In case you missed the news, Iowa State University has canceled a course that proposed to apply biblical teachings to running a business, arguing that it violated the constitutional separation between church and state because Iowa is public university.
The course had other problems as well. Finance professor Roger Stover, who wanted to teach it, had no formal training as a biblical scholar. Indeed, according to the student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, the university’s religion department had no clue about Stover’s plans. However, the accounting and finance department had originally OK’d the class, called Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization, as a one-credit course.
Among the red flags that caught the university’s attention was the course’s proposed text, written by Christian motivational speaker and business consultant Dave Anderson, which “strongly” discourages people from entering business partnerships with nonbelievers, according to the newspaper.
It’s a pity that the seminar was so poorly thought out because the holy book actually has some pretty savvy financial advice, if you know where to look.
The Bible doesn’t hate capitalists or capitalism as long as people are treated fairly. Though it often speaks of doing right by your fellow man, many of the Bible’s biggest names did pretty well for themselves. Some, such as King Solomon and Joseph of Arimathaea, were among the 1-percenters of their day. Chronicles 29:28 notes that King David died “full of days, riches, and honor.”
Here are a few insights that investors might find useful from the good book.
10 Commandments: The obvious one here is the Eighth Commandment, “Thou Shall Not Steal.” That seems like a no-brainer, but the basic concept of human morality eluded people such as Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and the late hotel queen Leona Helmsley, who famously declared: “We don’t pay taxes. Taxes are for the little people.” The Tenth Commandment warning against coveting “anything that is your neighbor’s” can be interpreted to encourage people to live within their means.
Greed: Gordon Gecko was wrong. Greed is not good. Investors motivated by a blind lust for profits often let their emotions get the better of them — and get burned. This also is known as “dumb money.”
The Bible is chock-full of discussions about the dangers of giving in to our baser instincts. Jeremiah 6:3 warns: “For from the least of them even to the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even to the priest every one deals falsely.” In Luke 12:15, Jesus speaks to his disciples against “all kinds of greed” and that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Timothy 6:10 notes that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.”
Savings: Suze Orman and other financial gurus constantly harp on the value of savings. Of course, Joseph preached about it long before any of them. When Egypt’s Pharaoh told him that he had dreamt of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows, Joseph saw it as a warning of an impending draught and convinced the ruler to store grain during the good years to prepare for the bad ones.
The writers of the Bible were shrewd judges of human nature. The stories — whether divinely inspired or not — show the perils of thinking only of yourself and failing to grasp the consequences of your actions. Successful investors are able to tame their baser instincts, and the failure to do so in investing, as in life, can be a recipe for trouble.
Jonathan Berr is a freelance writer.