Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Should LDS Earth Stewardship Engage in Political Advocacy?

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.

  • Charles_nuckolls says:

    The straw man argument is well known to debaters, and is present here, in my good friend George’s characterization of political action as “extreme, leftist, and vociferous.”  The proposal to involve the LDSES in public policy is not, of course, is not a proposal to engage in actions of these sorts.  Quite the contrary.  Many of us feel that an LDS-inspired advocacy could have powerful beneficial effects, especially in places (like Utah) where Mormons are in the majority.  We face critical problems in the world today:  air pollution of a magnitude that  it probably explains part of the increase in autism; ground water depletion that will probably lead to widespread dislocation of people; shale oil development in eastern Utah that will destroy thousands of acres of wildnerness, deplete water supplies, and do nothing to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.  These problems will not be solved by the simple amendment of individual behavior, i.e., walking to church or using fully inflated tires.  It requires larger-scale, public policy engagement.  The LDSES is made up of concerned and moral citizens, like George, and this is what citizens do:  they take steps to influence policy-making and inform government actions.  The time for responsible and measured (non-partisan) poltical action has come.  Check out the LDSES blog on Google; you will see how many of us support a more robust and actively oriented LDSES organization.  Please join the discussion, especially if you agree that LDSES action in the world today has never been more necessary, nor the chances for success better if we act together in a democratic process in which all voices are heard.  As the scriptures states, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22.)  With best wishes, and Merry Chirstmas, Charles W. Nuckolls.

  • Andy Ross says:

    It should be noted that George wrote “the PERCEPTION (my caps) of  extreme, leftist, and vociferous political activism.” My sense is that George was correctly pointing out how activism is often (mis)perceived by church members as extreme or beyond what they are comfortable with politically. 

    As a Latter-day Saint I believe in both affecting change through direct political action—rallies, protests, parades, participating in public government meetings—as well as changing culture from the inside through the study of doctrine, having dialogues (firesides), organizing service projects, environmentally-themed publications, and simply teaching and edifying one another. It seems as if LDSES can encourage its members to participate in both forms of action, but is best equipped to connect with its target audience (Latter-day Saints) by working within from a religious, spiritual framework.

    • Charles_nuckolls says:

      Andy:  There is nothing wrong, as you say, with being edifying and informing.  Simply distributing George’s proof-text of the Book of Mormon, to demonstate its environmental compatibilities, is helpful, and we have already done a lot of that.  But 14 of us (so far) on the LDSESG oogle site — that’s more than 20% of the membership — feel deeply frustated at the passivity and inaction of the LDSES leadership.  We want to do things with measureable, concrete outcomes, like lobbying members of congress and issueing public statements on the (environmental and moral) disaster of oil shale develpment.   In this day and age, with climate chaos increasingly, can we really afford to sit back and simply organize firesides and service projects?  Not that we shouldn’t things.  We should.  It simply falls so far short of what we could be doing by direct engagement with public policy.

      The question is this:  Must the LDSES remain essentially passive and inert in of environmental emergency, the mass death, and the diease?  Or can the LDSES rouse itself to take strong, concerted action on hehalf the billions of people in this wold without adequate drinking water; on behalf of those whose children choke and gasp for air, and develop asthma and autism; and on behalf of all those who suffer everday from the diseases unleashed by poorly managed environments. 

      The house is on fire, Andy, and the time for talk — just talk — is ending.  We can do much to help our brothers and sister by offering LDS-inpired policy recommenationa and initiatives. 

      So, please, join us the “Public Policy Working Group,” a committee soon to be established (we hope) in the LDSES.  We would love to have our advice and suggestions!

      All the best, and Merry Christmas to you and your family!   Charles W. Nuckols

      P.S.  And free free to contact me any time:  801 850 8843.

  • Laura says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.  I’ve only recently joined LDSES, and part of what drew me to it was what seemed to be an emphasis on educating and creating awareness about environmental issues in the context of LDS belief.  I’m an environmental professional–a scientist/civil servant employed at a state regulatory agency.  I understand the importance of activism, and I’m grateful there are people and organizations that rise to that challenge, but I don’t think it’s the only way to make a difference.  The role I’ve chosen for myself for the present is one of studying environmental problems with the goal of informing policy, rather than advocating for policy directly.

    There are a lot of great organizations for activists, but fewer organizations that attempt to draw individuals who approach the issue of environmental stewardship from many different angles under the same umbrella, with the goal of mutual understanding and promoting awareness.  LDSES seems uniquely poised to fulfill this role among LDS members, particularly at a time when environmental issues have become so much more partisan in the US than historically was the case.

    Just my two cents, but I did want to say that I like the approach you describe in this post.

    • Charles W. Nuckolls says:

      I agree with you on many points.  But is there a reason an LDS-informed public advocacy should not be consider? 

      Slowly conditioning the Mormon mindset is a good idea, as far as it goes, and I woud acknowledge that George’s proof-texting method of Mormon environmental shows some promise. It only goes so far, however, and to date has achieved no change in the real work where policies get framed and implement.  Tell me, don’t think an LDSES group, non-partisan in orientation, could contribute to the public debate on tar sands and make som usuefu contribution?  I certainly do.  In fact, I would go further:  an LDSES position on tar sands would be heard loudly heard in this state, and might help us change some minds.

