Acton Commentary

Activism and the Faith Community


There has long been a divide in the faith community over the proper role of social activism in the life of the church. No faithful believer can legitimately dispute the need for societal injustices to be corrected and reformed. The call of the believer to be “in the world,” transforming it and seeking to make it a more just society, cannot be ignored—not without peril to one's own growth in holiness. A serious problem results, however, when Christian social activism becomes too closely identified with certain political agendas that are at odds with Christianity's understanding of humankind's place within creation. No place is this misguided activism more evident than within the anti-business, anti-development world of the radical social/environmental agenda.

Today in Dallas, Texas, one of America's leading energy producers, Exxon Mobile, will host its annual shareholders meeting. Such a meeting provides a forum for all of Exxon Mobile's investors to review the company's financial statements and business plans, and to suggest various initiatives for improving the company's overall performance. Some religious groups, however, seek to use this forum as a platform for advancing a radical environmental and social agenda. Such an attack on the work of corporate America is, sadly, all too common within the faith community.

In a statement issued May 28, 2002, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, Acton's president and co-founder, offered his thoughts on the roots of this kind of activism within the faith community:

“It is a fundamental belief of mine that this ongoing alliance between the radical environmental movement and the faith community has been a tragically unreflective one. My suspicion is that much of this religious environmentalism results from a woeful lack of understanding of business, specifically, and economics, broadly speaking. These activists, especially those deeply convinced of the radical environmental agenda, are often more concerned with the social and political aims of the environmental agenda, and disregard the facts presented by a proper understanding of economics and the workings of the free market.”

“Most especially, these activists dismiss the notion that the business community has any moral potential at all. Such a negative view of economic reality reflects a grave misunderstanding of Christian anthropology, which understands humankind as imbued with creativity and dignity. The Christian view understands that man is a steward of creation's resources and dismisses the notion that man is merely a consumer and polluter. Corporations like Exxon Mobile have done humanity a great service by developing the energy resources necessary for heating homes, powering our global transportation infrastructure, and providing meaningful employment throughout the global economy. The assumption that because a corporation makes a profit, it is somehow morally less significant or exploitative, is to dismiss the real gains in living conditions and quality of life that such enterprises have made possible. All of us wish to see corporations and businesses of all kinds act in an ethically proper way. Such judgments, however, must be in accord with sound scientific research, a proper understanding of economics, and a correct view of human anthropology. Any activism unhinged from these core principles is not only irresponsible, but bound to have disastrous effects on economic development and human flourishing throughout the world.”

It is clear that the faith community has a legitimate role to play in serving as a moral voice in the work of the business world. For such a voice to be effective, it is essential that the faith community be accurately informed as to the facts associated with specific concerns, and remain theologically orthodox and balanced in its presentation. If the appropriate role of the concerned believer is co-opted by secular political ideology and activism, it is not possible for the believer's witness to have the kind of impact it would otherwise have. The loss of direction that such a co-optation represents does harm not just to the organizations assailed by this radical activism, but also to the voice of the faith community as a witness to the truth in our society.