Religion & American politics, Rethinking secularism:

The case of religious environmentalism

posted by Roger Gottlieb

In response to the resurgence of aggressive, intolerant and even violent religious fundamentalism of recent decades, deep questions, often answered in the negative, have been raised about the place of religion in public life. Religion is often experienced and described as antithetical to public order, democracy, and progressive values. However, the example of religious environmentalism shows (once again) that religion in and of itself has no particular political identity—it is neither left nor right, democratic nor undemocratic. Rather, religious environmentalism indicates that the political character of religions is profoundly shaped by both fundamental historical changes and the emerging personal and political commitments of religious institutions, groups, and individuals. In what follows I’ll describe this exciting new movement and provide a few illustrative examples. The reader should realize that I am offering only a tiny fraction of the movement’s real scope.

The occasion for religious environmentalism is the same as that for secular environmentalism: an environmental crisis manifesting itself in global climate change, vast quantities of pollutants, devastating species loss, and widespread environmentally caused illnesses. Religious environmentalism originates in an informed awareness of the magnitude of the environmental crisis and an understanding of that crisis in religious as well as scientific, social, or economic terms.

The movement shows itself in new forms of theology, which have reinterpreted scripture and demanded that, as theologian Larry Rasmussen puts it, we think about God “from the standpoint of earth community.” There have been extremely powerful statements by institutional leaders—e.g., the Pope, the heads of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, the world’s Sikh community. And there have been thousands of examples of self-consciously religious people participating in environmental activism for—at least in part—religious reasons. We have seen interpretations of the Koran that forbid dynamite fishing in Tanzania and of the Torah that question whether or not SUVs are kosher. The World Council of Churches has challenged the “prevailing economic paradigm” that shapes the global environmental crisis and Buddhist monks have organized against Asian deforestation. The Pope has called on us to return Nature to being the “sister of humanity,” and American Lutherans have demanded the Home Depot stop selling lumber from old growth forests.

Of particular interest here are some widespread, indeed nearly universal, characteristics of religious environmentalism.

The movement typically entails an often newly found and historically significant respect for indigenous traditions, a willingness to engage in shared political work both with other religions and with secular groups, and a frequent appeal to universal concerns defined in terms of “life,” “humanity,” “the earth,” or “creation.” Powerful statements by Catholic leaders in a variety of settings have indicated respect for the spiritual ecological wisdom of indigenous peoples, a striking development for a church that for centuries repressed all earth-honoring traditions. On the local level there are many instances like the Interfaith Global Climate Change Network, which has chapters in eighteen states and includes Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Native Americans in its membership. In Zimbabwe, a religious coalition of local Christians working with local spirit medium groups created an organization with three million members and dozens of paid staff who planted eight million trees in an attempt to restore a ravaged landscape.

Beyond the world of faith, well-publicized statements signed by religious and scientific leaders have challenged the environmental consequences of America’s energy policy, and the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches cooperated on a television ad in defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Indeed, the Sierra Club now spends over $100,000 a year to partner with religious groups on local issues of pollution and conservation. In both contexts, well known, often extremely strong, barriers to cooperation between religion and science and religion and secular politics were overcome.

The ecological vision of most world religions is now centered on the concept of “ecojustice,” a comprehensive social and ecological vision of the interconnection of all of life. The “eco-justice” task forces of several major denominations assert that every kind of political oppression has a role in ecological degradation, and that social inequality makes groups more likely to suffer from pollution. In short, they believe that we cannot heal injustice without transforming our relations to nature—and vice versa.

Interestingly, religions have not only adopted the environmental justice perspective, they helped create it. The United Church of Christ commissioned the first comprehensive study of environmental racism in the U.S. and organized the First Annual People of Color National Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, which formulated the “Principles of Environmental Justice.” These actions have had profound effects on all the leading environmental organizations and even on the federal government: President Bill Clinton ordered that environmental justice be taken into account in all national policy decisions.

This comprehensive perspective of ecojustice offers hope for a new kind of politics, one that will transcend both blind faith in the “market” and a moribund liberalism of separate and competing interest groups. When liberalism is defined in terms of limited interests—economic, racial, gender, etc.—society is necessarily defined as a zero-sum game. Inescapable antagonism obstructs a democratic tradition rooted in the conviction that at least sometimes a common, civic, public purpose can predominate. It is doubtful that anything even approaching an adequate response to the environmental crisis will be possible without something like that sense of shared purpose. Additionally, ecojustice also has implications for the less developed world. We have seen that in Sri Lanka and Mongolia, for example, religious leaders and grass-roots organizations emphasize Buddhist values in their commitment to human-centered, ecologically sound economic development.

There is also a near universal tendency of religious environmentalism to move religions to the left. Inevitably, confrontation with the causes of the environmental crisis leads to a confrontation with global capitalism, militarism, and political repression. To capitalism environmental problems are externalities, and must remain so. To militarists every environmental problem takes a back seat to every military one. And repressive governments are too concerned with maintaining their own power to worry about ecosystem health.

