It was Alexis DeTocqueville who coined the phrase “American exceptionalism” after traveling the young United States in the early 1830s. There were a number of traits, he observed in his landmark work, Democracy in America, that set the United States apart: the size and strength of its volunteer organizations, its decentralized approach to government, and the populace’s fervor for democracy. There was something else: “On my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.” He noted that the “American ministers of the Gospel . . . never cease to point to the other world as the great object of the hopes and fears of the believer, [but] they do not forbid him honestly to court prosperity in this.”
Those traits still hold 170 years later. As a fascinating “Survey of America” in the November 8, 2003 issue of the British newspaper The Economist pointed out, “There is no doubt that America is the most religious rich country.” Yes, it’s true that not all Americans are religious, that the more secular tend to live in the Northeast or on the West Coast, and there are plenty of religious folk who don’t read the evangelists at all. But the American fervor for the separation of church and state has led to a flowering of religious sects in the U.S., the magazine argues, so just “as in the economic sphere competing private companies tend to produce wealth and activity . . . so in the religious sphere competing sects generate a ferment of activity and increased levels of belief.” The Economist describes the shape of American religious belief as having the “profile of a Volkswagen Beetle: a bump of evangelical Protestants at the front, a bigger bulge of uncensorious congregations in the middle, and a stubby secular tail,” which “tempers the notion that religion is running amok in America, or that it is causing America to run amok in the world.”
What’s this to do with you? Our cover story this month explores the concept of “faith-based investing,” which Staff Editor Bob Keane writes encompasses mutual funds that use religious screens and advisors whose faith informs their business practices. There’s one other ingredient in this mix: the investor who increasingly wants to see her money reflect her values, as the growth of socially responsible investing testifies. But do religion and money mix? Should they? See page 48.