Why Faith Leaders Are Not ‘Joining the Environmental Movement’

Pope Inspires Clergy to Join Environmental Movement came to my inbox recently as one in a list of articles on faith leadership on climate and environmental issues.

I agree with the article that Pope Francis’ leadership on climate, creation care, and justice has raised important awareness of these issues, especially how they are integrated. With the timing of his release of Laudato Si and his speeches to Congress, UN, and corresponding visit to the U.S. in 2015, Pope Francis helped generate the momentum that resulted in the successful Paris climate negotiations in December. He was especially impactful on influencing views in the United States. 

As a person of faith called to work in creation care and climate, I was inspired and spiritually fed on my own vocational journey through Laudato Si and Pope Francis’ authenticity and leadership.

The article, however, has made two missteps.

First, while the many faith leaders who echoed and amplified Pope Francis’ call to climate action on behalf of the poor were no doubt also inspired in their own work and leadership by His Holiness, they were already leading in their own right. The actions and declarations by the faithful in 2015 alone attest to the longstanding leadership of the faithful on climate. 2015 was a year of climate declarations from the faithful, with statements for climate action from Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Black Churches issued a climate statement and leaders from multiple traditions issued a Statement of Faith and Spiritual Leaders on the Climate Talks. Faith institutions helped build the growing fossil fuel divestment movement to a combined $3.4 trillion total committed. Congregations, clergy and committed faithful leaders reduced their carbon pollution and engaged others in their work through many innovative programs and initiatives including IPL’s Cool Congregations and New England Environmental Ministries A New Awakening Program. 

Each of the participants in Coming Together in Faith on Climate, a celebration and convening at Washington National Cathedral to support Pope Francis’ call for climate action added their faithful witness to Pope Francis’ and shared their commitment to a more just and sustainable world that inspired many others. Speakers from the Blessed Tomorrow Leadership Circle included, Brian McLaren, Author and Pastor; Rev. Otis Moss III, Senior Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ; Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners; Rev. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ; Rev. Jim Antal, Conference Minister and President United Church of Christ Massachusetts Conference; Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; Rabbi Steve Gutow, Former President and CEO Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary for the General Board of Church and Society, and many more. Coming Together in Faith on Climate also welcomed special guests, Melissa Rogers, Director for The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, Former Secretary-General for the World Evangelical Alliance; Sister Simone Campbell Sisters of Social Service; Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, United States Senator from Rhode Island; and Ebrahim Rasool, Former South African Ambassador.

Check out their highlight videos here


Second, faith leaders aren’t ‘joining the environmental movement’ simply by virtue of their leadership on environmental issues. Every major faith tradition articulates a moral responsibility to care for people and the planet. Saying that faith leaders are joining the environmental movement because they are being faithful to the tenets of their faith seems as inappropriate as saying that environmentalists and conservationists have joined the faith movement because they are faithfully doing the necessary work of protecting the planet we all depend on. 

We appreciate Pope Francis leadership, but we also value the work of faith leaders on climate that has been happening for decades. 

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