June 30, 2011

Faith and Presidential Politics

By Eleni Towns

Many presidential candidates are seeking the votes of church-goers and religious conservatives by presenting themselves as strong defenders of their faith.
However, while candidates mostly agree with their respective churches on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, they are mostly silent when it comes to environmental issues. Why? Perhaps because their stances directly conflict with the positions of their churches.

A number of leading candidates have embraced an extremist anti-environment platform, in which they deny climate change science, call for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency, and support the deregulation of the oil and coal industries.
In contrast, their churches call for environmental stewardship and creation care. Their faith leaders have advocated support for the EPA, greater education on environmental care, and policies to reduce air toxins and lower emissions from power plants.
Here are the environmental statements of selected GOP presidential candidates alongside statements of their faith traditions:

Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, denies the urgency of the global climate crisis and has called for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency.  When asked about his position on climate change and the threat that it poses, Gingrich said that it is "an act of egotism for humans to think we're a primary source of climate change."

Another Catholic candidate, Rick Santorum, calls climate change "junk science" and argues that it is "a beautifully concocted scheme" from the left. Speaking with Rush Limbaugh, Santorum went on to say that global warming is "just an excuse for more government control of your life."

However, the Catholic Church has long encouraged stewardship of the environment and has undertaken numerous renewable energy projects. In May, the Vatican released a report on the urgency of the global climate crisis and recommended three action steps: "reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions without delay … reduce the concentrations of warming air pollutants … [and] prepare to adapt to the climatic changes, both chronic and abrupt, that society will be unable to mitigate."

In addition, the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently supported the EPA's proposed standards to reduce mercury and other air toxins in order to protect public health, especially children living in poor communities that are more likely to be impacted.

According to Bishop Stephen Blaire, "such standards should protect the health and welfare of all people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society, including unborn and other young children, from harmful exposure to toxic air pollution emitted from power plants."
Evangelical Tim Pawlenty, once a strong advocate for environmental protection, cap and trade, and clean energy initiatives, has changed his beliefs. Pawlenty now accuses climate scientists of "data manipulation and controversy" and casts doubt on whether changes in climate are man-made.

These views are out of step with the vast majority of evangelicals, 90 percent of whom say that Christians should take a more active role in caring for creation. In fact, the pastor of Pawlenty's church, Leith Anderson —who  is President of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that represents 30 million evangelicals — is concerned about how climate change will impact the world's poorest people. In 2006, 86 evangelical leaders, including Leith Anderson, signed "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action":
Since 1995 there has been general agreement among those in the scientific community most seriously engaged with this issue that climate change is happening and is being caused mainly by human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels. Evidence gathered since 1995 has only strengthened this conclusion.
The basic task for all of the world's inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change.
Michele Bachmann, a Lutheran, is another climate change denier. She has called global warming "voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." In the recent New Hampshire debate, Bachmann called the Environmental Protection Agency the "job-Killing Organization of America."

Until recently, Bachmann attended the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church, which belongs to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. WELS is conservative, but believes that environmental care and stewardship of the earth is a Christian "responsibility." The church's website says that "caring for the world in which we live is more than a political or economic issue. For the Christian it is a moral issue."

Baptist Herman Cain recently called global warming "poppycock" and told a radio interviewer that "this man-made global warming is not a crisis."

Although Cain is a member of an independent southern black Baptist church, he is out of step with other southern conservative Baptists who see the environment as a high priority. In 2008  leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, wrote "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," acknowledging that current evidence of global warming is "substantial" and "undeniable" and calling on denominations to  engage in environmental stewardship.  According to the Declaration:
Though the claims of science are neither infallible nor unanimous, they are substantial and cannot be dismissed out of hand on either scientific or theological grounds. Therefore, in the face of intense concern and guided by the biblical principle of creation stewardship, we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem or our responsibility to address it. Humans must be proactive and take responsibility for our contributions to climate change—however great or small.
Interestingly, both Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, both of whom are Mormon, hold the least anti-environmental views of all the candidates so far. The Church of the Latter Day Saints has no official position on environmental issues. Recently, there has been a call from Mormon laity for the Church to join other major faith traditions in environmental support.

When it comes to climate change, Gingrich, Santorum, Pawlenty, Bachmann and Cain are out of step with their own churches. And they're also out of step with the people they represent. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there is strong support across faith traditions on environmental care, including 73% of white evangelicals, 79% of black Protestants, and 85% Catholics – all communities that GOP candidates are reaching out to.

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