LOOK at the great social crusades in American history, and the hand of organized religion is evident. Religious commitment brought fervor and, ultimately, victory to causes that otherwise would have languished in a political stalemate.
The abolitionist movement that helped to rid the country of slavery in the 19th century drew moral strength from Christian and Jewish beliefs about the worth of every person. A century later, the civil rights movement tapped the same themes in the successful effort to pass laws guaranteeing constitutional rights to all Americans.
But in recent years, religion seems to have lost its ability to bring people together on divisive social issues. A prime example is the impasse on abortion, a moral issue on which religious groups reach vastly different conclusions.
From abortion to welfare reform to punishing criminals, religious input into recent debates has been as diverse and, sadly, often as divisive as the political posturing these topics inspire.
In this context, the announcement last week of a grass-roots campaign to organize a spectrum of religious organizations to speak out on a single issue deserves notice. And if any issue stands a chance of attracting unity, this campaign may have found it: preserving forests.
Environmentalism strikes a deep chord in Americans, but for religious groups, the issue goes beyond politics to touchstones as basic to Judaism and Christianity as the stories of Genesis.
Increasingly, congregations of all stripes are making connections between biblical accounts that tell of God's command that humans be stewards of the Earth and the public policies that determine how natural resources are treated. In some churches, celebrations of creation are taking their places beside more traditional liturgical observances.
Although these values give religious groups a natural interest in forest conservation and other environmental issues, their influence has not been widely felt in policy discussions.
Frederick W. Krueger, who is coordinating the campaign from Santa Rosa, Calif., believes that churches have barely begun to engage the moral dimensions of issues such as forest management. He says the goal of the campaign is to find ways to "put what has often been a contentious issue into a wider moral context."
That will take a lot of talk, work and diplomacy. But listen to the range of voices already on board:
From Sister Mary Lou Dolan, chairwoman of the earth literacy department at a Catholic college in Indiana: "If we are not concerned about forests, we're not concerned about our own human welfare. . . . If we don't respect and value the forests, it only shows a disregard for ourselves and our neighbors."
Susan Bower, from the Assembly of God Church in Hayfork, Calif., and representative to the coalition from the Minnesota-based North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology: "When we take care of forests, which human beings and other forms of life are vitally dependent upon, we show love to God."
Dr. Vincent Ross, an Eastern Orthodox theologian: "It is by the beauty inherent in creation, especially in forests, that we recognize the hand of God upon it. The truly human response to beauty is to savor it, to protect it, to preserve it. It is a duty of every Orthodox Christian, then, to protect, savor and save the forests of the world."
The Rev. Peter Illyn, a Pentecostal pastor from Vancouver, Wash., and head of a new group called Christian Environmental Stewards: "Many Christians become so worried about avoiding worship of the Earth that we forget how to love what God has created. When we act to preserve forests, we are demonstrating our love for what God loves."
Voices of nature
And from Rabbi Lester Scharnberg of Eureka, Calif., comes this lyrical thought: "The Psalmist tells us that God 'will regard the prayer of the juniper' (Psalm 102: 18). Let us . . . take such passages as literal possibilities. Let us listen to the voices of nature. Let us commit to . . . hearing . . . a tree at prayer. . . . Let us act upon such prayers and heed the calling of such voices. If we do, we will do far more to conserve our forests than we have so far done."
If Rabbi Scharnberg is right, the trends evident in this new campaign and in the proliferation of smaller, religiously based environmental groups could signal a big shift in policy debates.
After all, it's one thing to base debates about logging policies on dollars and cents. But if this campaign succeeds in bringing biblical values to the debate, it will be intriguing to watch the profit-and-loss mentality try to counter concerns about God's regard for "the prayer of the juniper."
Intriguing, but not necessarily a cliffhanger, given the clear outcomes of earlier debates pitting economic values against deep and abiding moral concerns.
Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/17/98