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The Green Shepherd

The White House wants churches to advance its climate change agenda.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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If the Obama administration has its way, the gospel of climate change will be coming to a pulpit near you. That at least seems to be the dream of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships—a 25-member group of leaders from across the religious spectrum that is part of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The Green Shepherd

Last month, the council spent a day at the White House briefing senior administration officials on its “final report of recommendations” for improving collaboration between the government and religious organizations. The 164-page document, entitled “A New Era of Partnerships,” takes up the “priority areas” identified by President Obama—Economic Recovery and Domestic Poverty, Fatherhood and Healthy Families, Environment and Climate Change, Global Poverty and Development, and Interreligious Cooperation. 

Poverty, families, interreligious co-operation: All pretty standard. But what does an office created to help better provide social services to the needy have to do with climate change? 

Apparently, the president’s council envisions the “partnership” between government and religious institutions as a means of spreading the administration’s environmental warnings, rather than just a way to help churches feed the hungry and clothe the poor. Faith-based organizations, the report notes, can take “a prominent leadership role in influencing policy, education, and action in those areas.”

How exactly can the government enlist congregations in the climate-change fight? Step 1: Set up an office at the Environmental Protection Agency “to actualize the potential of faith-based and community groups and their networks across the country toward greening and retrofitting buildings”:

[A]n Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the EPA could .  .  . activate faith- and community-based networks to promote energy efficiency, environmental responsibility, and green jobs. With minimal personnel costs to the government, massive partnerships could be scaled up through engaging religious and community leaders and organizations.

The council hopes the new EPA faith office will also help churches and other nonprofits improve “access to financing,” including “establishing revolving loan programs or working with utility companies to help finance greening building projects.” The ultimate aim of all this government-supported retrofitting is clear: “Regional staff would work to engage local faith-and community-based groups to help meet Obama administration targets for greening buildings and promoting environmental quality.” [Emphasis added.]

The report adds: “We believe that faith- and community-based groups, as well as the general American public, could be better mobilized toward environmental goals with a well-publicized and centralized educational campaign” (to be hosted and promoted through a government website) that, among other things, “asks faith-based and neighborhood organizations to collaborate in developing these resources which should emphasize that environmental and climate change concerns are often closely connected to issues of justice and equity.” 

The council has plenty of other ideas for blurring the thin green line between church and state. Claiming that “one of the few areas where jobs are being created is the clean-energy sector” and that “faith- and community-based groups can play a critical role in connecting government green job programs with those that need them most,” the report suggests that the administration “encourage the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other Federal agencies to work cooperatively with faith-based and neighborhood organizations to ensure that low-income communities and workers with barriers to employment are targeted when creating green job training programs.”

Obama’s council also wants the administration to “sponsor regional conferences to mobilize faith- and community-based organizations to promote environment sustainability and energy efficiency,” and to guide state and local governments on how they can get in on the church-greening act. And because “many faith-based institutions have land available to them,” and “more and more faith-based organizations see the connections between their values and sustainable food systems,” the council recommends that “the administration direct the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and any other relevant agencies to find ways to facilitate collaboration and connections between faith-based organizations, community gardening advocates and educators, and small-scale, sustainable agricultural projects and practitioners.” A government-promoted, sustainable churchyard garden: perfect for reenacting the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

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