Air Date: Week of April 15, 1994
On Earth Day, 53,000 U.S. congregations will receive packets promoting ways to incorporate environmental stewardship into their communities. Host Steve Curwood talks to the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Paul Gorman, about building an environmental ethic within religions, and the importance of organized religion to the future of the environmental movement.
CURWOOD: Over the Earth Day weekend, 53,000 US Christian and Jewish Congregations will receive information packets on environmental issues, environmental activism, and the relationship between faith and the environment. The packets mark the beginning of a 3-year effort by the newly-founded National Religious Partnership for the Environment, endorsed by the leadership of many major religious groups as part of an effort to bring environmental awareness more into the mainstream of US society. Paul Gorman, the Executive Director of the partnership, recently came to NPR's studios in New York to discuss the initiative.
GORMAN: The issue of environmental protection is an inescapably, intrinsically religious challenge. We're talking here about what God created, and beheld as good. We're talking here about what scriptures call upon us to care for. So for people of faith, our relationship with other species, and other habitats, is about as fundamental a religious issue as we can imagine. This is not paganism; it is the Creator who is the source of our life and to whom we give gratitude, and our engagement with God's creation is one means in which many people have found a much more intimate relationship with God the Creator.
CURWOOD: What are you asking parishioners and members of synagogues and congregations to do here?
GORMAN: We're asking them to be religious around this issue, and to translate that into the various areas of congregational life. What kinds of sermons are preached, how they educate their young people, how they worship, how they engage the community in efforts for environmental sustainability, how they conduct their own lives and how they care for their own buildings and their own land. We're really seeking a comprehensive congregational response to this issue, some of which inevitably will move out into community action projects.
CURWOOD: Are you talking about moving the churches into more political action?
GORMAN: I think what we're offering congregations is the opportunity to engage this issue in ways that they feel are most appropriate. For example, there are members of the New Waverly Baptist Church in West Dallas who have been dealing with medical problems arising from the proximity of a lead smelting plant. In Bath, Ohio, there are Catholic nuns who are taking inner-city children to do hands-on organic gardening. Members of an upstate New York Presbyterian congregation have become stewards of the creek in their back yard, monitoring pH levels. There's a rabbi in St. Joseph, Missouri, who sells energy-saving products in his temple gift shop which often come with free installation by the rabbi. There are people in St. John's Episcopal Church in New Jersey who have been protesting the construction of incinerators, holding candlelight vigils and throwing sacred ashes on one of the incinerators. So there's a range of activity that congregations by themselves are undertaking. I think we're not so much asking congregations to take any single action as offering them a variety of acts that they themselves can choose.
CURWOOD: Traditionally there has been some suspicion of organized religion by some environmentalists: people who open the Bible to Genesis and come to the part that says God blessed them and said unto them, Be fruitful, multiply, replenish the Earth, and subdue it. And some environmentalists have been apprehensive of religious involvement because of this dominionistic view of the environment. How does your initiative respond to that concern?
GORMAN: I think habits of dominion are not confined to people of faith. That the entire human species has been guilty of the assumption of mastery over nature. Insofar as religion may have contributed to this species-wide habit of understanding, we have to look more carefully at our teachings and our scriptures, which are rich with the call to stewardship of the Earth, rich with our sense of obligation to care for God's creation, and lift up those teachings, understand them afresh, and look critically at our own previous understandings of what scripture teaches us.
CURWOOD: What's next? What do you expect to come out of this effort?
GORMAN: I think if this movement is to have living spirit and political power, it's going to come from the people in the pews. Forty percent of all Americans attend religious service of one kind or another every week, and I would add here, Steve, that I think one likely outcome is a broadening of the base of mainstream American engagement in environmental issues. I read yesterday that the president of the League of Conservation Voters said the best we can do is prevent this Congress from weakening the Clean Air Act, from weakening Superfund, from weakening the Safe Drinking Water Act, and from weakening the Endangered Species Act. If the environmental movement is only capable of that level of activity right now, with a Vice President of the United States who is an ally and many environmentalists in positions of responsibility in the Administration, there's a clear need to broaden the base of engagement and deepen the motivation of engagement among mainstream Americans, and we expect that to be an outcome in the long term from this mobilization.
CURWOOD: Paul Gorman is Executive Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Beginning on Earth Day, 53,000 US congregations will receive packets from the Partnership with suggestions about how to include environmental awareness in their worship services, congregation management, and community outreach. And next week at this time, as part of a special Earth Day program, Living on Earth will celebrate people who are making a difference for the environment. We'll visit an innovative Massachusetts fish farm, and meet New Mexico environmental justice activist Richard Moore. Be sure to join us.
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