Acton Commentary

Religious Leaders and Social Activism: Prophets or Captives?


Religious leaders are always in danger of being 'captured' by someone with a cause. Why? Because anyone who can get a member of the clergy--or, better yet, an entire organization made up of clergy--behind their cause will immediately give their work moral legitimacy. In the process of forming public understanding of and public policy on a given issue, religious leaders are key players. The first speaker at the Exxon-Mobil annual shareholders' meeting this year was a Catholic priest, Father Michael Crosby. In the course of the proceedings, two Catholic priests, one Catholic nun, and a Protestant pastor all spoke. In the interest of full disclosure, I was the Protestant pastor and spoke against one of the priests and the nun, who have been captured and are being used by radical environmental, leftist, organizations to whom they lend moral legitimacy.

There is nothing wrong with religious leaders having and voicing opinions on matters of public import; by doing so they can fulfill a vital and prophetic role in society. The pivotal question that must be raised in such cases is: What are the origins of the agenda? If the ideas being proposed stem from sound theological commitments, then the religious spokesman stands on sure ground. If, however, the cause is basically secular, the religious leader can be seen as simply trying to inject religious language into a non- (or even anti-) religious agenda.

In too many cases, the latter is true. Consider this most recent example. Last month, the Building in Good Faith (BIGF) initiative was undertaken by a group of environmental activists seeking to eliminate the use of vinyl plastics in all building materials. According to a recent BIGF press release , the initiative has gained a sympathetic hearing from both the National Religious Partnership on the Environment (NRPE) and the National Council of Churches (NCC).

In this case, the Building in Good Faith movement is starting from a largely secular environmental philosophy, and seeking to import religious justification. The “green” building agenda claims that concerns about human health are at the root of their campaign. These initiatives are chock-full of sweeping statements such as, “PVC is the worst plastic from an environmental health perspective, posing great environmental and health hazards in its manufacture, product life and disposal.”

This campaign to phase out vinyl building materials is just one piece of the greater anti-vinyl movement. The group behind the Building in Good Faith initiative is My House is Your House , which has joined forces with Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), a group whose stated goals include the elimination of all PVC-based products in healthcare. Health Care Without Harm maintains that it is out of concern for the health of patients that it is pursuing the ban on vinyl, just as BIGF is claiming that it is concerned with human health threats in the environment.

This would all be well and good if it were actually the case. The actions of groups like Health Care Without Harm belie their real interest in patient welfare, however. For example, it is agreed that PVC-based products are widespread in the healthcare industry and form a vital part of healthcare technology. In seeking to eliminate these products completely, such activists are actually working against the best interests of most patients. The campaign against medical vinyl--based on a very small risk--would in effect create new harms by denying patients the use of products that have been proven safe in billions of treatments. What's more, the ongoing, concerted effort to remove PVC products from hospitals diverts attention that should be paid to vastly greater health risks.

To the extent that the use of vinyl products may be problematic for a very small, vulnerable segment of the population, it is reasonable to seek safer alternatives. Health Care Without Harm is unwilling to stop at such reasonable measures. HCWH explicitly states that it is on a “quest to eliminate PVC (and thus DEHP) from healthcare facilities.” This is quite simply an ideological crusade based not on concerns for human beings, but rather on an irrational bias against all things “artificial.” This is where the secular and naturalistic agenda of these groups becomes apparent.

The alternatives to PVC that are put forth by such groups have not been shown to be cost-effective or to have the reliability of vinyl-based products. The Building in Good Faith campaign especially favors more rustic building materials , such as adobe, cob, earth, strawbale and cordwood.

Some misguided religious groups have joined in this ideological crusade, including the General Board of Church and Society--United Methodist Church (Washington, D.C.); The Cathedral of St. John the Divine (New York, N.Y.); the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Washington, D.C.); The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts; and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (Washington, D.C.).

Truly responsible religious engagement with environmental issues would stress the importance of human health and life, and not sacrifice the well-being of humans for the purposes of an ideological crusade.

The tragic part is that many of these religious leaders intend to do good. Unaware of economic or scientific realities, they fail to calculate the "unintended consequences" of the policies that they advocate. They risk being used by more sophisticated people on the hard left who wrap their agenda around religion. Religious leaders need to be more careful not to lend moral legitimacy to harmful economic and environmental policies that, if put into full effect, would have devastating consequences.