Theology Thursdays: Religion, Environment and Race by Norris McDonald
Religion and politics are important to most humans. Even if individuals do not accept a creationist religion, they formulate or adhere to a pagan or pantheistic religion. Atheists are closer to paganism and pantheism than creationism. A person’s politics are influenced by his or her religious or nonreligious beliefs. The conservative religious right (CRR) in America is creationist and the traditional environmental movement (TEM) is predominantly pagan. Both want to be stewards of the earth; they simply have different beliefs and methods for accomplishing this goal. President Bush, Mel Gibson, Michael Moore, Al Sharpton, Ralph Nader and Barack Obama all represented various aspects of religion, environment, politics and race in 2004. Our challenge is to reconcile these disparate interests to become stewards of planet Earth.
Global climate change, clean air, clean water, toxics mitigation, energy policy and lands issues are not considered in a vacuum. Members of the CRR and the TEM have very strong beliefs about economic development, abortion, gay marriage, gun control, stem cell research, war and race. Of course, on race the CRR and TEM are similar in that they both practice an arms-length approach to accepting blacks as equals.
The liberal left (LL) and the religious right are at war for the soul of America. The recent national elections tipped the scale to the right. The left is not going anywhere though. The CRR is aligned with industry and the LL has Hollywood and the media. The TEM is a $6 billion per year behemoth and if blacks in America were a separate nation, it would be the 5th largest nation on earth with $500 billion generated annually.. So how do we get compromise to provide certainty in the marketplace? How do we reduce litigation to make the marketplace run smoothly? Although we cannot mix oil and water to drink, they work well together in propelling a car. We should take the same approach in environmental and energy policy decision-making -- take the most practical approaches from each side to build a vehicle that works.
Global climate change is the single most important environmental issue facing the planet today. We cannot emit limitless amounts of waste into our atmosphere and oceans and expect no consequences. We cannot over fish our oceans and expect them to provide limitless yields. Mankind is simultaneously wasteful and an awesomely efficient consumption machine. We have the capability and the moral obligation to harness our natural resources in an environmentally friendly manner.
The traditional environmental movement has a great history of passing environmental laws, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but as recent events and publications indicate, the environmental movement is losing its way. The Death of Environmentalism, by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, describes how the traditional environmental movement is spinning its wheels in a liberal foundation funded death spiral. Former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach agrees with Shellenberger and Nordhaus. Foundations have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to environmental groups over the past ten years but they have received virtually no return on their investment. Al Gore abandoned the environmental movement during his presidential campaign. President Clinton did not promote the Kyoto Protocol and the Senate killed any consideration of it by a vote of 95-0. The TEM believes its agenda is threatened by the Bush administration and they do not know what to do about it. AAEA has its own criticisms of the TEM regarding their lack of diversity. The traditional environmental movement is so thoroughly aligned with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that it does not know how to appeal to Red State political sensibilities.
Bill Cosby has caused heartburn in the black community by describing its underbelly. Like Shellenberger, Nordhaus and Werbach in the environmental community, Cosby is rightly challenging the black community to improve its collective conduct. Although conditions are much better for blacks in general, the homicide rate among blacks is insane. Blacks can sit, sleep and eat where they want to, for the most part, but blacks do not own the material goods or the production facilities in America. Blacks need to own more than a house mortgage and two car notes.
The conservative right has issues other than environmental protection at the top of its priority list. Thus, the next phase of environmental protection is left in limbo. The political success of conservative evangelicals and the listlessness of the traditional environmental movement have led to a stalemate in establishing relevant environmental policies. Since care for the created order is one aspect of evangelicalism, maybe a theologically oriented environmental movement can move America to the next level of environmental protection. Whatever the mechanism, it must complement the democratic capitalism inherent in the success of the American system.
One thing is certain; we need stronger grassroots evangelical support for protecting the environment. The religious right should see environmental activism as a Christian duty. Unfortunately, traditional environmentalists want nothing to do with creationist religion. When Reverend Jim Ball launched the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign, traditional environmentalists howled and mocked him to the high heavens (pun intended). As executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Ball and his colleagues could be very helpful in making our vehicle fleets more efficient.
