Citizenship and the Environment: An LDS Primer

Before moving on to a discussion of state and national level involvement, I wanted to pause and consider the broader principles of citizenship, specifically as they pertain to people of faith concerned with the environment. Consider this a prequel to my previous post.

A little known passage in the Aims of a BYU education deserves our attention. It describes the aim that a BYU education should be “intellectually enlarging.” It goes on to say:

“These intellectual aims of a BYU education are intended to give students understanding, perspective, motivation, and interpersonal abilities–not just information and academic skills. BYU should furnish students with the practical advantage of an education that integrates academic skills with abstract theories, real-world applications, and gospel perspectives. Such an education prepares students who can make a difference in the world, who can draw on their academic preparation to participate more effectively in the arenas of daily life. They are parents, Church leaders, citizens, and compassionate human beings who are able to improve the moral, social, and ecological environment in which they and their families live.”

Did you know that concern for the ecological environment was a desired byproduct of a BYU education? Sometimes I think students are more aware of their ecological environment than their professors. What is key here is the idea that the ecological environment is not something easily separated from the moral and social environment. We cannot afford to focus exclusively on the moral environment at the expense of the ecological environment. We cannot pretend, in other words, that we are living up to the highest standards of morality if we fight the pollution of pornography but ignore the pollution of our air or if we simply ignore or refuse to learn about the impact of our choices on the environment. Listen to Elder Neal A. Maxwell:

“True disciples […] would be consistent environmentalists—caring both about maintaining the spiritual health of a marriage and preserving a rain forest; caring about preserving the nurturing capacity of a family as well as providing a healthy supply of air and water […]. Adam and Eve were to “dress the garden,” not exploit it. Like them, we are to keep the commandments, so that we can enjoy all the resources God has given us, resources described as “enough and to spare” (D&C 104:17), if we use and husband them wisely. (A Wonderful Flood of Light, 103)

A society that believes in and rewards the individualistic pursuit of happiness when it comes at the expense of the community as a whole is not founded on good moral principle. A society that benefits the few at the expense of others is similarly not moral. A society that is indifferent to disparity of wealth, to unequal distribution of health, opportunities for education, or the disproportionate heaping of the consequences of environmental degradation onto the poor and voiceless is not Christian. And which society is not guilty of these sins? Not one.

It seems that by now we can no longer speak of discrete national societies, if we ever could. Entire nations benefit at the expense of or by repression of others. Economies thrive in some places in relation to the economic suffering of other entire populations, not just throughout history but right now, a result of what the Book of Mormon describes as secret combinations.

And certainly we can no longer speak of ecological environments as discrete units of stewardship. Maybe there was a time when a family farm was its own economic unit and where stewardship for the health of the system was clearly assigned and managed, but even if it did exist with such independence, it didn’t last long. We are caught in a vast web of trade, of exchange of goods and services. All around us is the constant interchange of energy in an economy fueled by fossil fuels and the movement of air and water, nutrition and toxins, and pollution and particulates, to mention just a few, which means that we are never alone, never free of the consequences of others’ choices and never entirely able to act alone since we can never be entirely sure what our unintended impacts on others might be. This all means that to live up to our moral charge as Christians, we must be true citizens, stewards of the whole; we must understand ourselves as part of a community that includes people of different backgrounds and beliefs, plants, animals, water- and airsheds for which we accept collective stewardship. And to be good citizens, we must do the hard work of educating ourselves about these networks of influence, seen and unseen, and take responsible action according to what we learn.

I have been struck by a tone in recent statements by General Authorities of the LDS Church that I don’t recall hearing when I was young, a tone that encourages and celebrates community-oriented and interfaith collaboration on behalf of the community. Elder D. Todd Christopherson, for example, in a recent worldwide training was asked if there are ways our service as Christians should join with others. He said:

“I think that’s very natural. There doesn’t have to be an agreement on all points of doctrine for us to collaborate with and work with others. My own experience is that I’m a better person through that kind of association. I’ve had many opportunities in the different places that I’ve lived around the country and outside the U.S. to work with other groups, people of other faiths and, in some cases, no faith, I suppose, but people of real goodwill. And as I said, I feel like I’m a better man for it. And the Church organization really lends itself to group service. Our quorums and wards and all the organizations really do facilitate and prepare us to lead out and, in some cases, to join others.”

Similarly Elder Quentin L. Cook urged LDS to be concerned for our communities, not just our families. He said:

“We should both participate ourselves and support people of character and integrity to help reestablish moral values that will bless the entire community. Let me be clear that all voices need to be heard in the public square. Neither religious nor secular voices should be silenced. Furthermore, we should not expect that because some of our views emanate from religious principles, they will automatically be accepted or given preferential status. But it is also clear such views and values are entitled to be reviewed on their merits.”

My plea is this: If you are a person of faith and you have concern for the health and well-being of all people and if you believe that among God’s greatest gifts is the gift of the Creation, then you have a special charge to educate yourself, speak up, and offer Christian service on behalf of the environment. Don’t let our political climate mislead you: it is a moral, and not a partisan, principle that we are stewards of the earth. You must have more than a merely private morality or even a morality that only pertains to your body or sexual conduct. I do not mean that public virtue should come at the expense of private virtue, as it often does in our society. Private virtue is important precisely because of what it enables us to do; an undisciplined or unchristian self cannot render truly Christian service to the community. Just as Elder Christopherson speaks of how what we learn in quorums and in local church settings is intended to train and prepare us for a more public and communal form of service, so too should the discipline every Mormon learns in relation to his or her own body instill in us an awareness of and moral concern for our role in the great economy of the body of the earth.

This is cross-posted at

http://ldsearthstewardship.org/2013/02/citizenship-and-the-environment-an-lds-primer/


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