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Churches step up environmental activism
PITTSBURGH — God is going green.
With a Bible in one hand and a protest sign in the other, many religious activists are now moving in lockstep with the environmental movement in the fight against oil and gas drilling.
Stewardship of the Earth is hardly a new concept in Christian thought — it's mentioned in Genesis — but a growing school of theological thought leaders are getting out of the pew, marching on the picket line, and becoming specific-issue activists.
"We've seen a transition occur over the last 10 years, particularly in the American evangelical movement," said Joseph Grieboski, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. "We've seen entire denominations take positions on things like fracking. As energy becomes a more important priority the religious community is going to feel a greater demand to be engaged in the public discourse about it."
Some denominations, such as the United Church of Christ (UCC), have taken direct aim at fracking, the natural gas extraction technique used extensively in the Marcellus Shale and other fuel reserves across the nation.
Last week, a group of about 75 protesters gathered at the Smithfield UCC in downtown Pittsburgh before picketing a nearby natural gas industry conference.
The church didn't organize the event but allowed its halls to be used by Marcellus Protest, western Pennsylvania's leading anti-drilling group. The UCC doesn't give specific marching orders to its members, but encourages them to get involved in local environmental causes, said the Rev. Jim Deming, UCC's minister for environmental justice.
"We ask people to examine their own lifestyles, how much [fossil fuel] they use, and where it comes from," Mr. Deming said. "We speak to our churches, not for them. Our congregations can choose what they say. But every decision has a moral component to it. It's all about making choices."
The Christian-green movement has at its core the "Evangelical Climate Initiative," a 2006 document that has now been signed by more than 200 prominent pastors and other religious leaders. It asserts that "human-induced climate change is real," and calls on evangelicals to use more renewable energy and buy hybrid vehicles.
Over the past several years, the cause has evolved from the objective of starting a conversation to targeting specific industries or practices. Christian environmentalists have also taken aim at proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, among other things.
The movement bases its philosophy on the biblical ideas that Christians should never damage God's world, and an admonition from Jesus to "protect and care for the least of these," which the Climate Initiative says is a call to shield the poor, elderly and sick from the dangers of pollution.
The divide among Christians has centered on the creation accounts in Genesis. In the first chapter, God says on the sixth day, depending on the translation, that man will have "dominion" or will "reign over" the natural world. In the second, God creates the world and gives Adam naming power over its creatures.
But Mr. Grieboski said some Christian churches are taking a different tack on what "dominion" means.
"It's transitioning from a 'God gave man dominion over the earth' translation of the scriptures to a 'God gave man responsibility over the Earth' translation," Mr. Grieboski said.
The movement has also led to a rift among Christians, as some high-profile leaders fear that churchgoers are letting themselves be used by secular activists.
"Essentially, the larger environmental groups set the agenda. They determine what needs to be protested, and they get that information out to the smaller groups, including those specifically religious groups," said E. Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance For the Stewardship of Creation, a coalition of clergy, scientists, academics and others that remains skeptical of how far such churches as the UCC have pushed the envelope.
"The marching orders come from the much larger, much more well-funded environmental groups," he said.
Mr. Beisner stressed that he too is concerned about environmental issues. But, he said, too many evangelicals have fallen into the trap of believing that anti-fossil fuels advocacy, combined with sufficient government regulation, is the answer to all problems.
"A lot of people, especially among very sincere religious people, have an almost utopian mentality that says it ought to be possible for us to live in a risk-free world," Mr. Beisner said. "That just isn't so. We are not going to eliminate all risk. We have to recognize that some risk is unavoidable."
Another potential pitfall of the evangelical-environmentalist marriage runs deeper, specialists say. In all communities, churches typically strive not to be seen as one more combatant in the political battles people see in the other six days of the week. Those who work in the natural gas industry, for example, may be unlikely to attend Smithfield UCC, given the church's involvement in drilling protests.
Churches shouldn't shy away from controversial topics such as the environment, but the conversation should never drive people away, said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals.
"The church needs to be a place where there's room for different views on political issues. There needs to be a place for respectful dialogue," he said.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Ben Wolfgang covers the White House for The Washington Times.
Before joining the Times in March 2011, Ben spent four years as a political reporter at the Republican-Herald in Pottsville, Pa.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
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