Acton Commentary

The Unholy Alliance: Radical Environmentalists and the Churches


A recent development that should be of some concern to Christians is the cozy relationship developing between radical environmental groups and Christian churches. The most recent public example of this growing alliance occurred when the National Council of Churches, led by former Democratic congressman Bob Edgar, and the Sierra Club co-sponsored a series of television ads. These spots advised that the moral mandate to care for creation is not compatible with the Bush administration's desire to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

While these organizations certainly have a right to their opinions on these matters, it is disturbing to see radical environmental groups seeking to couch their message in religious authority. It is well known that churches have long worked with other like-minded and, usually, secular lobbies on contentious social issues. In most cases, however, the churches tended to have their Gospel values eroded by the desire for secular political gain—one need only recall the role of the religiously motivated in the expansion of the debilitating welfare state. Christ's warning about the zeal that “the children of this world” apply to their secular endeavors is especially applicable to those Christians who work side by side with secular lobbies, particularly those pursuing a radical environmental agenda.

This alliance between environmental “greens” and the religious community poses a significant threat to the moral authority of contemporary churches. One significant danger is that the evangelical mission of the church will be co-opted by a secular environmental agenda—an agenda whose roots often run counter to the tenets of Christian orthodoxy. Some Christian thinkers have somewhat unthinkingly embraced the tenets of radical environmentalism, asserting that “alleviating poverty, healing nature, and preserving the stability of the biosphere is the central task for those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus in today's world.” While it is true that Christians have obligations to the poor and to properly steward the environment, to claim that the central task of the believer is to heal nature and protect the biosphere seems beyond the realm of orthodox Christian teaching on these matters.

Regardless of the concerns of the modern environmental movement, the task of Christians remains the same—to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. The importance of this call cannot simply be reduced to ameliorating poverty and preserving nature. The danger of the partnership between Christian churches and the radical environmental lobby is that the opinions of environmental groups tend to become invested with the teaching and moral authority afforded to the churches.

Such a situation can be very confusing, when sincere believers misunderstand the exact teaching authority of certain religious organizations. A very good illustration of this confusion occurred in February when three Catholic bishops signed a letter to the Bush administration calling energy conservation “morally superior” to drilling for oil in Alaska. John Carr, secretary of social development for the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, remarked to the Wall Street Journal, “We're not the Sierra Club at prayer, we're the Catholic community trying to take our environmental responsibilities seriously.” The difficulty with Mr. Carr's statement, however, is that it is not clear who he is referring to as “we.” As the Catholic Bishops Conference has taken no position on Alaska drilling, the opinion of three Catholic bishops and Mr. Carr hardly constitutes “the Catholic community.” As a lay representative of a directorate within the conference bureaucracy, Mr. Carr is not invested with any official teaching authority. He, just like the Sierra Club, has only his opinions on these matters. The danger in the use of church structures to promote the environmental agenda is that prudential opinions and judgements about environmental questions tend to be portrayed as authoritative pronouncements from denominational leaders.

While Christian are free to embrace any number of political positions on the spectrum from left to right, it is sometimes the case that a particular position should be avoided because it conflicts with Christian belief. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, recently stated in a Wall Street Journal article that the relationship with churches gives him new clout on Capitol Hill. Given this situation, believers would do well to examine the most basic tenets of the environmental agenda itself. Groups like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace all embrace the idea of population control, which has, at its roots, a very anti-human conviction. Such a conviction views the human as primarily a polluter and consumer, and dismisses the idea of human capital, which adds to creation's resources. Furthermore, these groups utilize a faulty economic analysis of current resources, which fosters a view of economic development as exploitative and destructive of creation. Such an analysis seeks to deny humans the finest products of human ingenuity and threatens the quality of life for all, most especially the poorest of the poor. This kind of thinking is far afield of the biblical mandate “to be fruitful and multiply” and the Gospel's call to defend and preserve human dignity. Human dignity cannot be defended and preserved by an ideology that views humans as exploiting creation for selfish purposes.

Christian leaders must be very careful not to squander their moral authority on an agenda contrary to Christian doctrine and the church's evangelical mission. Investing the anti-human environmental agenda with ecclesiastical authority is very dangerous, even when it is done unintentionally. Thus the “holy alliance” between the environmental “greens” and the churches may turn out to be not so holy at all.