In India, a newly appointed archbishop is accepting gifts in congratulations, but only if they are tree saplings. In Australia, a bishop’s committee is publishing documents on global warming and humans’ moral responsibility to the earth. In the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI is holding environmental rallies. In the Appalachian Mountains, a Catholic committee is calling on the cessation of mountaintop removal. In Rhode Island, a school run by Benedictine monks is powering its property by a wind-powered generator. And in Monroe, Mich., The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary just remodeled its Motherhouse to use green innovations, including environmentally friendly electrical, heating and plumbing systems.
Two entities that have always seemed at odds with each other in the world of government and politics are in fact much closer than they appear. Religion and the environment go hand-in-hand, despite the labels that often drive them to opposite ends of the political spectrum. Labels such as right, left, liberal and conservative tend to pigeonhole people into stereotypes – for example, thoughts of Al Gore generally do not center on his religion and the fact he’s a Baptist. “People are stuck in this framework that environmentalists are all Democrats and religious people are all Republicans,” said Scott Hendrickson, international relations senior and the president of MSU Democrats. “What needs to happen is a dramatic reframing. Labels really do seriously hinder that.”
Ryan Strom, a political science senior belonging to the Muslim Student Association, or MSA, agreed. “People have this perception that there’s a really stark contrast between one group and the other,” said Strom. “I don’t think that’s the case.”
[hender]This reframing seems to be beginning within many world religions, though at times it can be a slow-going process. But more and more religions are issuing statements concerning the environment and the quest to enhance environmental awareness and innovation. In 2003, a book called “Faith in Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment” by Martin Palmer and Victoria Finlay compiled statements from leaders of 10 major world religions. To name one, the Buddhist statement reads that humans and the environment are “interconnected and do not have autonomous existence.” It goes on to stress respect for life and nature and moving away from materialism and consumerism.
“We should be the agent that speaks to both sides of the fence and says ‘hey, this is an issue that affects everyone,'” said the Rev. Mark Inglot, pastor of St. John Student Parish in East Lansing, in reference to religion’s role in bridging the gap between political labels.
Many of the world religions, holy books and philosophies of faith contain an inherent care for the earth. According to Inglot, we have a moral obligation to protect the environment – an obligation we’ve had since the creation of the earth. “The concepts have always been there: care for the earth and appreciation for the beauty of creation,” he said.
Granted, religious sects view the environment in slightly different lights, but in general, most agree people should be responsible stewards of the environment. The U.S. Catholic Bishops sum up the Catholic view of environmentalism: “Care for the earth is not just an Earth Day slogan, it is a requirement of our faith. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.”
Catholicism has always been on the side of environmentalism dating back to the time of St. Francis of Assisi, who believed every creature was sacred, addressing animals as “brothers” and “sisters,” said Inglot. Even Jesus seemed to be aware of the environment around Him, incorporating trees, animals, mountains and the sea in his storytelling.
To Inglot, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, it is vital to protect the environment for the sake of humanity. One issue that is of great concern to the Catholic Church is climate change because of its effect on the poor, for whom Jesus is said to have had a preferential opinion. Environmental issues have led to unjust distribution and hoarding of resources, said Inglot. “The political, economic and moral dimensions of environmental issues are all interconnected,” he added. Inglot believes it is not only just the Catholic Church’s duty, but the duty of every human from every religion to save the environment, so no one in the world starves.
While the fight against poverty continues, individual churches can make their own differences in the environment. St. John Student Parish, for example, uses efficient windows and light bulbs. If the church is rebuilt, as is being considered, Inglot said making it environmentally friendly will be a priority. “It’s our job to bring out awareness. We have a long way to go, but every journey starts with a first step, and we’ve already taken two to three.”
Aside from Catholicism, other religions and denominations also have environmentally friendly philosophies, all stemming from the idea of humans being protectors of the earth and its creatures. For example, rules regulating the killing of animals are central in Judaism. “We don’t hunt because of specific ways you have to kill animals to eat them,” said Sam Davies, a Jewish music performance freshman. “Food has to be killed properly so it’s kosher. If it’s not, we’re sad about it.”
Also key to the religion is an attitude called Tikkun ha-Olam or “fixing the world.” While the statement is not directly related to the environment, Davies said he sees no reason why it can’t be applied to the issue. “It’s about making everything better. You can find Jews who recycle because of that reason.”
Davies doesn’t belong to a Jewish student group, but said he would like to. He’s considered the MSU Hillel, which recently held an outdoor festival called Sukkot, at which Hillel members built and decorated “sukka,” or tent-like structures, and slept outside as a way of honoring the harvest. Events like these can help to promote environmental awareness.
The Lutheran denomination is working to raise awareness in a different way. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has adopted an official social statement regarding the environment. The statement expresses concern and states that destruction of the environment is equal to the “degradation of God’s gracious gift of creation.”
In 2006, University Lutheran Church (ULC) in East Lansing was part of a four-part presentation addressing global warming and climate change at The People’s Church. The Rev. Fred Fritz presented the Biblical basis for an environmental ethic. No preference sophomore Emma Giese, a member of ULC, summed up the view: “While God gave us the earth, he also gave us the responsibility to take care of it.”
