Across the world, the current financial crisis has also had an impact on religion—not only with people turning to faith in difficult times, but also with reassessments of business approaches.
The Christian Century (Nov. 18) reports that while reassuring clergy and retirees that their pensions are safe, mainline churches are concerned about how the economic downturn will affect their operating budgets and ministries. Both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church may experience possible budget shortfalls at the national level because of reduced income from endowment funds, reports John Dart. It may also be the case that a severe economic recession could reactivate mainline churches in advocating for economic alternatives.
Three Presbyterian leaders have already urged in a letter that the mortgage crisis should cause Presbyterians to look anew at the American economic system—“one which has been immensely productive in many respects, but which has tended to favor the strong and the aggressive, often at great cost to the weak.” Although the Catholic Church has also suffered from the recent turmoil in the financial markets, The Tablet magazine (Sept. 27) reports that the Vatican’s shrewd investments are helping it to weather the storm.
A report on church finances stated that the Holy See’s total assets at the end of last year amounted to 1.4 billion euros. It reveals that the Vatican’s financial advisors “shrewdly spotted the risks of keeping the Church’s money tied up in shares and switched to safer investments, including bonds, cash and gold.” In other places, it was suggested that church leaders should set an example with their own practices in the markets, instead of just affirming principles.
In England, the Ekklesia think tank said that the Church of England should “put its money where the message is,” after it was revealed that its finance managers had been using similar tactics to those of the City traders that the Church criticized. Ekklesia‘s Jonathan Bartley claimed that the Church had made huge profits from short-selling and speculation in order to maximize profits. The think tank suggested that the Church could invest more in institutions such as cooperatives and housing associations, in return for a slightly lower profit. Ekklesia added that, worldwide, churches “control billions of pounds of assets”, and thus they could act for promoting alternative models of the global economy not based on greed, as many church groups already do (Ekklesia, Sept. 25).
From Russia to New York, investors and other concerned business people are turning to occult sources for comfort and advice. The New York Times (Nov. 23) reports that psychics, palm readers and astrologers are finding a robust business among Wall Street stock traders. Such psychic practitioners report that their once solid clientele among women now includes many men, and the topic of consultation has changed from romance to financial prospects.
An analyst from Consumer Sentiment Index notes that when the economy is down, consultations spike noticeably. In Russia, the Noviye Izvestia newspaper reported (Oct. 24) that a third of people seeking advice from astrologers and other “occult” counselors currently ask them questions on finance and exchange rates, while such requests usually do not exceed five percent. There is in Russia a high level of interest in everything related to the supranormal and mysterious.
Interestingly, according to surveys, people with higher education, youth and people in the 40–49 year age range are more interested in paranormal phenomena than other population groups (Interfax, October 24). There are also religious leaders who feel that the financial crisis has proven them right. Promoters of Islamic finance systems hope to draw in customers during the crisis. Influential Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf A-Qardawi said that the crisis had showed the failure of financial systems based on usury—a practice that Islamic finance rejects—and not on exchange of goods.
However, although Islamic banks did not directly invest in subprimes, the financial system is so extensively interconnected that it will take time to see what the real effects of the crisis on Islamic finance will be. Islamic finance has been growing rapidly (10–15 percent per year), but the very demand creates a pressure for developing new products, all of which do not fully conform to Islamic rules. Nevertheless, observers agree that Islamic banking (still a very minor player at this point) might benefit from the broken confidence in the conventional financial systems
(Le Monde, Oct. 25).