Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Theological Activism
distributed 11/5/10 - ©2010

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Sisters of St. Josph of Carondelet, St. Louis (Missouri) Province. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

There is some truth in an angry post-election mail that I received, but its message to activists is far too simplistic.

As I reflect on some of the lessons from this week's election, I can see that we -- people of faith who care about justice and sustainability for all of God's creation -- need to go beyond conventional politics. In our congregations and in the broader community, we need to grapple with theologically sound truths which can reshape the entire political and economic conversation.

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On Wednesday morning -- just 12 hours after US election results started to be finalized -- a respected advocacy group with a focus on climate change action sent out an alert to their constituency. The core of their message was this sentence: "From where I stand it's very simple: Big Oil and Dirty Coal spent a fortune to swing this election, and they got exactly what they paid for."

Yes, there is truth in that sentence. The 2010 elections were profoundly shaped by an unprecedented flood of big money and special interest advertising. And the election produced -- in the words of Wednesday's email -- "a Congress with so many more climate deniers and tools of dirty polluters".

The count of "deniers" is clear. Nearly all of the Republican candidates for the US Senate disputed the scientific consensus that the United States must act to fight global warming pollution. After the election, Grist reported that "45 of 97 Republican freshmen and 85 of 166 re-elected Republicans are confirmed climate zombies. There are no Republican freshmen, in the House or Senate, who admit the science is real."

On a non-partisan note, I am concerned that I haven't seen any corresponding statistics about the positions of Democratic candidates or office-holders. The denial and lack of concern about climate is not confined to one party.

The huge number of politicians who flat-out deny the reality of human impacts on the global climate is one of the reasons that I question the simplistic notion that "big oil and dirty coal" bought the election. There is much more going on than free-flowing campaign money and corporate influence on Congress. We're dealing with matters of religious belief.

This week, I re-read an article by sociologist Laurel Kearns, Cooking the Truth: Faith, Science, the Market, and Global Warming. (It is found in the excellent book that she co-edited with Catherine Keller, Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth.) Kearns digs deeply into the controversies found within religious communities about the reality of climate change and the credibility to be given to scientific research. She analyzes matters of belief that are far more significant than the electoral factor of corporate cash.

She points to core issues of religious faith: "To take global warming science seriously enough to change individual patterns and restrain the consumption of fossil fuels that currently drives economic expansion is to challenge the notion of a personal and omnipotent God who knows and has preordained the future ... who can perform miracles that defy the laws of nature, and who is held to have blessed the current economic order." (p. 112)

That economic order is very important to the climate skeptics that she studied. "All base their objections, whether explicitly or not, in their concern that any action to combat global warming will be a threat to private property rights, free enterprise, and capitalism." (p. 98)

She refers to the well-known article by Harvey Cox, The Market as God, when she discusses the central importance of "the real 'faith' at stake: that in the economic system. ... Anything other than voluntary individual responses to global warming is seen to threaten the unimpeded progress of the market, to disrupt the 'invisible' laws [of a perfectly functioning market]. Neither science, nor science linked with religion, should be allowed to challenge the dominant economic model, which does not allow for externalities like natural limits." (pp. 121-22)

A parallel point was made a few weeks ago by political commentator Brad Johnson. He wrote about Senate candidate Ken Buck in Colorado, whose "climate hoax" stance was rebuked by the state's large population of climate scientists. Johnson wrote, "And yet, it seems that because the response to this civilizational threat requires some form of governmental regulation, Buck's ideology does not permit him to accept that the problem even exists." (Buck's position on climate issues was probably an important factor in his less-than-one-percent loss in the Colorado election.)

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If we look at this fall's election results and see only big money, deceptive ads and bought-out politicians, then we're not seeing the whole picture. The conservative political passion that drove change in this election cycle grows out of deeply-held religious convictions and theological perspectives -- perspectives that I believe are false.

Yes, conventional political action will be necessary in coming months and years to deal with many urgent legislative and regulatory issues. But those of us who see the reality of climate change and who seek a just and sustainable future need to make our case on deeper grounds and more compelling themes. We need to speak boldly and often about theological perspectives that are true and hopeful.

  • We need to show that living within limits is religiously faithful, economically prudent, ecologically responsible, and psychologically healthy.
  • We need to challenge the presumption that current market economies are effective and fair in allocating costs and benefits, and that those markets reflect the will of Christianity's God.
  • We need to be assertive in theological debates about the nature of God, of how God acts in the world, and of humanity's place within the whole of Creation.

These are themes that Eco-Justice Ministries has dealt with frequently in the past, and that are central to our mission with churches. This week's election highlights the religious and cultural necessity for churches of ongoing reflection and proclamation about these theological topics. I promise that Eco-Justice Ministries will continue to provide resources and encouragement to guide churches in this theological task.

Laurel Kearns wrote, "So, in the final analysis, 'pro-global warming' religious activism has to be about both theology and action, changing beliefs and worldviews, and patterning action that fits those changed beliefs." In the face of the current levels of climate denial, may we remember that theological proclamation is an essential form of political action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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