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Caring for creation: Faith groups have a role in environmental causes

At first glance, the simple red brick church at the end of the road looks a lot like all of the other red brick churches in Farmington, Utah. There's a view of the mountains on one side and a maze of power lines on the other, but on this fairly warm February day, the clue to what makes this church different is on the roof: solar panels and a light dusting of snow.

The solar panels are an obvious difference. The snow is subtle. It melted on the grass and the pavement a long time ago, but on the roof — a place often warmed by a building's escaping heat — it's still frozen. That's a good sign to the Interfaith Power and Light activists gathered in the lobby for a tour of the building owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For one thing, it's a sign of energy efficiency. For another, it's a sign of change.

Faith groups have not always held a proactive role in addressing environmental issues. In the late 1960s, some scholars even went so far as to blame the Christian concept that humans have dominion over the Earth for the damage that's been done to nature over the centuries. Religious groups in turn, have bristled at an environmentalist cause that seems to focus on worshipping nature, rather than the God who created it. But experts say religious attitudes toward the environment are now shifting to be more proactive toward preservation.

In 2010, an average of 47 percent of churchgoers said their clergy regularly teaches about the environment during Sunday sermons, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. And the message is commonly one of stewardship and responsibility, experts say. As faith groups take more of an active role in teaching worshippers to "care for creation," some conservationists say they look to religion to have a key role in changing America's environmental future ?— and addressing climate change.

Some changes are already taking place, such as in this Farmington church. It capitalizes on natural light, saves water, provides its own energy and is recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

"It's just being a good citizen," said David Alley, an architect for the LDS Church, as he led the crowd through the church's ultra-eco-friendly prototype. "One of the impacts of LEED certification is (asking), 'Do we become better citizens?' I think we do."

Religious influence

Last June, Dave Folland, a retired pediatrician-turned-environmental activist with the Citizens Climate Lobby, found himself sitting in a senator's office in Washington, D.C., discussing climate change.

He wasn't having much success — until he read out loud a statement from a scientific committee assembled by the pope last year to study why certain glaciers are melting.

"We call on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants," reads the statement, signed by members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican. "We are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish."

At those words, Folland said he finally got the attention he was looking for, and an insight into just how powerful religion can be in presenting a moral argument in favor of caring for the environment.

Although scholars acknowledge the impact religion has on shaping an individual's values and morals, people of faith might not agree when it comes to the environment. According to the 2010 Pew poll, only 6 percent of those surveyed said their religious beliefs influence their opinions on tougher environmental regulations.

But a U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows a difference in thinking between religious people and nonreligious people regarding environmental issues. An average of about 55 percent of those affiliated with a faith said stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, while an average of about 75 percent of those unaffiliated with a religion said tougher laws are worth the cost.

High percentages of religious people surveyed — between 73 percent and 89 percent — said they favor tougher environmental laws and regulations, but when it came to views on global warming, as few as 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they believe climate change is caused by human activity, compared with 58 percent of those unaffiliated with a religion who believed the same thing, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

That distinction is one indication of just how deeply religious concepts are ingrained in culture, says Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. The Forum extensively studies the role of faith in understanding complex environmental issues and provides public access to that research at

"Most people wouldn't immediately go to reflecting on their views of nature as formed by religious views, and yet all cultures are deeply informed by norms and values that are religiously based," Tucker said from her office in Connecticut. "People have spiritual experiences in nature … they seek it out for renewal and inspiration. It is that awe and wonder that every human being is exposed to that is one of the most profound religious experiences."

'Love thy neighbor'

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest who established the national, multidenominational organization Interfaith Power and Light in 1998 to facilitate religious involvement in addressing climate change, loves God.

Therefore, she loves nature, she says.

And she believes religion is key to shaping America's environmental future and views on climate change.

"If your faith guides your thinking, it has the potential of being very influential," Bingham said in an interview from her home in California. "If you love God and love your neighbor, then stewardship of creation is part of being a faithful person.

That wasn't always a common way of thinking, as the late Lynn White explained in his 1967 essay called "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." In it, the professor of medieval history at the University of California, Los Angeles, pinned environmental problems to Christianity through a passage in Genesis 1:28, that refers to humans as having dominion over the Earth.

White's essay, in which he said, "We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man," struck a nerve that still resonates today. Bingham credits White for first spurring faith groups to get involved in environmental issues and make a change she hopes will have an equal and opposite impact of White's assertion.

But while more faith communities promote the idea that recycling is encouraged and pollution is frowned upon, gaps in the religious community's acceptance of climate change still exist because climate change is a much more politically charged and polarizing issue, says Darren Sherkat, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University.

Religious conservatives have not been as amenable to the idea of limiting energy usage and carbon emissions, says Sherkat, who wrote an analysis on the influence of religion on environmental concern and activism in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2007.

"There is a wide gulf between where liberal Christianity is and where conservative Christianity is," Sherkat said in a recent interview. "In some parts of the country, the petroleum interests and the religious (perspectives) are the same thing … that God gives us the oil."

Still, back in the chapel in Utah, there's a small triumph for the crowd of activists who thrill over things like carbon footprint reduction. They are excited to see the evidence that the religious community may already be changing its thoughts about climate change and having an impact.

Through the church's environmentally conscious design, this particular building saved at least 63,000 pounds of coal; 65,000 pounds of carbon and $7,749 in less than a year.

"Wow," the group exclaimed to their tour guide when they heard the numbers. "How does that feel?"

"It feels wonderful," Alley replied.