Do you think that faith-based sustainability initiatives today have had a significant impact?
Recently Hope for Creation communications assistant Tanai Dawson sat down with Cybelle Shattuck, WMU faculty and author of Faith, Hope, and Sustainability: The Greening of US Faith Communities, to learn more about her story. Cybelle is an Associate Professor with a joint position in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. We'll share segments of her interview over the next few days, in anticipation of her talk on February 18.
They've had an impact, but I’m not sure it adds up to a significant impact yet. If you look at the social science data, we know there was a Francis effect in 2015 when Pope Francis put out his encyclical. We saw all Americans, especially Catholics, say they were more concerned about climate change, particularly more concerned about what it would do to the poor and disadvantaged. For Catholics, it was like a 20% change in that particular question. They were more aware that it could affect them and more willing to see changes in our policies. There was just a study that came out this year that I think said 70% of Christians in America actually pray about the environment. Which is cool, that means even the conservative Christians are praying about the environment in some ways. There is this gradual shift. How much of that's religion? That's what I can't suss out because what we found in the surveys is that we are unable to disaggregate the effect of religion from the effect of politics. If you put both variables in, you can't tell which it was that's affecting people. You realize you can't tell which one was responsible for those behavioral and attitudinal factors. We're even seeing that the number of Trump voters who claimed an evangelical identity went up, but we don't think they were actually going to church. Evangelicalism has become a political identity for some people.
Because of my field, I go out and talk to people who are doing environmental work in their faith communities. That's important, but they also might be doing environmental work anyway. They're doing it in their faith communities because these are people who act in their faith communities. But when the connections between environmental problems and social injustice become clear, many people of faith are motivated to take action. For example, at one Presbyterian church where I did research, they had done a study to determine whether the environment should be a mission area. During that process, they realized all the social justice work that they had worked on for years was affected by environmental conditions. If they wanted to deal with poverty, if we wanted to deal with social injustice, they had to fix the environmental factors that contributed to poverty, to warfare, to all these injustices. If it's framed right, religion does affect people’s perspective on care for the environment, but I don't think the faith-based environmental movement has had a big enough impact to change our national narrative or change our policies yet. In the future it could, I just don't think we're there yet.
If you think about the faith-based environmental movement, it starts around the 1970s but that early phase is mostly just theology. It's people saying, “There are teachings in the Bible that tell us to think about how we care for the environment.” Then you also get the environmental justice movement and what we see there is that the faith community provides resources. Just like in the civil rights movement, the church has meeting space, copy machines, and people who say, “This is a moral issue.” But that's separate from the mainstream environmental movement, protecting the polar bear, the tiger, that's where the money is. These two movements, mainstream environmentalism and environmental justice (EJ), move side by side and I would say the churches are more invested in the environmental justice movement. This EJ movement works locally; it is affecting policy and that’s building a group of really skilled activists. Then we get this sort of start and stop thing with the environmental justice movement throughout the presidential candidacies. Now with the Biden administration, the environmental justice movement is front and center, and they've tapped those activists for leadership roles in government agencies. A lot of those people belong to faith communities, it's how they're sustaining themselves as the actors doing this work.
We have movements like Reverend William Barber III who's revived Dr. Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign and environmental justice, specifically climate justice, is one of the areas they focus on. This side of the movement is coming up, and we're seeing that the mainstream environmental organizations really paid attention to the Movement for Black Lives and being much more intentional about diversity. These two movements are coming together a little bit. I'm seeing this burgeoning attention to the environmental justice movement and the centering of social justice as providing the social context to strengthen that faith-based environmental justice or environmental movement. Now we've got the context for people to really expand the EJ work that they're doing because the groundwork has been laid. In social movement scholarship they have done these studies to identify the characteristics that facilitate an effective social movement. One of the things they talk about is the importance of preexisting movement organizations, where people have been doing the work on a small scale for years, putting the structures in place, developing the leadership, and training people, but they couldn't get the social traction to grow the movement. The moment wasn't right. When the moment becomes right, those organizations take off because they already had the systems in place, they were ready to go. We might be at that point with the faith-based environmental movement, which is so much based on social justice. We're going to know in a couple of years how this is going to grow. Because we get to see what those people that the Biden administration tapped, what they're going to do and what opportunities emerge for the local faith-based groups to expand their efforts.
Find out more from Cybelle Shattuck in her compelling interview on faith and sustainability daily in anticipation for her event on February 18th!