Paula Sauer, who attends Gethsemane Lutheran Church, joined other faith-based protesters this week as they called on U.S. Sen. Rob Portman to reject any Cabinet nominees who deny climate change. FRED SQUILLANTE | Dispatch
Priests, pastors and ministers nationwide are spreading the gospel of climate change — as are imams and rabbis...
In recent years, faith-based advocacy has emerged as a powerful tool in the environmental movement. By reframing climate change and sustainability as moral issues, religious leaders hope to advance environmentalism by elevating it above the political fray.
“I believe that all religions, all faiths share a common goodness,” said Zerqa Abid, founder of My Project USA, a Muslim youth organization in Columbus. “All of us have to look within our houses, within our cities, in our everyday lives.
“We take care of the Earth, or we destroy it.”
Americans report fairly high levels of spirituality, but most do not view climate change as a moral issue, according to a 2015 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Presenting climate change as a spiritual issue could be a successful strategy for attracting religious folks to environmental causes, the report suggests.
In Ohio, three-fourths of voters identify as religious, but little more than half say environmental laws are worth the cost, according to 2016 Pew Research Center surveys.
“Hitting people in the head with science doesn’t get them in the heart,” said Deborah Steele, fiscal officer for Clinton Township who previously worked for three years as an Ohio Interfaith Power and Light coordinator. “What gets people is a matter of conscience and not the logic of science.”
As leaders of intimate community spaces, religious officials are beginning to address the human-rights implications of climate change.
For example, exploitation of natural resources severely affects the world’s poorest populations and violates divine dictates on how people should treat the planet, said Rabbi Alex Braver of Tifereth Israel.
“The big-picture view, that’s what religion can offer,” Braver said. “I think (environmentalism) has very deep roots in ancient text and tradition, but it’s been lifted up in a different way now that we’re seeing the immense power we can have over the environment.”
Still, the strengthening resolve across religions to promote environmental advocacy is an emerging effort, said Gregory Hitzhusen, an associate professor of professional practice at Ohio State University.
The environmental movement was born out of counterculture, which actively rejected traditional authorities such as religion. Over time, he said, religious groups have been cast by the movement as apathetic or oppositional, at worst.
“Environmentalists continue to think of religion as the enemy; it’s deeply enculturated,” Hitzhusen said. “It deepens the divide between environmentalists and so-called anti-environmentalists … and part of the reason progress hasn’t gone as far as it could.”
Environmental issues have become so partisan and hostile in past decades that now they serve as an ideological litmus test.
“A lot of people think of climate change first and foremost through the lens of Democrat-Republican, liberal-conservative, and not through the lens of their faith,” said Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, a spokesman for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
“We’ve been fed a narrative that this has to be a contentious, partisan issue and I just don’t think that’s the case.”
Like many other faith organizations, Meyaard-Schaap’s group is joining the debate — not as political enemies but as a moral conscience.
Hitzhusen said anything that can blur political battle lines and overcome tribal attitudes provides hope for progress.
“Who cares what the Trump administration says?” he said. “Almost all of us want to do something about the environment. That includes America’s religious people.”
Activists don’t use words such as sin or speak to God’s will, but they do denounce disruption to nature, said Chuck Lynd, an organizer for Simply Living in Columbus.
That shared message — regardless of denominational or spiritual differences — makes faith communities an increasingly important tool for the environmental movement.
“Religious traditions represent a mainstream that reaches across the political spectrum, a voice that is broader,” Lynd said. “It’s a group that represents society; it’s not a special interest."
Still, faith leaders struggle to broach the sensitive topic without feeling as though they are inciting shame or strife.
“I’ve heard pastors say, ‘I know we believe in this’ … but when I talk about climate change, it pits half my congregation against the other,” Lynd said. “Churches are certainly good places to find common ground. Sometimes they’re the only place for people to come together.”
Steele, of North Linden, said she has helped bring congregations together around sustainability using neutral tactics. For example, places of worship can conduct energy audits, host farmers markets, brand reusable water bottles and install solar panels and community gardens.
“Climate change can be a scary thing for our church leaders to talk about,” said Meyaard-Schaap, of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. “We want to flip that script and show them it’s crucial."
At a rally on Monday, people from across several faiths and campaigns called on U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, to reject nominees for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet who deny climate change or come from the fossil-fuel industry.
Among the people who attended was Aline Yamada and her two children. Yamada, a Buddhist from Clintonville, said she feels a parallel between her beliefs and the protest’s message.
“We are all connected,” she said. “I think this is the biggest moral challenge of our time.”
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