Institute on Religion and Democracy
September 1, 1999
A new push to green America's places of worship has backing from religious groups claiming to represent over 100 million American church and synagogue members.
The New York-based National Partnership for the Environment has announced a $16 million campaign to make environmentalism a "fundamental focus of religious life for every denomination in America."
Members of the Partnership include the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.
The Partnership was founded in 1993 with help from the late scientist Carl Sagan and from Vice President Al Gore, whose controversial book Earth in the Balance, forms part of the canon for religious environmentalists.
"A central objective of the next 10 to 20 years is that the next generation of religious leaders will hold care for creation as a defining vocation and ministry," explained Partnership Executive Director Paul Gorman.
Religious conservatives are suspicious of the project as one more crusade to redirect traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs away from God-worship and towards earth worship. But the Partnership includes Catholic and evangelical participation that likely will steer it clear of overt forms of pantheism to which the Religious Left is sometimes prone.
Still, the most of the Partnership seems to accept uncritically all the most dire claims of the secular environment movement, from imminent overpopulation to global warming to mass species extinction to uncontrolled toxic waste and worldwide deforestation. Perhaps more distressing to traditional religious believers, the Partnership seeks to make environmental activism a central element of local church and synagogue life, potentially displacing more orthodox emphases on sacrament, prayer, evangelism, and charity.
Recycling newspapers or protesting a nuclear waste dump might be laudable activities, but should they constitute the central focus of a Christian or Jewish place of worship?
The initiative will include distribution of worship and educational materials, along with regular "action alerts" to tens of thousands of local congregations, regional training for clergy and lay leaders, and promoting environmental projects through hundreds of religious welfare agencies. Environmental curricula will also be developed for seminaries across the country.
"We are not diverting from our traditional concerns; we are extending them," insisted John Carr of the U.S. Catholic Conference who is also a trustee of the Partnership. "Environmental issues generally - and climate change specifically - have a moral core. Who should bear the burdens of environmental neglect?"
Partnership leaders are nearly evangelistic in their determination to spread the green faith. "Protecting and preserving the natural environment God created for us will require the fundamental transformation of human hearts and habits, the ultimate challenge for religion," said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Despite the Partnership's wish to include the full breadth of America's religious diversity in its green crusade, the nation's largest Protestant body has declined to join. The 16-million member Southern Baptist Convention, for both theological and political reasons, is not a member. Neither is the National Association of Evangelicals, which is a theological counter-voice to the far more liberal National Council of Churches.
For conservative religious believers, there are several points of concern about the Partnership. The group's founding, location and staffing are all closely tied to the fabled green Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. The once venerable Episcopal temple has hosted worship services involving prayers to ancient Egyptian deities and recorded calls of humpback whales. It also, until recently, housed the Gaia Institute, which hypothesizes that the earth is a divine and living organism itself worthy of veneration.
The Partnership's executive director, Paul Gorman, is the cathedral's former public affairs spokesman. And the Partnership's founding chairman and current trustee is former cathedral dean James Morton. A seminal event in the Partnership's founding was an ecumenical service at the cathedral featuring Al Gore, who declared that God is "not separate from the earth," and seemed to embrace semi-pantheistic themes.
Supporters of the Partnership might deride these concerns as guilty by association. And in fairness, the official publications that flow from the Partnership seem careful not to advocate any worship of Gaia. But its almost unquestioning acceptance of apocalyptic environmental claims and seeming endorsement of sometimes drastic state measures as remedies give pause.
Catholic and evangelical materials from the Partnership are left-of-center but not radical. The former seek to root environmentalism in traditional church teachings about creation, citing Francis of Assisi and Pope John Paul II as supposed supporters for environmentalist causes. The latter quote Scriptures about care for God's creation and emphasize careful stewardship.
Mainline Protestant and Jewish materials from the Partnership are more explicit in blaming environmental degradation on Western capitalism and racism. Their favored solutions involve heavy U.S. government and even international regulation of industry.
None of the participants in the Partnership stray far from environmentalist orthodoxy. They hail the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and embrace the Kyoto accords, seemingly unconcerned about the potential economic disruption they may cause.
The worst claims about global warming are accepted as fact, with alternative explanations ignored. Population and economic growth are seen as the enemy. Environmental exploitation is portrayed as the unique legacy of Western Civilization. The United States is faulted for the enormous resources it consumes, but given no credit for the enormous resources it produces. Overall, the Partnership seems more grimly Malthusiasn than hopeful about Providence or human creativity.
Doubtless some clergy and church goers, under the Partnership's influence, will set to work fighting the expected environmental apocalypse to come, eagerly recycling, shunning Styrofoam, and fretting over ozone. But most will likely shrug and recognize the Partnership as just one more attempted revival of 1960's style Religious Left activism.