It is interesting how the conservative right and the traditional environmental movement both marginalize African Americans. Some Christians promote race purity because they believe God created races to be distinct. Others misinterpret scripture and believe that blacks are cursed and condemned to be slaves and subordinates. AAEA has never located those passages in the bible and we challenge anyone to refer us to such references. Regardless, Darwinian environmentalists believe that blacks are not among the fittest. Their proof is in the planetary domination by the white race. The conceit here is that such domination has led to serious pollution problems in industrialized nations. Dominance occurs through military might and economic development. As the conscience of American military and economic dominance, the traditional environmental movement tries to tame the underbelly of capitalism – maximizing profits by avoiding environmental protection. Since Darwinian environmentalists cannot appeal to moral values, they utilize litigation, lobbying and media manipulation to get their way. It is interesting that the black community is a religious community, except for the homicidal underbelly and dysfunctional criminal element.
Yet, there is a disconnect between the black community and the conservative right in politics. After leaning Republican following the Civil War, blacks first swung to the Democrats with the advent of the New Deal. However, Eisenhower got 39 percent of the black vote in 1956. Richard Nixon received 32 percent of the black vote in 1960. The picture changed when race became central to the Republican Party's ascendance to power, especially in the South, which is now the main region of power for the GOP. Republicans received only six percent of the black vote in 1964 because of the contrast between Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. A Republican presidential candidate hasn't gotten above 20 percent since then. President Nixon promoted a ‘Southern Strategy’ of appealing to white racism to win the presidency in 1968. Nixon still won 18 percent of the black vote in 1972. Of course, some conservatives such as Pat Buchanan reject the 'Southern Strategy' analysis: "The charge that we built our Republican coalition on race is a lie. Nixon routed the left because it had shown itself incompetent to win or end a war into which it had plunged the United States and too befuddled or cowardly to denounce the rioters burning our cities or the brats rampaging on our campuses." Interestingly, while in office Nixon promoted black capitalism. Nixon also signed some of the most important environmental legislation in the history of the United States. Nixon signed legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, Clean, Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The Congressional Black Caucus is consistently the highest voting caucus in Congress on environmental issues, according to the League of Conservation Voters. Yet, black professionals are a rare commodity in the environmental movement. Environment, politics and race make strange bedfellows.
Is there a way to harness the best intentions of the conservative right, environmental left and the black community to achieve environmental protection? The answer is ‘probably not.’ The Congressional Black Caucus and the traditional environmental movement are almost completely anti religious right. The CBC and the TEM are also totally in the pocket of the Democratic Party. So while the conservative right is in the pocket of the Republican Party, there is little room for cooperation in Washington, D.C. over environmental policy. However, enlightened individuals in both camps should find a vehicle for cooperating on environmental and energy policy. Environmentalists are disingenuous when they promote wind and solar as the only real solutions to America’s energy needs. The right is wrong when they think that the marketplace alone will self regulate environmental protection. There is a healthy middle ground. There should be rational regulation and reasonable development decisions that ‘replenish the earth and subdue it.’ We can utilize the earth’s resources, protect the environment and make money.
The environmental justice movement rejects both the traditional environmental movement and the religious right. This is a reaction to TEM and CRR rejection of the African American community. So how do we achieve environmental justice – the equal environmental protection of all people regardless of race or economic position? The environmental justice movement, the religious right and the traditional environmental movement will have to find some way to work together to provide global environmental protection and economic prosperity. Global climate change might just force these disparate groups to hold hands to implement a practical solution to planetary pollution problems. Of course, it would help if TEM organizations hired more African Americans. It would also help if the Right recruited African American participation in the Republican Party. It would also help if blacks worked the two-party system in the United States. Thus, environmental justice activists and traditional environmental organization activists could work with religious environmentalists to promote dynamic solutions to our planetary stewardship challenges.
Industry and the Bush administration are much better on race relations, hiring and retaining blacks than the religious right and the traditional environmental movement. It is interesting that the Congressional Black Caucus does not acknowledge this reality. The CBC supports the traditional environmental community even though many of their positions are anathema to the health of the black community, e.g., higher energy prices to promote conservation, more federal ownership of public lands instead of reparations. The TEM does not hire or retain blacks in their organizations. The TEM contributes virtually no money to the CBC and they do not invest in the black community. Of course, the Right is the enemy of the CBC. This enmity is ironic since the majority of the African American community is conservative and religious. This inefficient enmity will only be bridged when more blacks join the ranks of the Republican Party. The CBC should insist that the traditional environmental movement hire and retain more blacks. Christians who dismiss environmental activism because they are simply following the lead of their industry and cultural allies are ignoring a major moral obligation to replenish the earth. It is fair to ask why are members of the Christian Right some of the most vehement anti-environmentalists in American politics.
