Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Critiquing the Conservatives
distributed 5/23/08 - ©2008

In the last few years, there have been some remarkable changes in environmental thought within the realm of Evangelical Christianity. As seen through some high-visibility leaders such as Richard Cizik and Matthew Sleeth, and as reflected in statements signed by a variety of prominent Evangelical leaders, there's a renewed and expanding commitment to "caring for creation", and especially to addressing the crisis of climate change. For many of these individuals, taking such a public stand has been an act of great courage and genuine risk. Getting to that point of public witness often required a painful grappling with long-held theological principles, and a change of perspective that bordered on a fresh conversion.

But don't let some exciting news stories give you the idea that all Evangelicals have made that shift. Indeed, the in-house fight in conservative Christianity is heating up!

About a week ago, a new campaign was launched by a coalition of conservative organizations and individuals. Among those endorsing the statement are the Acton Institute, the Institute on Religion & Democracy, Dr. James Dobson and Sen. James Inhofe. The "We Get It!" project is a direct challenge to those Christians -- Evangelical and otherwise -- who have called for urgent climate action.

(Note: I have a problem referring to this new campaign by their chosen name. The claim that they "get it" -- "it" being a faithful understanding of God's call to dominion and stewardship -- is clearly designed to proclaim that those who disagree don't "get it" at all.)

I admit to the temptation to caricature and belittle the folk behind this new conservative statement. That inclination is dulled, through, by the mean-spirited and superficial attacks that I read on the Grist blog this week. A knee-jerk dismissal of the project does not help us develop a substantive critique of their philosophy. Rather, I believe that it is important to wrestle in some depth with what the conservatives are saying.

In going to that depth, I recall a debate that I had in 2003 with Larry, who probably would be a supporter of the "we get it" statement. My learnings from that evening -- described in What Do We Fight About? -- inform my reactions to this new project. As I wrote then,

I know of very few churches that believe that we should flagrantly abuse God's creation. Once churches begin to talk about the environment, that's not where the real fight is. Our heated disagreements emerge out of conflicting economic and political theories, differing notions of the good life and progress, diverging views on freedom and responsibility, and other deeply-seated convictions.

As in my conversation with Larry, I find that the "we get it" declaration does have some theologically important affirmations about caring for creation and the poor. In a year when the extensive conversion of corn to ethanol has raised food prices around the world, the declaration's statement that "environmental policies must not further oppress the world's poor by denying them basic needs" has striking pertinence. The need to consider the impacts of climate change policies, such as a carbon tax, on the poor of the world is a very legitimate ethical concern that must be addressed honestly -- although I differ with the statement's authors about the character of an honest assessment.

But beyond those very general points of agreement, I disagree very strongly with the spirit and the content of the declaration, and with other documents which provide its foundation. (The Cornwall Declaration in 2000 was a more detailed document on this topic, and it came from many of the same people.)

  • I disagree with the stunning lack of concern about climate change, the trivialization of well-established climate science, and a bizarre economic analysis which shows extreme costs and minimal benefits from efforts to reduce carbon impacts. This combination of a very low-risk assessment of climate change, and an economic calculus which distorts costs and fails to recognize economic benefits, seems to be at the heart of this campaign's insistence that addressing global warming is a threat to the poor.

  • I disagree with their passionate reliance on "free market" economics, especially since there is no acknowledgement of the distortions and blind spots of that perspective.

  • I disagree with the perspective that environmental care is a "costly good" and that wealthy societies are therefore better environmental stewards than more moderate ones. There are fundamental problems with their view that nature is an amenity that we can decide to protect (or not), instead of a essential system of which we're a part.

  • I disagree with their "cornucopian" assumptions that the world is endlessly abundant, and with their unwillingness to acknowledge practical limits to growth and consumption. Similarly, I find fault in their theological anthropology which sees the human role of stewardship as being ever more productive, rather than protective.

I'm very aware that my four bullet points of disagreement are only starting points for delving into profound differences in worldviews and values. They point to complex matters about how we evaluate risk, how we understand humanity's engagement with the rest of creation, how we measure economic impacts, how we define human fulfillment, and how we decide which authorities to trust. The complexity of those themes, though, does not mean that they should be relegated to experts alone. On some level, all of us must be informed and intentional about the content of such beliefs and values.

The presence of an initiative like the conservative "we get it" campaign points out the need for us to be clear and articulate about our own grounding, and to be at least minimally informed about the views of others. That conservative declaration, in just eight sentences, lays out a fundamental challenge to the broad climate change agenda of most national governments and most faith groups. If we can't counter their assumptions and assertions, then their concise and assertive statement will be seductive and persuasive to many -- both in the US government and in our churches.

It is not enough to tell our church members that "God calls us to be good stewards of creation." The new conservative declaration says the same thing, but -- from my eco-justice perspective -- their policy implications are not acceptable. The members of our faith communities must be sufficiently steeped in the deeper layers of theology and ethics, so that the flaws of that declaration are obvious.

On a fundamental level, our faith communities shape our commitments about what is good and right, what is important and real. As we nurture our members in their beliefs and values, it is imperative that our preaching and prayers, education and activism provide an informed grounding in basic principles of economics and ecology, justice and community. We must make sure that our folk "get it" in ways that conform with our central faith principles.

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For our friends in Colorado: there's a wonderful opportunity to strengthen our faithful grounding in principles of the common good and eco-justice. On Thursday, June 12, I urge you to join with We Believe Colorado for an evening of interfaith worship, inspiration and workshops. The event will be at Montview Blvd. Presbyterian Church in Denver. Find program details and register at www.WeBelieveColorado.org.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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