While to Giese’s knowledge ULC hasn’t held any environmental events, she said the church should serve as an example by promoting environmentalism. “I think the church is a great place for doing community-related projects, like adopt a road, and recycling programs,” said Giese. “Even though these are smaller scale projects, they still make a difference.”
There are differing opinions in Christianity about environmental priorities. Vanessa Knight, a member of Spartan Christian Fellowship and the Evangelical Free Church of America, said while she believes we’re here to take care of the earth, we need to make sure we focus more on humanity than anything else. “Some people make the environment their religion,” said Knight, an animal sciences freshman. “They tend to put environmental issues over humanitarian issues.”
Knight’s church hasn’t done anything specific to help the environment, but she said the religion still should make sure the environment remains an issue. However, she expressed doubt man is to blame for everything. “It’s God that sustains everything,” she Knight. “To think we can single-handedly destroy the environment is a little extreme.”
There are, however, Evangelicals who are doing their part to help the environment. Rev. Fritz pointed out Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, who signed a statement last year backing federal legislation to help fight global warming. “My point is that though there has been a divide between liberal and conservative churches on the environment, this is becoming quickly blurred,” said Fritz.
Although the environment seems most connected to Christianity in politics and the media, the Muslim community also has a vested, religious interest in the environment. Muslims believe humans have been set up as stewards of the earth, animals and environment. Although the issue doesn’t come up perhaps as often as it should, it’s still embedded in the Islamic philosophy. Strom of MSA, however, says it really doesn’t have anything to do with religion. “People in general take the environment for granted,” he said. “We wake up and everything is fine, we have enough to eat and power to light everything. It’s everybody, not just Muslims.”
He did, however, quote a story from the Muslim tradition that deals with the environment. The story says if a person is planting a tree and the world is ending, it’s better for him to continue to plant the tree than give up. However, Strom said he hasn’t seen the story’s message played out through environmental activism in the community, but he attributes that to lack of awareness more than anything. He also pointed out people tend to leave the religious aspect out of discussing environmental issues. “You don’t really talk about the religious connotations of actions,” said Strom.
Nontraditional religions such as Baha’i also have views expressly related to the environment. The Baha’i believe environmental problems arise because of a lack of spirituality. Edward Walker, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and a member of the Baha’i religion, said, “one could argue that global warming is a consequence of over-consumption, not because of driving cars too much, but rather a spiritual problem.” He added individuals have to stop over-emphasizing materiality in our lives.
People of the Baha’i faith believe in the idea of One Country, or the earth is one global community and it is man who creates boundaries. This applies environmentally, according to Jesse Wolfe, a 2003 graduate and Baha’i who is currently living in the East Lansing area. “All these problems are going to require an international governing council specific to the environment,” said Wolfe. “It’s a global matter. It doesn’t work if each country tries to fix the problems on its own.”
Reaching the unifying idea of One Country will be a gradual process, however, as we’re facing a crisis of spirituality, according to Wolfe. “We’re at a point in history that the doors of happiness are going to be closed to everyone,” he said. “We’ll be forced to turn to God because there will be nowhere else to turn.”
Scientifically speaking, Baha’i may be closer to helping the environment than other religions. Unlike more organized religions that have shunned science in ancient times, the much younger Baha’i religion embraces science by stating religion and science cannot be separated.
Despite the numerous obligations to the environment that are laid out in the world’s religions, it doesn’t take a religious background to care about what happens to the earth. Ian Sherwood, a psychology freshman who describes himself as agnostic, believes it’s important to keep the earth safe for those who come after us, regardless of religious standpoint. “I think whether or not you believe in God, you should keep the environment safe for future generations,” said Sherwood. “It’s wrong to ruin the environment for the people who come afterwards because it’s not their problem, but they have to pay for it.” He added the United States and larger powers have a special responsibility in helping third world countries, because they’re not doing as much to hurt the environment.
[lav]Supply chain management sophomore Brandon Laventure also said he doesn’t identify with any religion, but once dabbled in Zen Buddhism. He agreed we have a duty to each other and that duty extends to the environment because it’s necessary for our survival. “I don’t think the environment can think or feel, but to be reckless with it would be immorally irresponsible just because it’s something we need,” said Laventure. “That’s why we need to be stewards of the environment – because people still rely on it and will continue to rely on it for a long time. We’re not self-sufficient.”
There’s still a long way to go to for environmentalism despite religious justification and various movements by different faiths to raise and promote awareness. However, it is an issue that affects everyone, regardless of religion. Maybe the environment can eventually help bridge the gap between different religions, as well as help destroy labels that often hinder political action. After all, people of all faiths must live in this world and live through the consequences of destructive environmental actions. “Not everyone realizes it yet, but now is the time to start paying attention to the world around us and doing something to protect it,” said Giese. “Political views and religious beliefs aren’t going to fix the environment – people have to.”

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