Changing climate — of church views on the environment

USA Today has been eroding its standard of short, shallow stories. And for a complex newsfeature like its recent story on religion and global warming, that is an exceedingly good thing.

The article focuses on the effort to sell global warming to church people. Religion and the environment is an evergreen topic — I wrote a long feature on it more than a decade ago — but USA Today writer Gregg Zoroya takes the interesting tactic of leading with a rabbi in Kansas:

Rabbi Moti Rieber travels the politically red state of Kansas armed with the book of Genesis, a Psalm and even the words of Jesus to lecture church audiences, or sermonize if they’ll let him, about the threat of global warming.

“My feeling is that I’m the only person these people are ever going to see who’s going to look them in the eye and say, ‘There’s such a thing as climate change,’” Rieber says. “I’m trying to let them know it’s not irreligious to believe in climate change.”

He is at the vanguard of religious efforts — halting in some places, gathering speed elsewhere — to move the ecological discussion from its hot-button political and scientific moorings to one based on theological morality and the right thing to do.

An admiring nod not only to the canny rabbi, for combining verses from both testaments of the Bible, but also to Zoroya for grabbing our attention right from the lede.

The story does a great survey of the environmental wings in the various religious bodies, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to United Methodist. Zoroya’s also touches base with veteran para-religious organizations, including the Evangelical Environmental Network and Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. (He bobbles a bit, though, in mentioning an “Episcopalian” priest; it’s “Episcopal.”)

I admire the writer’s lack of alarmism or judgmentalism. He shuns the easy phrases about church folks being xenophobic as the world dies or whatever. Instead, he spins out some telling details. Like when he says the discussion is moving “beyond science and polar bears” to a new set of values. Or when he says the rabbi “can sense a restless shifting in the pews as he draws parallels between God asking Adam to tend the Garden of Eden and humankind’s stewardship duty to the environment.”

Another good touch is name dropping, with Christians as diverse as megachurch pastor Rick Warren and Patriarch Bartholomew of Eastern Orthodoxy. The story also names a few evangelical “rising stars” in environmentalism, one at Texas Tech, the other at a Pentecostal church in Tennessee.

Zoroya’s sweeping story does miss a few longtime players, like the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. I guess he was dealing mainly with evangelical Christians, which he calls the “toughest hurdle.” At first I bristled at that label — like “Oh geez, another unchallenged stereotype” — but then he cites a study paper by Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale:

One in four Americans fall into this group, a powerful supportive force for those in Congress who do not believe in global warming. Yet even among evangelicals, Leiserowitz says, there is not just one view about climate change.

When asked in a 2008 survey cited in Leiserowitz’s study whether “global warming is happening,” 44% of evangelicals said it is and the result of human actions, 41% said any warming was not caused by man. A Pew Research survey the same year asked if there’s “solid evidence the earth is warming.” Thirty-four percent said yes and it was caused by man, 31% answered no.

But seems like under-representation when Zoroya spends two or three paragraphs on religious groups that deny global warming. The only quoted source on that side is Cal Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. I know Beisner from Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, which was founded by the late D. James Kennedy, a seminal thinkers of the Religious Right. So Zoroya is on target in quoting him. But if surveys say that 30-40 percent are skeptical about warming, the article should have included more sources and more length to discussing why.

None of that is enough to keep me from praising this article. It’s broad, it has some depth, it’s optimistic, and it’s non-antagonistic. I give it two green thumbs up.

About Jim Davis
  • fredx2

    What I find disturbing is the omission of critical facts.

    For example, the Jewish rabbi is presented as just another normal Jewish Rabbi. However, Rabbi Moti Rieber appears to be part of a splinter group of Judaism called “Reconstronstructionist Judaism”, that has as its principles of belief (according to Wikipedia)

    “There is no such thing as divine intervention; Judaism is an evolving religious civilization; … Reconstructionist Judaism is based on a democratic community where the laity can make decisions, not just rabbis; The Torah was not inspired by God; it only comes from the social and historical development of Jewish people; The classical view of God is rejected. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfillment and moral improvement; The idea that God chose the Jewish people for any purpose, in any way, is “morally untenable”, because anyone who has such beliefs “implies the superiority of the elect community and the rejection of others”.

    Presenting him as just another Jewish Rabbi is dishonest – he is a sort of New Age rabbi, so to speak. Also, it seems to me that if you are a rabbi that does not believe that God inspired the Jewish scriptures, your position is not much of a religious position at all.

    Also, his group is now led by a lesbian, so that sort of tells you its theological bent.

    Unfortunately, these days you have to Google the backgrounds of those mentioned in media stories, because often they trot out a list of left leaning people and try to pretend they are all mainstream folks. It’s fundamentally dishonest.

    • Jim Davis

      Thanks, Fred, I didn’t know he was Reconstructionist. If I’d checked, as you did, I would remarked that Rieber wouldn’t have such an enthusiastic hearing in evangelical churches.

      Reconstructionism isn’t really New Age, though. Liberal, yes. Rather like Jewish Unitarianism. But if you want to see New Age Judaism, try P’nei Or. They’ll quote folks like Lao Tzu and use things like Buddhist singing bowls.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Interesting that some religious groups start promoting a hot issue after it has become questionable. Lately there have been some holes poked in the global warming hysteria–from information that things have been cooling for 7 years, to ice thickness growing in some places, to realization that some warming data was fabricated. A recent Washington Post editorial even smacked of hedging its global warming bets. But being skeptical and wanting objective research to continue instead of muzzling alternate points of view seems to drive warming devotees nuts. (Maybe they fear public and private grants might start flowing away from them.)
    I have always said “keep researching–keep questioning because I am old enough to remember the global cooling hysteria in the mass media of 2 or 3 decades ago. Dirt and dust tossed up by factories was supposedly cutting down the amount of warming sun rays hitting our planet’s surface and only a fool would challenge the research–and it made such hot news magazine cover stories.

  • Julie Gould

    Oh, is it global cooling, now? Well, in that case let’s not try to curb our pollution habits, because God cares more about having the facts straight than how we live. And if a prophet comes to you and tells you to repent, check his credentials first.

    Please, folks, even if you don’t love the planet, take care of your own souls.

    • Julia B

      There has been belief in Christian circles that God wants stewardship of the planet long before claims of global warming.