John Cortines and Greg Baumer couldn't help but laugh as they held their $100 bills in the air.
The pair were the only business school students in a divinity school seminar, and they had hoped to make a good first impression. But then, the professor asked everyone to pull out the cash in their wallet.
"Everyone else was holding up dollar bills," Cortines said. "God was playing a joke on us."
Although they swear the cash was a coincidence, the incident brought to life old stereotypes about the difference between financiers and people of faith. Business and belief — or Christianity and capitalism — are often understood as being in tension because people on Wall Street chase money while faith leaders warn against greed.
"The underlying question is whether the market's mores and processes are compatible with Christianity," said Jay Richards, an assistant research professor in The Catholic University of America's School of Business and Economics.
Cortines and Baumer spent their fall semester in 2014 arguing that the two disciplines align. Both are lifelong members of evangelical Christian churches, but they enrolled in Harvard Business School because they love money, too.
"I think other students appreciated our point of view," said Baumer, who, after graduating in May 2015, became the vice president of product development and innovation at a health care startup.
Their experiences in the seminar, which was titled "God and Money," inspired their new book of the same name, "God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School." In it, they offer Bible-based advice on spending, saving and donating money.
Richards and others who work at the intersection of religion and Wall Street said the book is a valuable reminder that people of faith benefit from being more thoughtful about their relationship to money. It's nearly impossible to escape the market in the modern world, and religious leaders and the people in their pews can do the most good when they face it head-on, they said.
The God-Money gap
Suspicion of the business world within faith communities often comes from a lack of knowledge, said Harvey Cox, who is the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and instructor of the “God and Money” seminar that Baumer and Cortines attended.
“The problem is that a lot of our theologically trained people are kind of spooked by the idea of going into or thinking about (the subject of money). They’re daunted by it or intimidated,” he said.
This hesitancy means that seminaries sometimes leave discussions of the market out of their curriculum. Students often only think about wealth in the context of the social gospel movement or liberation theology, both of which, generally, are critical of the business world, Cox noted.
“When I think about my theological education, the money aspect (of these events) was not explicitly dealt with. We were discussing historic, theological issues” as if financial conflict didn’t influence them, he said.
The lack of discussion may also stem from the awareness that money causes conflict, Cox noted. Even the earliest Christians described in the New Testament debated how wealth should be shared among church members.
Today, people of faith, including presidential candidates, continue to be judged by how much they give back to their religious groups. One conservative political group, Americans United for Values, released a 60-second radio advertisement in January that criticized Ted Cruz for giving less than 1 percent of his income to charity between 2006 and 2010.
As long as money is a touchy subject, a divide will remain between faith and business, Richards said, noting that overly simplistic views of the market also don't help.
Many people assume that altruism, a Christian value, and capitalism can’t coexist, but generosity does have a place in the market, he said.
"Even if a butcher is self-interested or even greedy, to be a successful butcher he has to provide something to others," Richards said, reflecting on the famous economist Adam Smith's presentation of the free market.
In other words, the market helps to ensure that resources such as food are available, even if people of faith and others sometimes have to step in to make sure people can access them.
The big picture
Tension between capitalism and Christianity leads to a variety of repercussions, Cox said.
“I think a lot of people in the business world have questions on their minds,” he said. “They make decisions that have a moral facet to them and would like to talk about them” with people at their church or with a faith leader.
Additionally, religious people are sometimes asked to weigh in on complicated financial situations, such as if it is appropriate to invest in the fossil fuel industry when scientists link these resources to global warming. The University of Notre Dame, the University of Dayton and other Catholic-affiliated institutions have divested holdings in fossil fuels since the issue grabbed headlines in 2014, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will vote on divestment at its General Assembly in June.
But if those decisions are guided by flawed or incomplete assumptions about investment strategies and other financial issues, faith groups can make unsustainable or even hypocritical choices, Richards said. He offered the hypothetical example of faith leaders divesting from fossil fuels at a national level but continuing to drive cars and live in homes that require these resources.
People of faith "struggle to think through the real consequences" of a negative view of the market, Richards said.
The School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America was actually formed to address this struggle and to give students, some of whom will become priests or lead faith-based nonprofits, an opportunity to engage economics as actively as they engage religion, he noted.
“Not everything that everyone (in the business world) does is morally justified, but nothing about free markets contradicts Christian theology,” he said.
Making it personal
Cox, who is an ordained Baptist minister and continues to do some church ministry work on the Harvard Divinity School campus, said religious leaders should study financial issues because they're going to be asked about them.
"Many of my students have lots of financial resources, but they're concerned about how to treat them and think about them, especially if they are committed to a religious tradition," he said, noting that he's often asked for advice.
Whether with the help of their religious leader or not, people of faith should be empowered to engage with the market on their own terms, Baumer said, noting that "God and Money" outlines ways to spend money as if all personal wealth already belongs to God.
"That means asking, 'How much do I need to keep?'" rather than how much to tithe, he said.
Popular speakers and writers Dave Ramsey and Michelle Singletary encapsulate this approach. They urge their followers to take their finances as seriously as they take their faith, arguing that being responsible with money honors God.
"Prosperity is about striving for a way of life that directs our financial resources toward those things that glorify God," explains the website for Prosperity Partners Ministry, which Singletary leads.
Working toward transparency
In the nine months since they graduated from Harvard Business School, Baumer, 29, and Cortines, 27, have already had opportunities to take their own advice on spending, saving and donating.
For example, the health care startup where Baumer works was purchased by a bigger company six weeks after he joined the team, and he and his wife suddenly had a six-figure check in their bank account.
"Because we had set up a (financial plan), we allocated that large amount of money across the categories," he said. "We gave away a substantial proportion of those funds."
Baumer added that he would have approached the money very differently before the "God and Money" seminar and book project.
"I was always solving for the tithe and thought I could be selfish with the other 90 percent (of my income)," he said.
Cortines, who had planned to take a prominent overseas job, felt called to instead accept a position with Generous Giving, a faith-based organization that advocates for generosity among wealthy individuals.
"I wouldn't have done that before, when I had plans to retire at 40 and be a millionaire by 30," he said.7 comments on this story
Both Baumer and Cortines, who plan to donate all their proceeds from book sales, said the most important takeaway from their research and writing has been that people of faith should be more comfortable talking about money with each other.
"The culture in the Christianity community is to share everything and be accountable" except with money, Cortines said. "We should ask questions like, 'Where are you with covetousness? Where are you with greed? How much did you spend last year?' and work toward financial transparency with a close group of advisers."
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