Sabrina Cowden, director of partner relations for Al Gore’s The Climate Project, says that she has seen a “tradition in the religious community, especially the Christian community, of just not talking about” the environment. “It’s been seen as a showdown between science or religion,” she says. But in the beginning of 2008, The Climate Project noticed they were receiving a large number of requests for global warming presentations geared to people of faith.
Since The Climate Project opened shop in June of 2006, Gore has trained over 1,000 people in the United States to give a version of the climate change slideshow made famous by the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Responding to this new demand in the faith community, The Climate Project held its first Faith Community Training this year. While an interfaith training is in the works, the Faith Community Training was geared to a Christian audience, including 125 participants representing denominations ranging from Mennonite to Catholic to African Methodist Episcopal. “We just felt like the door had been opened a crack,” Cowden says. “We were trying to get our elbow in at the right time.”
The Climate Project is just one of many secular environmental organizations that are stepping up their outreach to communities of faith. Nick Berning, press secretary at Friends of the Earth, says that he has noticed a growing awareness that the faith constituency will be important to creating the kinds of change environmental groups are working toward.
“I think we realize as the environmental community that if we’re talking just to environmental activists, that’s not a big enough community to get things done…. There’s an increasing awareness that we need to be partnering with communities of faith as well,” Berning said.
The National Wildlife Federation is currently looking for someone to fill the new position of faith community outreach manager. Kara Unger Ball, special assistant to the federation’s president, echoed Berning’s sense that political urgency has led to the stepping up of faith outreach, noting, “There’s a recognition that for our top priorities, especially climate change, we need more than the Democrats and we need a broader political base.”
Ball, who is the wife of Evangelical Environmental Network President Jim Ball, suggests the urgency in the environmental community is matched by growing concern amongst communities of faith. “I’m getting a real sense of compelling urgency both as a person of faith and as an environmentalist to make change now,” she says, adding that “we’ve used up all our buffer time” to avoid the consequences of global warming. “We have an opportunity right now to set the new direction to avoid some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change and do the things that our economy needs to do. And I think this door will close.”
The Sierra Club, which hired self-described “progressive evangelical” Lyndsay Moseley to oversee faith partnerships in 2005, released a 35-page report in June profiling a faith-based environmental initiative in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Moseley says she learned of roughly half the efforts featured in “Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet” through Sierra Club state chapters, reflecting ongoing bridge building at the local level.
“I think if we tried to do the report three years ago … it would have been a lot more difficult to get examples in all 50 states,” Moseley says. “At this point, the momentum in the faith community around the environment at the grassroots level is real. I think the strength of the movement is what enabled us to do [this report] now.”`;
“Faith in Action” contains environmental initiatives rooted in many different faith traditions. In California, Sierra Club organizer Juana Torres has developed presentations, restoration projects, and “meditative hikes” that invite “participants to reflect on their responsibility as stewards of God’s creation and on the spiritual value of forests.” She works with several protestant churches, and has built important connections with Southern California’s Latino Catholic churches.
The report also highlights a Jewish retreat certified as a Green Center by the state of Maryland that fosters “a spiritually rooted environmental consciousness,” a Vietnamese Catholic Church that shut down a toxic landfill after Hurricane Katrina, and the efforts of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska to protect ground sacred to the area’s largely Episcopal Gwich’in native community from oil drilling.
While new relationships have been formed, outreach workers say partnerships are not always easy. Sabrina Cowden of The Climate Project says hostility from some Christians that developed toward Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign can make his leadership a liability, even though he is an evangelical Christian. “Obviously, we cannot divorce ourselves from Mr. Gore,” she says. “Sometimes Mr. Gore is the one who opens the door, and sometimes he’s the one who gets the door slammed in your face.”
“There are some communities that are really committed to developing a uniquely religious voice, and working with a secular environmental organization is a bit of a challenge,” says the Sierra Club’s Lyndsay Moseley. She has found both environmentalists and people of faith carry stereotypes that can inhibit cooperation. “Both communities think of each other as radical communities” that can be doctrinaire, she says.
The term “tree hugger” comes up when she asks religious audiences about their stereotypes of environmentalists, while environmental audiences will point to far-right leaders like the late Jerry Falwell. This challenges environmentalists to be sensitive to the starting places of the religious communities with which they are working. “We’re not trying to set people back on their environmental work by being a partner,” Moseley says.
But the National Wildlife Federation’s Kara Unger Ball stresses that though there are some barriers to cooperation, many who belong to secular environmental organizations are people of faith. “Environmentalists are not devoid of faith. My organization is a secular organization … and people of all faith and all walks of life work in that organization.”
Lester Feder is a freelance journalist covering conservative politics and popular culture. He is currently working on a book about the evangelical environmental movement.