September 25, 2009
By Dan Gilgoff
US News and World Report
When Orthodox Jews met with top White House adviser David Axelrod and a handful of U.S. senators this month as part of an annual lobbying effort, they talked up climate change legislation as a way to improve security for the United States and Israel. "America's reliance on imported oil from the Arab Middle East has been a grave concern for a very long time," says Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. "The Jewish community is interested in energy independence."
But the Jewish delegation also based its case for a climate change bill, which cleared the House earlier this year, on another premise: the Bible. "We are getting ready to read Genesis and the creation story in our synagogues in a few weeks," Diament says. "Our responsibility to tend the garden is part of our understanding of the Torah and of our worship." Indeed, some Jews have begun referring to their green activism as "creation care," a term coined by environmentally inclined evangelical Christians.
As environmental interests begin pressing the Senate to pass major climate legislation before next year's midterm elections, groups and activists from across the spectrum of American religious traditions have emerged as an integral part of the effort. Some denominations and faith-based organizations are planning grass-roots campaigns around the bill for this fall. The White House's faith-based advisory council has convened a climate change task force. And Pope Benedict XVI's environmental proclamations, including writing recently that "the environment is God's gift to everyone," have earned him the nickname the "green pope."
At a time when many senators are skittish about adopting the House climate bill's cap-and-trade provision because of fears it could further slow the economy, religious activists may prove crucial to building support, or at least dampening opposition, among important religious constituencies. Religious conservatives, for instance, generally oppose more government regulation. And many African-Americans, among the most religious demographic groups in the country, worry about cap-and-trade's impact on manufacturing jobs. Faith-based environmentalists have responded to such doubts with a moral case that climate change will disproportionally affect the world's poor by causing food shortages, drought, and coastal flooding. "The faith community talks about climate legislation differently than scientists or environmentalists," says Cassandra Carmichael, director of the Washington office of the National Council of Churches. "We frame it in terms of the people impacted, which can bring in legislators who hadn't thought in those terms."
With the healthcare debate sucking up most of the oxygen in Washington, a climate bill might not have a chance in the Senate this year, as environmentalists had hoped. But Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry have vowed to introduce a bill by the end of September. And lobbyists on all sides of the issue have already begun trying to shape the legislation, battling over whether the Senate version should include cap-and-trade.
In the House, religious activists helped to narrowly pass a climate bill in June. A group called the American Values Network, founded by the religious outreach director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Burns Strider, bought Christian radio ads promoting the bill in conservative congressional districts. The progressive group Faith in Public Life funded polling that showed most evangelicals and Catholics support efforts to combat climate change. Religious lobbyists, meanwhile, won a provision in the House bill guaranteeing that houses of worship are eligible for federal subsidies for retrofitting energy-inefficient buildings.
The stepped-up environmental efforts of religious groups in Washington have paralleled a grass-roots effort among religious Americans to green their congregations. An ecumenical group called GreenFaith recently launched a program to certify green houses of worship. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a tool kit to help churches, synagogues, and mosques earn its Energy Star ratings for their facilities. The Obama administration is reportedly considering the idea of a faith-based office at the EPA to expand its work with religious communities.
Though some religious activists were present at the environmental movement's inception, the greening of American faith took off in the past decade. "The work first emerged among mainline Protestant and liberal Jews and Catholics," says the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith. "They were looking to reassert a religious voice for the common good and social justice after 30 years of a conservative evangelical take on public issues." Some evangelicals have since joined the movement, with leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention recently declaring that they'd been "too timid" on climate change.
At the same time, religion remains a dividing line in public opinion on the environment. Despite polling by progressive groups on support for climate legislation, a recent Pew survey found that just a third of white evangelicals believe global warming is caused by humans. And only 39 percent of black Protestants accept the evidence for human-caused climate change. The group most convinced that humans are to blame? Those unaffiliated with any religious tradition.