This move to the left extends even to culturally and politically conservative communities. America’s Evangelical community has given rise to the vital Evangelical Environmental Network, and the religious right as a whole has been split over environmental issues, with activists taking well publicized moves to make clear that environmental concern is not solely the province of granola eating old hippies like the author of this essay. A split on this issue, however, portends at least the possibility of a split on others, and in any case necessarily leads to the questioning of unfettered corporate power.

Finally, it should be noted that in reorienting theology and engaging in environmental activism religions have not lost their specifically religious character. The leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians has called environmental pollution a “sin.” The environmental justice movement early on created the widely used “Principles of Environmental Justice,” which begins by reaffirming the “sacredness of mother earth.” Religious environmentalism means that religious sensibilities have been extended into the environmental realm, not just that Lutherans or Buddhists or Jews will simply join the Sierra Club.

I would argue that this is a good thing, and that religion as religion has a distinct and vital contribution to make to secular movements for democracy, peace, justice and sustainability. I also believe (and have argued elsewhere) that environmentalism is by far the most spiritually oriented of political movements.

But these are issues to be taken up by others of my writings. Here I have indicated how religions, in their new and greener form, are vital parts of the global movement for ecological sanity. If there is a question about whether or not religious participation in the world of public politics is a good thing, these facts would seem to suggest that a resounding “yes…at least sometimes” is the only rational response to that question.

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4 Responses to “The case of religious environmentalism”

  1. avatar Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Also of interest, courtesy of the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions, is the following:

    The Religions of the World and Ecology conference series, hosted by the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), was the result of research conducted at the CSWR over a three-year period (1996-98). Conferences involved the direct participation and collaboration of some 600 scholars, religious leaders, and environmental specialists from around the world. The Religions of the World and Ecology book series, distributed by Harvard University Press, made research from the conferences available to a larger audience. See: http://www.hds.harvard.edu/cswr/about/history/ecology.html

    And for the ongoing work inspired by the conference series, see http://fore.research.yale.edu/religion/ There are excellent resources and references available here.

    I think you’re absolutely right that “There is also a near universal tendency of religious environmentalism to move religions to the left. Inevitably, confrontation with the causes of the environmental crisis leads to a confrontation with global capitalism, militarism, and political repression.” And for what it’s worth (being affiliated with a Philosophy Dept., one is continually reminded that anecdotal evidence doesn’t count for much) personal and academic experience testifies to the truth of that generalization.

    At the very least, I think this helps account for the fact that we can put the acrimonious (albeit occasionally enlightening) debate between “social ecology” and “deep ecology” behind us (the acrimony owing largely to the late Murray Bookchin and his acolytes).

  2. avatar Robin Leslie says:

    Thinking Catholics have always held that the natural universe (Creation) is sacramental, and so full of life and meaning, and that as human beings we mediate and actualize the created order.

    Whilst acknowledging that Counter-Reformation Catholicism reflected, to a degree, the Cartesian
    drift and the alienation of nature and human nature, Catholic sensibilities and imagination have persisted
    in resisting the false transcendental claims of rationalism. In this respect the Catholic Church has a pre-eminence in recovering our place in the Creation.

  3. Roger,

    Thanks for your insightful essay and for your further research on the religious environmental movement. I’ve been studying this phenomenon in my graduate program, and I find the recent growth of ecological concern among religious folk to be very encouraging to the success of the larger environmental movement. In the course of my study with Dr. Laurel Kearns, I had the opportunity to read your book “A Greener Faith.” I agree with you that religions can contribute greatly to the environmental movement, both in terms of numbers of people as well as in resources for eco-theology, spirituality, and ethics. Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is still much work to be done in repairing old rifts between the “religious community” and the “scientific community.” How have you seen people on both sides bridging the gap? I’m particularly interested in how evangelicals might reconcile their environmentalism with some of their traditional doctrines.

  4. avatar John Eley says:

    It seems to me that we ought to be focusing on persons of faith as the key players in any serious environmental “movement.” I submit that the term religion or the associated terms of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism fail to draw our attention to the fact that individuals acting either on their own on in organizations address environmental concerns and in the process present challenges to others operating from different perspectives. These others are of course persons as well. This leads to the argument that we ought to drop terms such as “global capitalism” from this discussion since it is individuals functioning within a capitalistic system who may respond favorably or unfavorably to demands and requests from persons arguing from an environmental perspective. It does little good to envision individuals against systems. The real work ahead is to be accomplished by people not by systems and railing against systems is not very productive. This perspective allows us to ask how “green” Evangelicals can join in sustained efforts with “green” leaders of economic enterprises in capitalist economies. This may open the qay to address real problems rather than to fight old ideological battles.

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