Morality and Politics
By Rev. Peter Sawtell, EcoJustice Ministries. The Sisters of Loretto, which have maintained the Loretto Earth Network for over 25 years, help guide EcoJustice Ministries and are linked to GCCM through a GCCM Steering Committee member. Emphasis (to aid skimming) is provided by the Blog editor.
Two weeks ago, I spoke to a special committee of the Colorado State Senate dealing with “energy and the environment.” I was invited by one of the senators who is a member of that new committee. He wanted me to emphasize that climate change is a moral issue. I had five minutes to make my case, so I was quick to invoke Pope Francis, and to refer to his 2015 encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home.
Throughout the encyclical, I said, the Pope expresses a concern that technology and economics are dominating public debates. His letter is a demand that good science and faithful morality have to be a part of political and public conversations. He reminds us that faith communities bring to the table what others do not: deeply-held principles about the innate value of all people and creatures; perspectives about responsible stewardship of all the gifts of this marvelous earth; and the recognition of a common good that stretches across generations.
There was some remarkable irony as I spoke those words from my prepared statement, because I was the second person to address the committee. The first speaker was a perfect illustration of the point I was making.
The lead-off presentation at the first meeting of this committee (with four Republicans and two Democrats) was from the Colorado Energy Coalition. He was given half an hour to share copious details from their recent and widely respected report, “Resource Rich Colorado: Colorado’s National and Global Position in the Energy Economy.” His slides and comments established precisely the philosophical framing that empowers technology and economics at the heart of public debates. He pointed out the economic value of fossil fuels; the tax revenues from exploiting coal, oil and gas; and the jobs created by both fossil fuels and renewable energy. He was enthusiastic about how new technologies are more efficient and cleaner. He did not, however, show any slides that illustrate rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or that show the relative climate impacts of various fuels, or refer to the need to limit global warming to 2 degrees C. He did not talk of ice melting all over the planet, or of rising sea levels, or of the political instability that arises when drought leads to wars and refugees. His point was clear. “Colorado’s balanced energy industry”, as he called it, is good for the state’s economy. Therefore, responsible senators will do what they can to help that industry grow.
Then it was my turn, as the first of six speakers for the minority side, and I called on the Pope. Yes, economics are an important consideration is shaping a state’s environmental policies. But morality and ethics — grounded in good science — have to be at the table, too. Pope Francis insisted that “we need a conversation that includes everyone”, not only those with clear-cut economic and political interests. It is, unfortunately, fairly rare for those ethical considerations to be brought into the legislative debate.
When people of faith bring these kinds of moral claims to the Capitol building, I said, we often are speaking on behalf of those who have no political voice. We may be some of the only ones lobbying and testifying who name the right of future generations to a livable world, or who will critique how the decisions made by the Senate impact others around the planet.
Because these perspectives are unfamiliar to many of the committee members, I had to educate them. Religious concern for the whole Earth community — for good stewardship and right relationships — is not new. What is new is a recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis.
I also emphasized to them that religious environmentalism is not confined to the religious left. To make that point, I spoke of Denver Seminary — a conservative Baptist school located just a few miles from the capitol building. In the 1990s, their president, Vernon Grounds, was a bold leader in calling conservative Christians to ministries of creation care. Denver Seminary still carries on that tradition of creation care witness.
To emphasize that my position is not on the theological fringe, I shared with the committee members two (slightly dated) statements of religious concern about climate change and environmental justice. An Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change is signed by hundreds of prominent church leaders, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, the presidents of several evangelical colleges and seminaries, and high-profile pastors.
The other paper, God’s Earth is Sacred, comes from the liberal side of the church, written by a group of highly regarded theologians. I made it clear that they don’t mince words as they draw on our faith traditions and ethical norms. I quoted them, “To continue to walk the current path of ecological destruction is not only folly, it is sin.”
Unfortunately, the other five speakers on “my side” fell back into pretty conventional framing. The climate scientist spoke of how this crisis is “solvable.” Representatives of the ski industry and clean energy talked about jobs from their sides of the business spectrum. And one speaker detailed the health risks (and associated costs) from air pollution caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels.
Climate change, clearly labeled as a moral issue, got five minutes on a 90 minute agenda. I’m pretty sure that Pope Francis would not be pleased with that balance.
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The day after I spoke to the Senate committee, I found a powerful video clip that I wish could be shown at one of their meetings. I won’t be, though, because the little Aljazeera America graphic in the corner makes it toxic to many on the committee.
The short video — about 3 minutes — reports on Kiribati, a nation of low-lying islands in the South Pacific that is being devastated by rising sea levels. There’s a short interview with Kiribati’s president. He has a very clear message about climate change as a moral issue.
He spoke of his grandchildren “whose future depends on our action, now.” (Those kids are playing in the background during the interview.) Then he talked of the global community. “I always refer to climate change as the greatest moral challenge for humanity, because, if these people knew that this is happening to us, why do they continue to do it? I cannot understand it. How can you pretend to be a moral person if you know that what you are doing is hurting people on the other side of the world?”
In many centers of politics and business, the urgent moral voice from Kiribati is never heard. The appeal for justice from future generations is rarely spoken.
When economics is the dominant language of decision-makers — or when “America first” explicitly excludes challenging voices from around the world — then morality is not a significant part of the conversation. Laws and business decisions are made on the basis of limited and biased information.
I only had five minutes at that committee hearing — but I’m not done making my point to my legislators. I will continue to push hard for an expanded conversation, one that includes moral principles from faith traditions, one that includes the voices of those who are seldom heard in the halls of power.
I urge you to push that message, too. Don’t let economics and nationalism control the terms of the debate — whether in politics or in church. Insist that long-standing moral principles of justice, compassion and community be taken into account.
More than ever, today’s political and cultural climate demands that we speak out with a moral voice that includes the whole Earth community.
Rev. Peter Sawtell