SOURCE: AP/Tony Ding
Americans have been observing Earth Day since 1970, but this year’s celebrations and events carry particular urgency as climate change and its detrimental effects have become pressing issues for the world community and impossible to ignore.
Thirty-eight years after the first celebration of Earth Day, a wide range of faith communities are important participants in the environmental movement with a unique ability to change popular attitudes and care for the earth and its people.
On Sunday, April 20, religious leaders in the United States (and around the world) urged their congregations to reduce their carbon footprint and preached about the harm global warming is causing the earth’s most vulnerable and poor.
April 20 was Ecumenical Earth Day, and this year the National Council of Churches (NCC) Eco-Justice Program and the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth provided worship guides and action steps for congregations, whose activities ranged from prayer vigils to protests to lobbying for an increase in the gas tax. The Dalai Lama announced to a crowd of thousands that everyone has a “responsibility to take care of the environment.” Muslim students were taught that all the earth should be revered as a mosque and joined with Christian youth for Earth Day events. And since Earth Day coincided with the Jewish Passover this year, many Rabbis linked Passover themes—rebirth of the land and renewing freedom from oppressive power—to the global climate crisis.
However, religious commitment to the environment extends far beyond Earth Day Sunday’s prayers, protests, and recycling lessons. Worship buildings are “going green” by building with eco-friendly materials and installing solar electric systems, geothermal heating, and green plumbing. Others are undergoing energy audits conducted by Interfaith Power and Light, a grassroots network of 4,000 congregations devoted to deepening the connection between ecology and faith. IPL also advocates for state-based legislation on fuel emissions standards. State and regional faith groups—like the Faith in Place eco-foods and sustainable farming cooperatives in Illinois—are putting their faith to action in innovative ways.
On a larger scale, a coalition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and the Union for Reform Judaism that represents millions of religious Americans, is pushing Congress to pass America’s Climate Security Act. The Act would place an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas admissions. But religious groups have engaged the public and Congress for decades on behalf of the environment.
Growth of Religious Involvement
By the first Earth Day in 1970, pollution had already become a serious health hazard. That year, the NAE—which did not become a visible and active participant in the environmental movement for another three decades—framed environmental protection as a moral concern, issuing a statement that said “those who thoughtlessly destroy a God-ordained balance of nature are guilty of sin against God’s creation.”
As Earth Day gained momentum over the years, so did the religious fervor to fight pollution and global warming. Religious participation in the environmental movement exploded in the 1990s, after the Pope declared that the lack of concern for life, individuals, and entire populations was “the most profound and serious indication of the moral implications underlying the ecological problem.” Also, the Dalai Lama said that a clean environment was a basic human right.
During the 1990s, church denominations and interfaith groups created coalitions to work for cleaner air and water, put forth statements on environmental justice, issued research reports on pollution and racism, and worked together to change individual behavior.
Religious leaders directed their voice to politicians as well as to their congregations. As Vice President, Al Gore enlisted Jewish leaders to advocate for increased environmental awareness and legislation, and prominent faith leaders have testified before Congress on species protection and global warming.
Full Extent of the Movement
In 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that environmental protection required “faith-based organizations to help mobilize and preserve the planet.” And today, religious environmental activists are demonstrating more persuasively than ever the unique role that religious leaders and communities can play. They are creating unlikely alliances that make global warming a mainstream, unifying issue. Conservative Rev. Pat Robertson and liberal Rev. Al Sharpton appear together in a current TV ad (put out by the secular We Campaign alliance) to show that, despite strong political disagreements, they do agree on one point—that taking care of the planet is extremely important. And, according to NAE Vice President Richard Cizik, evangelicals who have conservative political ties should use them to lobby conservative lawmakers on behalf of the environment.
These opportunities and unlikely coalitions are profoundly important, as religious communities look to the challenges ahead. The National Council of Churches reports that “the faith community will need to increase funding for relief and development by more than 42 percent” just to maintain the current level” of financial support that churches provide to refugee resettlement, feeding the hungry, and disaster relief—those core church ministries that are exacerbated by climate change.
But it is exactly this religious moral call to action that will continue to motivate, energize, and unite Americans in their fight against global warming. And America’s faithful have not only the prayer, but the capacity and the drive to face these challenges.