Don’t say the words “socially responsible investing” to Christopher Burnham. He’s a man on a mission — to take politics out of public pension fund investing.

Anything that smacks of a city or state directing its pension money for the purpose of advancing an agenda — like, say, Connecticut divesting from gun companies — is toxic to Burnham, a name many people in Connecticut, especially Fairfield county, should remember from the ’80s and ’90s.

“I am evangelizing this position to keep a personal political agenda out of the management of other people’s money,” Burnham said Wednesday, after a breakfast meeting in midtown Manhattan that he organized to push the cause, a new nonprofit organization and website that will name names.

Sounds OK on the surface: At a time when pension funds are far behind where they need to be — nowhere more than in Connecticut, which is at least $20 billion in the hole and probably much more than that — it makes no sense to sacrifice annual returns to make the world cleaner, nicer, safer, more inclusive. Those are all political agendas in the end, right?

Not so fast. Burnham — a prominent national figure in public finance who was Connecticut state treasurer from 1995 to 1997, and before that, a state representative from Stamford — has waded into waters both murky and stormy. Many pension funds, including Connecticut’s, routinely consider environmental, social and corporate governance issues when they invest in companies.

That’s even written into Connecticut state law.

So what should Connecticut’s next treasurer, who will take over pension funds that now total $34 billion, do? There’s no way to make investing philosophy as sexy an issue as, say, sports betting or electronic highway tolls. But if you think Connecticut’s fiscal crisis is the state’s biggest issue — and it is — then pension investing is right up there in the panoply because that’s where the problem lies.

Burnham, 61, a Republican, was tapped as chief financial officer of the U.S. State Department under President George W. Bush, was later chief administrative officer at the United Nations, managing the U.N.’s $40 billion fund. He wants to rein in what he sees in blue states such as New York and California: Moves to divest pension money from industries deemed evil, such as tobacco, firearms and fossil fuels.

These days, he’s founder and CEO at a venture fund and is chairman at a loosely related advisory firm. His nonprofit, the Institute for Pension Fund Integrity, is part of a larger movement, mostly Republican, mostly backed by large corporations.

Here’s where the murkiness comes in: You can’t say the words “socially responsible investing” to state Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, either.

Yes, Nappier, who will end a 20-year tenure running the state’s pension funds at the end of 2018, is rightly known as one of the most activist public pension fiduciaries in the nation. Yes, she has steered many companies in many directions using the clout of Connecticut’s funds.

But in her view, paying attention to environmental, social and governance issues — known as ESG in the pension trade — is smart business.

“I come to this as a ‘bottom-line’ investor, a long-term investor. In fact, all that I do as a fiduciary must be grounded in the ultimate principle that my actions increase shareholder value over the long run,” Nappier said at a 2013 conference in Massachusetts.

That’s the law. Act in the pensioners’ best interests. Nappier continued in that 2013 speech: “A company’s policies and practices on such issues as the environment, human rights, global labor standards, management and board diversity and other governance matters can have a material effect on the long-term health of a company and shareholder value.”

Burnham, as it happens, dismantled the main form of shareholder activism for the Connecticut funds after he was elected in 1994, with former Gov. John G. Rowland. He left in 1997 to join a financial management firm that had done business with his office — perfectly legally after a waiting period — and he was not in any way implicated in the kickback scheme that sent Paul Silvester, Rowland’s appointee who replaced Burnham, to the slammer.

Burnham’s nonprofit is also pushing for pension funds to come clean about how underfunded they are, by using more realistic rates of return they expect to achieve, and by upping the assumed lifespans of pensioners. Connecticut adjusted its assumed rate of return from 8 percent to 6.9 percent in 2017, and even that might still be too high.

As his website points out, Connecticut achieved only 5.14 percent gains on average in the ten years ending in 2016. Recession, you know.

Burnham isn’t charging Nappier with any fault in her activism or her investments. His nonprofit will eventually get into the weeds but it’s mostly looking at the big picture.

“If you’re looking at ESG from a standpoint of, are you adding value and performance to a portfolio under a responsible amount of risk, then that is a good thing,” he said Wednesday. “If you are trying to impose a personal political agenda, then that is a bad thing.”

It’s a slippery slope in both directions. He wants to make sure responsible investing looking at social factors doesn’t slip into agenda investing — and there are signs the Trump administration will tighten the rules. Activist investors don’t want a dog-whistle call for letting corporations run roughshod over the social order, at investors’ peril.

Looking at the websites of the candidates for state treasurer, Democrat Dita Bhargava, of Greenwich, clearly sees the issue as a big one. She lists “socially responsible corporate governance” as a top priority, including “enhancing corporate diversity,” “reining in excessive executive compensation,” “addressing the opioid/addiction crisis” and “gun divestment.”

It’s all in the name of smart investing for Bhargava, who’s playing up the fact that she’s the only candidate with actual fund management experience on Wall Street.

And it’s almost impossible to define the line between a social agenda and using social factors as a responsible fiduciary. Nappier had to explain that fine line to Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, on March 1 after Slossberg asked about gun divestment. Industry divestment — which Nappier has never done — is a last resort after engaging companies to do the right thing for their long-term financial interests, she wrote.

Burnham served on the State Department transition team after President Donald Trump was elected. He won’t comment on charges that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gutted the agency.

And as for his firms — Cambridge Global Capital and Cambridge Global Advisors — they’re totally unrelated to Cambridge Analytica, the British company tied in with the Facebook privacy breaches.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com