It has been an eventful year in the LDS community and in Utah. I think it is healthy that we are engaged in a robust discussion about the definition of marriage. I have seen some promising signs that we are listening to one another with greater compassion. I like that the church has helped clarify our unequivocal opposition to racism and has helped to open the door for a more direct confrontation with our history. I would like to believe there is more room in the church today than there was a year ago for members whose life circumstances or political views are different from the mainstream. We have more work to do, as I have often written about, to build a stronger sense of belonging. But the biggest news in the LDS community over the last year in my mind is the church’s remarkable new statement about conservation and stewardship.
Before I get accused of throwing social and political issues under the bus, allow me to explain that in the church’s statement and in my own views of environmentalism, the well-being of the human family and of the planet are inextricably linked. We could never afford, nor can we now, to speak of environmental and social inequalities as separate concerns. This unnecessary and unfortunate division that presented caring for the planet and caring for humanity as mutually exclusive concerns was one of the greatest blunders of our moral thinking in the past. We cannot afford to think of family well-being, the well-being of the world’s poor, or even of the prospects for international peace as having nothing to do with environmental issues. We cannot say that we are pro-family or pro-gender equality or anti-racist and yet still be indifferent or ignorant of the extent of environmental dangers across the planet. That is because environmental degradation threatens the family and it not only continues because of inequalities in the world but it exacerbates them. Environmental problems are in and of themselves a concern, but they are especially concerning because of the disproportionate threat they pose to the poor, to underclasses everywhere who do not have the means to defend themselves, and to future generations. Environmentalism today is fully aware of these problems. It is a profound misunderstanding, not to mention an inaccurate stereotype, to assume that environmentalists care more for nature than they do about people.
Global climate change and the practically universal environmental problems of air pollution, watershed degradation, and species extinction require an ethics of exceptional global and collective reach. Our 21st century, in other words, is an opportunity to learn collaboration on a scale never before seen in history. This requires putting many of our political and cultural differences aside for the sake of doing a great work together and for the sake of the entire human family and future generations. I am not naïve about the differences of opinion about environmental policy among church members, but if we are moving to an era of greater acceptance of such differences, then perhaps we can learn to find the common ground that should unite us. Until the church released this statement, it was never entirely clear what that common ground was. Now we know that we can be united on the importance and value of caring for the creation. Such unity allows for robust and productive debate about solutions; without it, solutions remain elusive. If you have ever wondered how to summarize LDS doctrines of stewardship, you will not find a more comprehensive statement anywhere in LDS church literature or in any talk ever given by an LDS leader than that provided by Elder Marcus Nash in his masterful address at the Stegner Symposium last March at the University of Utah. You can watch a video of the speech here, or you can read it on the side link provided on the church website here.
Many non-LDS friends have asked me what this statement means. How, in other words, should we interpret its significance? It is not, of course, the same thing as a statement from the First Presidency to be read over the pulpit in chapels throughout the church, nor is it yet the content of a talk given at general conference. I hope that these teachings will get even more exposure. But it is clear that this statement and Elder Nash’s talk represent the church’s views of stewardship in an official way and that one should turn first to this website for understanding what constitutes an LDS position on stewardship of the environment. This is a very significant and helpful development.
Many years ago I began research on the relationship between Mormonism and the environment. I was struck by how many authors, all non-LDS, either assumed or directly asserted that the LDS church was officially anti-ecological. This was based on poor or insufficient information but also on the absence of any such succinct statement as we now find on this website. It is no longer possible to make such claims, even if it was also never accurate to make them. Many church members themselves have also assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that LDS teachings do not place any significance on stewardship of the environment. It is no longer possible, even if it was also never fair, to assume that members should not be concerned with conservation.
Almost 14 years ago now, a group of us held a panel discussion on LDS views of stewardship in Salt Lake City and we invited a General Authority to participate. The church sent Elder Featherstone who at the time was emeritus. He came as an individual member and made sure that all understood he was not speaking officially in the name of the church. This is an interesting contrast now to Elder Nash’s speech. Elder Nash stated unequivocally that he came as a representative of the leadership of the LDS church. All those years ago, Elder Featherstone still made some very helpful statements, including his belief that President Kimball and many other leaders of the church were deeply concerned about the environment. A few years later, I published in BYU Studies an article that explored the environmental ethics of Mormon belief. I did not think then nor do I think now that environmental concerns should be considered fringe or heterodox. My argument was that this was not a matter of political ideology or partisan affiliation but a matter that is integral to gospel living. Within another year or so, another academic article appeared in the important journal of Environmental Ethics on LDS views. Around that same time in 2004, Terry Ball, Steven Peck, and I co-organized a symposium at BYU, sponsored by Religious Education and with the approval of BYU’s central administration and the Board of Trustees, dedicated to LDS Perspectives on the Environment. You can read the selected proceedings here.
Since that time, the conversation, at least in academic circles, has continued. Dialogue published a special issue on the environment and Sunstone has published many essays over the years. There have been numerous articles over the years in the Salt Lake Tribune, in High Country News, in the Deseret News, and in other venues about faith-based efforts to engage in stewardship and about efforts of the LDS church to practice good stewardship. There are several bloggers who write on the topic as well. We held a second symposium last year at BYU on Stewardship that, although not exclusively focused on Mormonism, provided an important context for thinking about the religious underpinnings of stewardship, especially in the context of LDS belief. You can see a video of one keynote speaker here.
When the church issued this website last month, there was a great outpouring of interest and gratitude from members of the church and from sympathetic friends across the country who were eager to learn more of the LDS view of stewardship. I have had conversations over the years with faith leaders in places like Arizona and elsewhere where LDS people make up an important constituency in the population, and they have been eager to know where to turn for an understanding of how to reach out to LDS people and encourage them to be leaders in protecting the health of the planet. This is true also especially right here in Utah where I live. It is often underestimated just how involved religious communities are across the country and the world in promoting and advocating for better stewardship of air, water, animals, and the planet itself. In the past, I have pointed non-LDS faith leaders to the proceedings of the aforementioned symposium and to other writings, but now I can point them directly to a church website. Additionally, for many years students have expressed to me a desire to be engaged in environmental stewardship, but many of them, like this student at the University of Utah, have often felt somewhat ostracized by their fellow Mormons and perhaps even treated a bit differently by their environmentalist friends because of their faith-based convictions that caring for the environment matters. Now students can look to this website for principles to guide them in their desire to be more involved.
No doubt the church hopes to keep these principles free of political baggage. Caring for the environment is not a liberal or a conservative principle. It is a gospel principle. We can and will disagree about policy, but we do not need to disagree about the need for all of us to be concerned about caring for Creation. Maybe we can start agreeing on the problems we face. That would be a significant advance. The website provided by the church can be a vital touchstone to invigorate our discussions. So many non-LDS people assume that all it takes is a church leader to make a statement for church members to get behind it. But in the LDS community, we know it’s more complicated than that. It takes a concerted and focused effort to make important teachings an integral part of how we live.
If you like the church website and if you haven’t already done so, please take the time to share it widely and discuss it with friends and fellow church members, to “like” and comment on it (find the red “feedback” flag on the left side of the page), and to begin to consider how you might live up to these marvelous standards of gospel living. Besides, focusing our collective attention on such great work just might diffuse some of the tensions we experience on the many social and political issues that divide us. It doesn’t diminish your human interests to be concerned about the more-than-human world. Instead, it is both humbling and humanizing to understand yourself in a much broader context and a much bigger community.