Blacks have been excluded from freely participating in American capitalism and in environmental policy decision-making. Yet, blacks are the first to support traditional environmental positions and industrial development. The black community is at the forefront of the debate between economic development versus environmental protection. That is because the black community has been a prime target for polluting industrial development projects that cannot locate in white communities. Blacks are also redlined or priced-out of exclusive, environmentally pristine white communities. As blacks can afford to move to gated, waterfront communities, environmentalists are busy limiting access to shoreline properties. The environmental movement must recognize the historical wrongs perpetrated upon blacks and make some concession to the needs of blacks to be capitalist industrialists, landowners and environmental stewards. Industry must also find a way to allow blacks to participate in the extractive industries, i.e., mining, oil and gas exploration, fuels transportation, utilities, export-import, and pollution equipment production. At the same time, blacks have a vested interest in protecting a community that has been disproportionately affected by pollution. Any kind of pollution that hurts minorities, the poor, fetuses, children and families is contrary to loving your neighbor, which is at the center of religious teaching.
So how do we fuse these disparate interests? Global and local cap and trade of emissions might be a start. Cap and trade for nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide will create dynamic local and global markets for efficiency retrofits, innovation and market-based pollution prevention. Such an industry provides an entrée for black entrepreneurs, accomplishes a major goal of the traditional environmental community, provides moral stewardship of the earth and a profitable vehicle for capitalist investment. If policies target all sectors of society for pollution reduction, prevention and efficiencies, then the opportunities and responsibilities will be shared and spread throughout American society. In other words, not only are utilities and vehicles targeted for improvements, but also homes, appliances and businesses are included in pollution prevention. Any such system will have to meet the goals of providing opportunities for economic development, job creation, environmental protection and limited intrusion on the individual rights of Americans. In regards to issues such as lead and mercury, the religious right should be on the same page with environmentalists. The evangelical community is very concerned about fetuses and should understand the impact that mercury has on the unborn child. Environmentalists and evangelicals know that mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that is most dangerous to fetuses. One might still logically ask however, why should a pro-abortion environmentalist worry about the effects of mercury on a fetus? Moral relativism allows significant wiggle room. Moral absolutism allows none. Wanting to go 'back to the garden' is one thing, following the rules to allow you to stay there is quite another thing. God is a strict God. God is a jealous God. And God loves us like we love our children.
Fundamentalist Christians perceived as not being concerned with the here-and-now because salvation and environmental solutions will be solved in the 'by-and-by' should know that they will also be judged on their actions in the here-and-now. Biblical understanding of a post resurrection world is not anathema to environmental stewardship in this world. Revelations says the new government comes down, not that we go up. Jesus' father Jehovah has assigned Christ to lead human affairs, including global environmental management, to time indefinite. Science and religion are also not mutually exclusive domains. Science can support religious beliefs and religion can support scientific facts. But be advised, Christians will never accept Darwinian evolution and Charles Darwin advocates will not accept creation by an omnipotent God. Pro-life evangelicals and secular, left-leaning environmentalist groups will never agree on some issues. Christians do not need to ignore the fact that environmentalism grew out of paganism, pantheism, and 1960s counterculture revolts. They only need to relate environmental issues to primary evangelical concerns. Again, both camps believe in stewardship of the earth.
If evangelical Christians support the reasonable regulation of industry to protect the environment and environmentalists accept some market freedom and corporate responsibility, it could represent a major shift in the environmental political paradigm. Although Christian Right leaders have strong ties to industry, religion, not industry, is their principle influence. Although traditional environmental organizations have strong ties to Blue State foundations and the Democratic Party, stewardship, not partisanship, is their principle influence. An aggressive environmental awakening among religious conservatives could threaten some in the Republican Party. An aggressive market-oriented approach among traditional environmentalists could threaten some in the Democratic Party.
However, we have to be realistic. Even if the Republican Party's religious base does begin to get serious about issues like mercury emissions and climate change, it will not overshadow their satisfaction with the party's positions on the cultural issues. And even if the Democratic Party’s environmental and black bases get serious about issues like limiting the size and power of the federal government, it will not overshadow their satisfaction with the party’s position on cultural issues.
Norris McDonald is the President of the African American Environmentalist Association. Learn more about the AAEA at www.aaenvironment.com
Thursday, November 17, 2005