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.

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