our dollars.
"You can transform the world," says Olivia Teter, a vice president at the spirituality-based RSF Social Finance, "if you can change the way people work with their money."
There is much in this to be cheered, especially when you consider the villain role played by money or its absence in the big crimes (Madoff), political conflicts (government debt and spending) and family struggles (how to pay the mortgage?) so prominent in recent chapters of the national saga. What better area than our financial lives -- collective and individual -- for faith and spirituality to bring healthy change?
Listening to ordained Baptist minister Andy Loving of Louisville talk about money and the church, you quickly understand why he has often had gadfly status at the congregations where he has worked and worshiped. "The church subscribes to the gospel of Wall Street as much as anyone else," says Loving, who finds his true calling as a faith-based financial planner. In an interview, Loving goes on to explain that churches generally do a great job of encouraging charity -- including, of course, giving to the church -- but rarely have much to say about how people direct their investment dollars.
Loving contrasts conventional investing -- Wall Street economics -- with what he calls "Sabbath economics." With one, it's all about getting the greatest possible return. With the other, the point is creating the greatest possible good while netting a good return in the process.
It's ultimately self-defeating, Loving says, to behave as though business is business, faith is faith, and never the 'twain shall meet. If a churchgoer donates to organizations working to improve health in impoverished neighborhoods, while investing in companies promoting junk food and cigarettes in those very areas, what net good has her or his money created?
When it comes to supporting one's congregation and favorite charities, Loving has a simple message for church people: Keep up the good work. It's the deployment of investment dollars where change comes in. And what it means in practice is reorienting one's investment strategy such that you risk a slightly reduced financial return in exchange for a better social return.
Instead of obsessing over how little we possess and how much more we need, faith- and spirit-based investment advisers urge investors to be grateful for how much they have and imagine the good they could accomplish if they invested it generously. "There's enough for everybody's need," Loving says, "just not for everybody's greed."
To be clear, investing for the social good is not exactly new. The National Council of Churches, for example, has undertaken shareholder activism, social-purpose mutual funds and the like since the 1970s. It's the degree to which this financial do-gooderism has taken off lately that gets one's attention.
Socially responsible investing nearly quintupled in the U.S. from 1995 to 2010 as measured by the amount of professionally managed dollars invested, growing from 9 percent to 12 percent of the national total, according to data from the Social Investment Forum Foundation. That growth has been especially eye-catching through the Great Recession, with socially responsible assets jumping by 13 percent while most other indexes either stagnated or declined.
And consider the success of Oikocredit. Founded by the World Council of Churches, Oikocredit has grown to the point where it now encompasses 43,000 investors, 863 capital recipients, some 500 participating church organizations and the equivalent of $700 million invested around the globe.
There's something about the way this plays out that subverts the long-standing dichotomy between "hard-headed" business people and naive "do-gooders." The causes and projects that benefit from values- and faith-based investing might often sound liberal -- sustainable development in Latin American "biosphere reserves," to cite one Oikocredit project, or women merchant cooperatives in Africa -- but the strategy is capitalism through and through, the art and science of doing well and doing good with one fell private-finance swoop. Try starting a political argument over that.
Part of the genius of religion in America has been our ability to accommodate two colossal cultural forces -- Christianity and capitalism -- that often appear to pull in opposite directions. If a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute is any indication, many Americans struggle to reconcile the two. The survey, released in April, finds that more of us (44 precent) see a conflict between the free-market system and Christian values than those who do not (36 percent).
Economic distress can intensify the same tug of war in many individuals. We do what we have to do to pay the mortgage, fill the tank, get medical care for the kids. Investments. We try, for the most part, to maximize our returns. All the while, the teachings of our faith and spiritual traditions press us to do more for the less fortunate, and do it now. The conflict takes its toll.
But what if we found a way to lead our money lives more closely in sync with our spiritual lives?
I don't doubt that integrating the spirit and finance can help "heal the planet," as the San Francisco-based RSF Social Finance says in its literature. It might go a long way toward creating something closer to wholeness in each one of us, too.
Tom Krattenmaker, a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. He is the author of the book 'Onward Christian Athletes'.
This column first appeared in USA Today.