This is an important question, and I don’t suspect there is an easy or satisfactory answer. As a founding member of LDSES, I have always wanted an organization that reaches out to the mainstream of the church membership and inspires them to consider the sacred doctrines of creation and of stewardship more carefully. I also hope that the organization might provide trusted information and education to help those with questions about environmental problems, examples of how different members are applying stewardship principles in a variety of ways, and ideas or suggestions about how to let your voices be heard in the public sphere. I imagine that the net result of a successful organization would be increased awareness, concern, and improved citizenship among our members pertaining to our environmental problems.
In my mind, it would be a mistake for LDSES to act collectively as a vociferous group of activists, but that is not because I disparage the role of activism, protest, letters to the editor, get-out-the-vote efforts, or any other form of citizen participation in the democratic process. I have been involved myself in such efforts. I honor and respect the many who stand up against destructive powers and seek to protect the environment with their activism.
But LDSES faces a unique problem. We are in a church culture that at present is mostly indifferent, if not occasionally hostile, to the very idea of stewardship and where the vast majority lean right politically at a time when the right is defiantly anti-environmental. If the political culture were different, then it would be easier to make the case that environmental stewardship is not a partisan issue. But right now, that is the perception. If the religious culture were different, then it would also be easier to make the case that environmental stewardship is a moral responsibility. But right now, that is not the perception. There may be many LDS folks who feel that there is no time to waste on working to change the culture within the church and that instead they would rather rally like-minded people into activism. I think that is a fine and worthy option. And they should do so as LDS members. But such activists ought not to disparage the cultural work of an organization like LDSES but should see our work as an ally. They should appreciate that our environmental future is so threatened that any and all efforts to get everyone to reduce their impact on the environment are positives. In short, we cannot solve the environmental problems we face through political activism alone. Cultural work is needed too.
Why does culture matter? If we believe that beliefs matter, it is presumably because we believe that they make a difference in how we behave. This would mean that an awakening to the spiritual charge we have in the restored gospel to care for the creation could go a long way to change the environmental behavior and voting habits of the mainstream of the church. It is likewise clear that in church culture nothing confirms stereotypes and inspires greater resistance to environmental stewardship more quickly than the perception of extreme, leftist, and vociferous political activism. I am not saying such activism is therefore ineffective, nor that such perceptions are fair. It is often very effective, and it is desperately needed on many fronts. But such efforts will not gain allies in the mainstream of the church until there is a significant cultural shift. It may even be the case that some of our dire problems will be less likely to happen precisely because of such a shift and that such activism is therefore less needed. And LDSES is concerned primarily with exploring the roots of stewardship and empowering individuals to find their own ways of applying that stewardship as citizens in an economy and in a polity. Let me be clear: we would waste our own doctrines if we in LDSES never helped people to be empowered to engage as citizens in political contexts, but we would also fail if we simply hurdled past the cultural obstacles that stand in the way for the majority in our faith to be more concerned about the environment and pretended that they simply don’t or shouldn’t exist. They do exist and they need to be removed.
So I say let those who want to do activism do so. And they should tell their stories. They should explain to others why their LDS beliefs lead them in that direction. I can see how LDSES could celebrate the life stories of LDS activists, but also LDS public servants, CEOs, and other professionals who have made a difference for the environment, as well as celebrating the creativity of individuals, families, and wards who have changed their habits for the better. In my view, the role of LDSES should not be to take direct political action as an organization, except under rare occasions and only with approval of the majority. LDSES is devoted to the celebration about and education concerning the restored doctrines of stewardship and its intent is to empower people to make their own decisions about how to live up to them.