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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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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), 

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