January 8, 2010
The president of a religious institution isn't the first person you think of as a likely EDF spokesperson. But in a recent television ad sponsored by EDF, Dr. Dan Boone, the president of Trevecca Nazarene University in Tennessee, made an impassioned plea for Congress to pass climate change legislation. "Please somehow find a way to let this global concern rise above partisan politics," Dr. Boone said. He's descended from frontiersman Daniel Boone—clearly the pioneering spirit lives on.
Dr. Dan Boone pleas for Congress to address climate change.
The conflict between politics, religion and science has been with us for centuries; think of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin. Today there is rampant confusion between faith, something you believe in, and science, something that requires only connective leaps between hypotheses and demonstrable evidence. We seem to have lost our trust in the authority of scientists, no matter how impressive their level of training and achievement. A fascinating new Pew poll showed that Republicans are overwhelmingly less likely to "believe" the science of climate change than Democrats, who aren't entirely persuaded either.
With every passing week, the scientific data gets more precise, and more frightening. Yet this has proven insufficient to move people to action. All the more fascinating, then, to watch the growing movement among religious leaders who use their pulpits to venture into environmental action. More than 10,000 congregations of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and other faiths are working in 30 states as members of Interfaith Power & Light (IPL). These religious leaders are clearly having an impact on people across the country who would never call themselves environmentalists.
IPL sees climate change as a profound moral issue, a matter of values—something many environmentalists have been wary of addressing, preferring to focus on technological or economic solutions as being less politically charged and ultimately more effective. But no matter what our approach, we all have something to learn from faith communities about how to bridge divisions and instruct, inspire and mobilize people.
The powerful message of Interfaith Power and Light—one that unites all faiths—is that people have a duty to be stewards of the earth. In loving God, we must love his creation. This is not, as some critics claim, about turning environmentalism into a religion; that is a perversion of what is actually happening. The fact is, in order to succeed in significantly altering the global course of climate change, we are going to have to harness all the power we have, whether it is the power of the market, the power of technology, or the power of heart and soul.
IPL is the brainchild of the Reverend Sally Bingham, a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of California. Bingham is also a trustee of EDF. She founded The Regeneration Project whose mission is to deepen the connection between ecology and religion. IPL is the primary campaign and is a religious response to global warming. State chapters respond to a call to action: they agree to give sermons that explain the danger of climate change, reduce their own emissions, support public policy that cuts greenhouse gases, and promote the adoption of renewable energy technologies.
"Most people want to do the right and moral thing," Bingham wrote to me recently in an email. "They just don’t sometimes know what that is. It is for that reason that religious leaders have such an important role. We need to take this issue out of the hands of the politicians and get it into the hands of the people at the grass roots level. Clergy can do this."
Communities of faith, in other words, can provide moral leadership, something we desperately need amplified from many quarters. Think of the two major moral issues in America's past – civil rights and slavery; the fight over these issues was led by communities of faith, united on moral grounds. "There are millions of people who don't listen to politicians and who are skeptical of science, but who will listen to their clergy," notes Bingham.
"The powerful message that unites all faiths is that people have a duty to be stewards of the earth."
I spent my holidays reading some fascinating books on the subject of the climate crisis and our values, as I've long wondered what is keeping us, as a society, from wholeheartedly accepting the danger we face, and doing whatever it takes to ward it off. Many thinkers claim the human brain isn't wired to handle long-term catastrophe; we need to see a real and present danger. Somehow, this isn't a very good excuse.
I found a provocative and wide-ranging discussion of these issues in Down to the Wire, by David W. Orr; I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Orr argues that we must learn to cultivate "the arts and sciences of gratitude, which is to say, applied love." We must be grateful for the gift of this world; that is the first step towards taking responsibility for the damage we have done to the planet. In a moving passage in his new book, Our Choice, Al Gore envisions the necessary social transformation: "Our way of thinking changed. The earth itself began to occupy our thoughts." As Stephen Jay Gould writes, "We will not fight to save what we do not love."
Religious communities have often mobilized themselves to act in the name of love. (And, sadly, it must not be forgotten, the opposite.) They are well equipped to talk about values—those "habits of the heart", as DeToqueville called them. The clerical message of members of Interfaith Power & Light is bracingly straightforward: help the poor, who suffer disproportionately from drought, flooding, famine and pollution, because it is the just thing to do; and heal the planet, because it is God's gift to humankind, and we have no right to destroy it for future generations.
Love may be the common theme among these scientists, thinkers and clerics, but it's not exactly the basis for a political platform. Nor is it scientifically measurable. But that's why it is the most potent message of all, embracing the kind of idealism that can unite and inspire. We are daily bombarded with messages making us desire what we haven't got. But going forward, the power will be with anyone who can persuade us to love what we do have, and what we are in danger of losing: the hospitable beauty of our planet. May the earth itself occupy our hearts—if not our prayers—in the coming year.