Vice, Virtue, and Shareholder Activism
Religion & Liberty Online

Vice, Virtue, and Shareholder Activism

King Louis XIV censored Moliere’s 1664 play Tartuffe after determining audience members might too easily confuse the titular priest’s hypocritical nature with every priest in real life. According to the king, some priests’ “true devotion leads on the path to heaven,” while others’ “vain ostentation of some good works does not prevent from committing some bad ones.”

The king’s judgment in many ways also describes individuals who pursue their religious vocations while simultaneously championing secular causes such as proxy shareholder resolutions. This leads to more of the same kind of confusion that King Louie was worried about. Coming from the other direction, groups that recruit nuns, priests, and other religious and clergy to promote these resolutions under the pseudo-spiritual guise of “corporate social responsibility” and “social justice” aren’t being clear about intended objectives. The aim of all this is not salvation of the soul, but political organizing.

While Tartuffe deceived his hosts’ willfully, those proxy shareholders who belong to religious orders may or may not be unwittingly promoting such secular resolutions as, for example, bans on hydraulic fracturing that have nothing to do with their vows. As for the secular groups who join them, could it be possible they even more resemble Moliere’s priest by seeking grace on the cheap when they deploy religious, nuns and clergy to assist in the promotion of proxy resolutions?

And at what point do these faithful cease advocacy of spiritual matters and become mere secular activists?

That question came to mind when Robert Kropp at reported Feb. 5 that nine oil and gas companies “face shareowner resolutions this proxy season requesting that they quantifiably measure and reduce the environmental and social impacts of hydraulic fracturing.” The source of these resolutions is a consortium of secular groups, including As You Sow, Calvert Investments, Green Century Capital Management, New York City Office of the Comptroller, and Trillium Asset Management.

Also among these organizations is the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, an order whose efforts on behalf of the environment stem from their belief in the “Cosmic Christ.” This belief prompts them to revere all that exists through good stewardship; along with efforts to “dialogue and explore with others the implications of eco-spirituality” and “celebrate our oneness with the universe.”

This writer reported last month that claims made about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing to groundwater have been proven exaggerated and even in some instances dispelled completely. This does little to stem the “eco-spiritual” activists who would rather block hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars of revenue for state programs and untold wealth generation for the citizens of California.

The Sisters assert their environmental efforts are for the benefit of the world’s most financially disadvantaged, but their resolutions—if successful—may in fact have the opposite effect. As stated succinctly in the Cornwall Declaration: “[E]xaggerated risks can dangerously delay or reverse the economic development necessary to improve not only human life but also human stewardship of the environment” and “A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement. The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”

In his judgment of Tartuffe, King Louis XIV concluded that “his extreme delicacy to religious matters can not suffer this resemblance of vice to virtue, which could be mistaken for each other; although one does not doubt the good intentions of the author, even so he forbids it . . . in order not to allow it to be abused by others less capable of making a just discernment of it.”

So it is with the Sisters of St. Francis, who shouldn’t place their perceived religious authority in jeopardy through shareholder advocacy of causes having nothing whatsoever to do with their spiritual vocation. These resolutions, if successful, are far more likely to harm the planet’s financially disadvantaged than the exaggerated environmental hazards of hydraulic fracturing.

Bruce Edward Walker

has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.