Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

A Frightening Fundamentalism
distributed 7/20/12 - ©2012

A few weeks ago, I received an email that set me on edge (which is not all that unusual) and has me very worried (which is far less common). Fundamentalist theology, ultra-conservative economics and presidential politics are being joined together in a packet of slick marketing and well-coordinated local organizing. I'm worried that this new initiative might be effective in mobilizing some Christians for a cause that I despise.

I want you to be forewarned about this new campaign. And I want us to consider what "liberal" churches need to be doing to defuse these sorts of efforts.

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The email that set me on edge came from The Cornwall Alliance. This "alliance" came into public view in 2000 when they released The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, a document that -- from my perspective -- uses bad theology to reject the danger of climate change, and to advocate for a self-serving form of "environmental stewardship" rooted in the idea of dominion over the Earth. I think most of the people who have signed the Cornwall Declaration are sincere in their beliefs, but I disagree with them on almost everything.

Evangelical author Bob Robinson, in a rather scathing insider's analysis, wrote: "The Cornwall Alliance loves to banter about that term: 'Christian Worldview.' But, as I've studied their theology, I have concluded that their definition of 'Christian Worldview' is a syncretism of biblical theology and American free-market capitalism."

This sort of extreme "dominion theology" has been around on the right-wing fringes for a long time. It sets me on edge, but it doesn't stir me to active anxiety. I did get very worried, though, when I heard that they're running a new project that will push this ideology with a strong political agenda.

The email that came earlier this month was asking me for a donation to launch their new campaign, "In His Image 2012". The letter opens with a list of hot-button political issues that have been upsetting to the religious right. Their solution -- the way to "turn the tide on some of the most critical issues facing America" -- is in "Helping people understand that we are made In His Image!"

Two Bible verses, Genesis 1:27-28, are lifted up, because they tell us that humans are made in God's image, and that our mission is "to be fruitful and multiply, fill the Earth, and subdue and rule over it." These two verses, they say "Tell us who we are, and why we are here."

According to the Cornwall Alliance, those two verses tell us why (among other things), "Overpopulation is a myth, and population control is dangerous" and "Earth stewardship, not radical environmentalism, is the path to the flourishing of humanity and all life on Earth." (You can read the entire email, with a running critique from a secular blogger.)

The email from Cornwall says, "Please don't misunderstand. Our aim here is not primarily political." That statement is at least ludicrous, and it probably is a blatant lie.

The "In His Image 2012" campaign -- scheduled for the months leading up to this fall's presidential election -- will target churches in 10 states, which I'm sure are the hotly contested "battleground states" that will be so crucial in determining the election.

The Cornwall Alliance is pushing their distorted theology into hundreds of churches in an overtly political effort to mobilize conservative voters. I'm afraid that they may be very effective, because they know the language that will sway their audience, they are very well connected in the media, they do polished marketing, and they have deep pockets.

That's why I'm worried. Those of us who oppose the Cornwall initiative need to be well informed, and we need to be coherent about our own beliefs and our own strategy.

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I have a fairly standard response whenever I hear people quoting Genesis 1:28 ("Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.")

My short response involves: (1) rolling my eyes, (2) taking a deep breath, and (3) saying "That's the only commandment in the Bible that has been perfectly fulfilled. It is time to say, 'Check! Done that! What should we do now?'" (For a much longer and more substantial analysis of Genesis 1, see the extensive section on our website that walks through a detailed interpretation.)

I get very jumpy when one or two verses out of the beautiful, intricate and complicated Genesis 1 passage are evoked to justify a way of life that is exploitative, selfish, and that destroys the creation. I think it is especially outrageous when "dominion" is invoked without acknowledging that vast range of biblical and theological thought that puts constraints on human power and privilege.

From my experience -- and speaking in broad generalities -- we in the liberal church and the mainline denominations have done a good job of rolling our eyes in the face of claims to human dominion over all of creation. We have not done well at voicing a clear and concise statement that provides an alternative vision of "who we are, and why we are here." An effective response to the Cornwall campaign calls for that sort of positive statement.

If "In His Image 2012" starts to show up in your community -- in mailings to pastors, or in media advertising -- I strongly urge you not to argue with them on their own terms. They have staked out a claim on a fundamentalist and literalistic use of scripture; they have a set of assumptions about the infinite bounty of creation, unbounded human creativity, and a purely economic view of resources. Trying to rebut their statements ends up legitimizing their views as the starting point for conversation. (The "Check! Done that!" response can be a fun way to shift the framing.)

In order to challenge the Cornwall initiative -- and to build our own base of support for the long term -- we need to be clear and compelling about our own beliefs. I challenge you to draft your own list of core principles that ground an eco-justice perspective on "who we are, and why we are here." Consider how you would, politely yet assertively, say, "I disagree. Here's what my Christian faith tells me."

My affirmations would be familiar to readers of these Notes. Humans are part of the fragile web of life, and we must protect those ecological relationships. Science and our own experience speak truth about the dangerous damage being inflicted on the world. We find our meaning and purpose in developing just and compassionate communities, not in compulsive economic productivity. The model of Christ calls us toward service and simplicity. Both the resources of the world and human wisdom are limited, and we need to live with gratitude and humility within those limits.

If the Cornwall campaign comes to your church or your community, respond with a clear statement of a different Christian faith. Don't just roll your eyes, and don't just hope that they go away. Speak up for your faith, and speak out for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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