Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Astonishingly Different Beliefs
distributed 4/26/13 - ©2013

Spread across just a few days, I have had two astonishingly different experiences of how churches address climate change and other eco-justice crises. I'm delighted that some pastors and church leaders are passionate advocates for creation, and horrified that many others just don't get it.

  1. Just over a week ago, I was at a gathering of environmental leaders in the United Church of Christ. (Disclosure: I'm an ordained minister of the UCC.) We were called together from all across the US to ground ourselves in the denomination's history of environmental justice leadership, and to develop strategies about how to broaden and deepen that witness. The meeting was timed to coincide with the national UCC's bold environmental initiative "Mission 4/1 Earth".

    The prophetic sermon on the first day of the meeting was titled, "Leading the Next Moral Revolution -- The Church and Climate Change". Planning sessions had themes like "The Vocation of the Church & Climate Change." Passionate debates sprang up about whether global warming should be the denomination's central issue, a "container issue", or the lens through which we see all other issues. (Lest I give the wrong impression, several executives of the denomination did let it be known that those levels of engagement on climate change were not likely to be voiced across the UCC's diverse membership.)

    It was a lively and exciting meeting, and -- however the language and initiatives take hold -- it is clear that the national expressions of the United Church of Christ are vocal and engaged about climate change, environmental justice, and ecological sustainability.

    43% of pastors believe global warming is real

  2. I came back to my office and ran into a very different perspective on Christian environmental stances. The research office of religious publisher LifeWay has just released their findings from a statistical survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors. They found that 43% of those clergy believe that "global warming is real and man made", while 54% disagree.

    45% of the pastors told the researchers that "our church has taken tangible steps to reduce our carbon footprint", and 63% reported that their church "has an active recycling program." (Eco-Justice Ministries says that recycling is one of the "basics" of environmental responsibility, and every church should be meeting their community standards on such everyday behaviors.)

What a disconnect! In one setting, the only debate was about how dramatically the church should focus its ministries on climate change. In the other report, only 9 out of 20 pastors even acknowledge that global warming is real.

Digging a bit deeper into the LifeWay information, it becomes very clear that Protestant clergy are not a homogenous cohort. There are some very sharp dividing lines, especially about strongly held beliefs:

  • Self-identified mainline pastors are more likely than self-identified evangelical pastors to strongly agree (35 percent vs. 15 percent) with the statement about global warming.

  • Pastors identifying as Democrats are the most likely to strongly agree (76 percent) in the validity of man-made global warming, followed by Independents (20 percent). Just 7 percent of Republican pastors strongly agree. Conversely, Republican pastors are the most likely to strongly disagree (49 percent), followed by Independents (35 percent) and Democrats (5 percent).

"Pastor opinions on global warming reflect their own political beliefs," said Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research. It seems to me that Mr. McConnell has a somewhat cynical notion of cause and effect. I would hope that at least some of the causality goes the other way -- that the faith perspectives of pastors on science and justice might shape their political leanings.

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In my weekly musings about faith and ethics, I have made it very clear where I stand on climate change, ecological health, and environmental justice. Those of you who read my Eco-Justice Notes "sermons" are a self-selected group that overwhelmingly -- although not universally -- agrees with the reality of human-amplified climate change.

I'm very fortunate to be able to work with such an enlightened and conscientious group of clergy and lay leaders. I have the wonderful freedom to explore science and theology without having to justify or defend some foundational perspectives at every turn.

I have to admit, though, that my experience is unusual. When reporters and students ask me "what Christians believe about the environment", I tell them that my beliefs are not universally held. When they wonder about my relationship with conservative Christian churches, I concede that I don't get a lot of invitations to speak to those groups -- and that I find there's more than enough work to be done within my usual "mainline" constituencies.

The LifeWay report reminds me that it is important to have an occasional "reality check." It is not legitimate to assume that everybody shares my beliefs and ethics. Just because all my friends and colleagues are passionate about climate change, or just because all 60 of the UCC's most engaged environmental activists are agreed, does not mean that my perspectives will be universally held, or even understood.

I'm sure I don't need to make this point with pastors of "purple congregations" with a mix of political and religious perspectives, but it does need to be said to some of my friends who, like me, live and work in settings where our environmental and justice faith commitments are rarely challenged. There are a few things we need to do on a regular basis, both for our own integrity and to make our witness more effective.

  • We need to take time, every now and then, to read and listen to those who hold different views, and to make a genuine effort to understand their position. Taking the beliefs of others seriously -- not writing them off as "mad or bad", crazy or malicious -- can build more civil relationships, and it can help us understand what issues are really in dispute. One such conversation that I had a decade ago ("What Do We Fight About?") was an eye-opener for me about the source of theological and political differences.

  • We also need to take time, on occasion, to step back and clarify our own assumptions and beliefs. (I hope that work of clarification is one way that Eco-Justice Notes is helpful to our committed friends.) For example, two years ago our Lenten series worked through several weeks on "Telling the Truth about God's Creation", ending with a summary about Earth as "damaged, depleted and destabilized". That sort of reflection is a good check to make sure that we're not simply regurgitating the activist agenda of an environmental group or the platforms of a political party. It also allows us to be far more confident and coherent in expressing our beliefs to others.

  • We need to recognize that the Christian church in the US is deeply divided about the state of the world and about how we as people of faith are to live -- and we need to be passionate advocates in that context. We should never claim that we hold the complete truth or the only honest faith, and we may then speak and act boldly knowing that we are being honest and committed about our faith. We don't need to wait for a consensus that will never come. We can be free to witness truthfully and assertively about what we believe.

It is probably a good thing that I ran across the LifeWay survey shortly after my return from the UCC meeting. The report makes me even more appreciative of the profound environmental witness of many denominations and congregations -- a witness that should never be taken for granted. And the statistical survey reminds me how important it is to speak often and publicly about Christian eco-justice commitments, so that our communities may always know that churches do include folk who take science seriously, and who are working hard for the health of all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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