The Magazine

The Green Shepherd

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

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Government cooperation with houses of worship is hardly new. President Bush drew much criticism when he launched the original Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001. He wanted to help churches shelter the homeless and rehabilitate addicts—services the government would likely have had to provide otherwise. Obama’s office, however, is asking America’s churches (most of them not exactly flush with surplus cash) to go into hock to weatherize their sanctuaries and to devote resources toward helping the government “educate” the public about melting polar ice. 

As a former director of Bush’s faith-based office, Jim Towey, notes: “I can see that there’s a spiritual imperative to take good care of the earth .  .  . but it’s a tradeoff. If you’re going to direct [congregations’] attention toward that, it comes at the expense of the poor. Who’s advocating for them?”

Towey also points to the double-standard when it comes to criticism of Obama’s faith-based office and Bush’s. Opponents accused Bush of seeking to exploit churches for the administration’s political ends; the evangelical activist pastor Jim Wallis, for instance, wrote in December 2006 that “Republicans shamelessly politicized the faith-based initiative.” Yet Wallis is a member of Obama’s faith-based council and has also met with congressional Democrats to help them frame their policies in more morally appealing terms. The director of Obama’s faith-based office—a young Pentecostal preacher named Joshua DuBois—was tapped for the post fresh off his time as director of religious affairs for Obama’s presidential campaign. DuBois’s deputy, Mara Vanderslice, was director of religious outreach during John Kerry’s presidential run in 2004 and started a consulting firm aimed at helping Democrats make inroads with religious voters.

The use of churches and congregations to advance the administration’s climate-change agenda, Towey says, “looks a lot like this is simply a political outreach initiative.” He adds: “The faith-based office was supposed to be a common-ground effort with Republicans and Democrats working to assist the poor—and that’s just long gone.”

The report has at least managed to join the left and right in opposition. The director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Reverend Barry Lynn, says: “It’s just not a function of the government of the United States to decide to help a church get better air conditioning or put solar panels on its roof.” (Lynn advised the council on parts of the report, but not the climate-change section.) 

Asked to respond to concerns that the work on climate change would politicize both the faith-based office and the churches it partners with, a White House spokesman, Shin Inouye, said: “The office does not work on Climate Change. You may be thinking of the work of the Advisory Council.” Upon being told that the White House website describes the Advisory Council as part of the office’s work, Inouye stressed that the White House merely “coordinates” the work of the council. Of course, the report states that climate change was one of the “priority areas” that “President Obama asked the council to focus its attention on.”

One person who believes strongly that church and state should be cooperating on climate-change efforts is Michael Schut, an economic and environmental affairs officer at the Episcopal Church and a member of the climate change task force that contributed to the report. Churches, he says, have a unique take on climate change: 

They are particularly aware of the fact that many poor and low-income neighborhoods both here, and around the world, are those that are most impacted .  .  . they’re aware of the rising sea levels and increased storm severity. 

And although many faith organizations already have robust climate-change-awareness initiatives, getting government involved helps. “This is a White House-based office, there’s a real bully pulpit—a real PR-plus, a real convening power there,” Schut says. 

Schut notes strong administration support for the council’s work. Mara Vanderslice, he says, provided guidance to both the advisory council and its task forces during the drafting of the report and offered advice on how to make sure the panel’s recommendations stood the greatest chance of becoming policy, saying, “This is how you might need to clarify this, knowing where the administration was.” Schut explains: “There was certainly a lot of excitement on her part and support on the part of the office, understanding that this was an important endeavor.” 

And EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has expressed her openness to creating faith-based offices at the EPA and sponsoring a public-education campaign on the environment, noting (according to Religion News Service), 

We’re taking for granted the fact that people know in this day and age how important it is. .  .  . We probably need to remind them that the abundance we’re fighting to save is their heritage. It is a heritage they got from God.

Perhaps it’s only reasonable that global-warming activists would turn to God for help as the scientific case for their position collapses. As if -Climategate had never happened, the council report asserts with blind faith: “Adequately addressing global climate change—through better and more extensive partnerships with nonprofits and other efforts—will result, for example, in less migration, fewer refugee crises, and greater food security.” The swollen Red Sea will part, the waters of Noah’s greenhouse-gas-fueled flood will recede, and the meek shall inherit the earth. All it takes is a little federal infiltration of America’s houses of worship.

Meghan Clyne is the managing editor of National Affairs.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers