Greed is God: The Genesis of the Christian share index

They have no links to gambling, pornography or birth control (but pollution is OK). Jerome Taylor on a new portfolio of companies aimed at religious investors
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The Independent Online

They say that money is the root of all evil. Or do they?

When St Paul penned his first letter to Timothy, little did he know that his musings on wealth would turn out to be one of the most misquoted passages of the Bible. Christianity's most zealous convert was actually making a much more nuanced point. "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils," he wrote. "It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs."

Cash has always been a thorny subject for the devout. How can one be rich and pious? There can't be too many Christian bankers who are unaware that, according to Christ, camels have a better chance of passing through the eye of a needle than bankers do of getting into heaven. Yet the wealthy may be able to sleep more soundly following the creation this week of Europe's first "Christian equity index". The Stoxx Europe Christian Index is the brainchild of a German investment firm that has spotted a gap in the market to provide a list of companies that the faithful can happily invest in without feeling like they are sinning at the same time.

Using a committee of ethicists and theologians, the company has drawn up a list of 533 European companies that can be described as working "according to the values and principles of the Christian religion". It won't say which companies it considered too sinful to invest in, but it has said that any firm benefiting from gambling, pornography, weapons, tobacco and birth control is out.

Those that have been given the all clear (the index will only release its Top 10 to the public) include some of the largest companies in Europe – a number of whom have controversial environmental track records. Mining and oil giants such as Rio Tinto, BP and Royal Dutch Shell – all of whom have been accused by environmentalists of being major polluters – have been approved as ethically Christian companies alongside other multinational giants including Nestlé, HSBC and Siemens.

The prohibition on companies that make profits from contraceptives hasn't stopped the index clearing GlaxoSmithKline, which markets two birth-control pills – Elogen and Zerogen – in India. But finding a perfect Christian company that offers decent returns is anything but easy. "It's definitely a challenge and rarely black-and-white," says Edward Mason, secretary to the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group. "When you look at ethical investing, there are all sorts of shades of grey that need to be taken into account. The key is to draw some sort of line and once that line is crossed, that's when you do something."

The Church of England drew such a line earlier this year when it disinvested in Vedanta Resources, a FTSE 100 mining company that is building a controversial bauxite mine and alumina refinery in the Indian state of Orissa. The construction work has been strongly criticised by both human rights groups and environmentalists. So much so that in February the Church said it would sell its £2.5m in Vedanta shares because Vedanta had not shown "the level of respect for human rights" it expects.

John Hayward of the Jubilee Centre, a Christian-based social reform organisation that specialises in the ethics of money and debt, is less than impressed by Stoxx's approach to ethical investment. "In advising which companies to invest in, they seem to have concentrated on the negatives rather than looking for positives," he said. "The negatives are a helpful start for people, but surely it would be better to use positive ethical attributes to encourage people – be they Christian or not – to put their money into companies that are actively seeking to improve people's lives?"

That Christians are increasingly looking to invest ethically is hardly surprising given that religious leaders, including the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, led ferocious ideological attacks on the global banking system following its near-collapse two years ago.

Islamic financing, which pioneered ethical investments funds that don't compromise the beliefs of its investors, has also provided a blueprint for Christians to work with. "I think Muslims have encouraged Christians to care more deeply about economic issues," said Paul Woolley, director of the Theos Christian think-tank. "Something like high interest rates have become a major issue for Christians precisely because Muslims put that at the forefront of their own agenda."

Christians were also encouraging thoughtful business dealings long before socially responsible investment (SRI) funds became a standard feature of financing in the late 1990s. Christian-led opposition to the slave movement could be seen as the first example of a socially responsible investment protest. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, devoted reams of sermons on ethical business practices. His advice was to shy away from aggressive expansion that might hurt a rival and told his followers to avoid industries which harmed the health of ordinary workers. One wonders what he would make of today's market leaders.

The bankers and their beliefs

Stephen Green

The chairman of HSBC is also an ordained Church of England clergyman and author of the books Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality and an Uncertain World and Serving God? Serving Mammon? In an interview last year he defended his work. "The banking industry has not covered itself in glory, to say the least, in recent years," he said. "But I think that's quite a different thing to saying that all banking is corrupt or is there for personal enrichment. It's not true."

Ken Costa

South African-born Costa is the head of the Lazard International bank and Alpha International – the ever-growing Christian missionary group that runs the Alpha Course. His book, God At Work: Living Every Day with Purpose, is a guide for Christians in the workplace. In his book he wrote: "As an investment banker in the City of London, I have read the Financial Times and the Bible almost every day for the last 30 years. People often ask how I reconcile being a banker and a Christian. There is a widespread view that God and business simply don't mix. But I have found that the God who created and sustains the world is also the God of the workplace. If the Christian faith is not relevant in the workplace, it is not relevant at all."

Hector Sants

After a 30-year career in banking, Sants became the City's top watchdog in 2007 as head of the Financial Services Authority. Following his appointment he said: "As a Christian, I feel strongly that in the latter part of one's career, it is important to give back to the community." It is not known whether he gave away any of his £700,000 salary to charity. Sants' resignation from the FSA earlier this year has thrown the watchdog into chaos in the run-up to the election. The Tories have vowed to get rid of the FSA and hand responsibility for supervising the City to the Bank of England.

Philip Richards

A former army captain and co-founder of RAB Capital hedge fund, Richards was one of the most high-profile evangelical Christians working in the City. He claimed to have tithed 10 per cent of his income, even when he had his first job in the City and "earned less than the secretaries". In 2006 he gave away half of his £3.25m salary to Christian charities. Was forced to step down from RAB in the autumn of 2008 after betting on the recovery of Northern Rock.

The Christian Index's Top 10 Companies


2 BP

3 Nestlé

4 Vodafone

5 Roche

6 Royal Dutch Shell

7 GlaxoSmithKline

8 Telefonica

9 Siemens

10 Rio Tinto