      Many of us feel the climate crisis demands more robust action.  What if ten LDSES members show up in a congreman’s office and lay out the the moral reasons tar shales should not be developed.  You don’t think he would listen?  You bet he would.  

      My oood friend George wanst politics out of the LDSES, because he mistakenly views politics as source of partisanship, fighting, and bikering.   But that is not what politics means.  In the classical sense, it means simpy public activity by citizens in a democracy.  A group of us — 14 in number xo far — have proposed the creation of a “public policy working group” within the lDSES?  Is this politics?  Yes, but a better name for it would: “citizen engagment through Gospel principels.”

      The LDSES can be a big tent, including those who look inward, to changing Mormon mnds, and it can look outward, to the press moral problem that threaten us with climate chaos.

      I’d like to have my foot in both camps, and do the most good.  How about you, Rachel?    

      Merry Christmas!

      Charles W. Nuckolls 

      • Laura says:

        I certainly don’t have any objection to the existence of an LDS policy-advocacy group, I’m just not interested in being involved in one.  I’m a scientist and I work in the public sector as a civil servant.  In both of those roles, compromising my objectivity could damage my credibility.  Since I’m fairly young in career years, I want to wait until my reputation is better established before considering participating in environmental advocacy efforts.  Until then, honing my skills and educating others are the primary ways I can contribute, and that’s what I aim to do.

        I’m not familiar with the tar sands debate.  By “this state” do you mean Utah?  I don’t have any ties to Utah, haven’t lived there since my undergraduate degree more than a decade ago, and don’t follow Utah politics.  I can’t say how influential advocacy by an LDS environmental group would be for Utah decision-makers.  On a national or international level, I don’t think such a group would be large enough to have any real sway without forming coalitions with other groups.  There are some Christian groups that are joining the national conversation, though.  You might want to look into the work of Interfaith Power and Light.  Not sure if there’s a Utah chapter.

        My personal interests aside, I agree with George and others that policy advocacy for an LDS group would be a bit premature at this point.  In the current national political climate, environmental issues have become strongly partisan, and I think any advocacy efforts would serve primarily to alienate the people the group might otherwise educate.

        Again, I have no issue with advocacy, or even with an LDS advocacy group, but personally I’d rather not see LDSES go there because (a) I’m not interested at present in being involved with an organization that does this and (b) because I don’t think it’s as likely to be effective as other options.

      • Georgebhandley says:

        I really don’t know how many times I have to repeat myself. I don’t want politics out of LDSES. I just don’t want LDSES acting frequently in a political role. I personally would welcome the idea of members of LDSES acting politically and hope the organization empowers them to do it. And for the record, Charles, I have spent many years doing exactly what you are describing: presenting myself as a Mormon to every single office in our congressional delegation, several times, and to our state legislators. I assume you have done so as well. It does get their attention, but it hasn’t had any results as far as I can tell. I will keep doing it, however. To Laura’s point, I have done so as a member of Interfaith Power and Light but have made it clear that I am a Mormon. We are not afraid of politics nor are we opposed to the idea of Mormon environmentalists getting political as your facebook post implies. This misrepresents what the debate is about. This is an international organization and there are risks and problems that attend an organization that wants to be officially politically involved as such. And there are means by which committees are formed according to our bylaws, and I have asked for your patience and understanding that we are undertaking an honest consideration of this discussion at our Board retreat in January. I see neither patience nor proper understanding of our views.

  • Georgebhandley says:

    Thanks Laura, Andy, and Charles. 

    Charles, I already pointed out to you earlier today that this is a misrepresentation of my point. Andy is right. You quote what I am describing as a perception and a stereotype, as if that is my view. That is not a careful reading of what I am saying. I specifically stated that I don’t think those perceptions of extremism are fair, but they are the reality.  I would have thought you would agree, considering how easy it is for people we have both tried to convince of the problems with their anti-environmental positions to assume we are extremists just by virtue of speaking out or opposing reckless development. And I do not disagree with you that collective political action is needed. Moreover, I am in agreement with you on this point: “The LDSES is made up of concerned and moral citizens, like George, and this is what citizens do: they take steps to influence policy-making and inform government actions.” That is my point too. I think LDSES should be empowering of citizen involvement and individuals should seek causes in solidarity with others. That can still happen without LDSES becoming an advocacy group that acts in concert. If you are truly interested in a big tent, consider the fact that many members have no interest in political advocacy of the kind you describe and that many are saying that the kind of LDSES group you want is precisely what they do not want. 

    I am not disparaging political advocacy. I repeat: I just don’t think LDSES should do this activism as a group. But your comments have consistently implied that a position like mine is opposed to advocacy and uninterested in affecting change in the political arena. I am not opposed. But my position simply allows people to find their own path. I cannot accept your assumption that we could do such activism in a unified manner. We might find unity among a small group of us, but we would have alienated those new to environmental concerns, those with more conservative dispositions, those who had been taught that environmentalists were political radicals, etc. In other words, a good majority of the church. Laura’s comments and several others get at this. And at least my 14 years in Utah are full of empirical evidence of this. Even this debate is causing many to drop from our membership because this was not the organization they thought they were signing up for. I don’t dispute for a minute your right to raise these good questions, and they have inspired me to these thoughts, but I want to make sure that the general membership understands that the direction you seem to want the organization to go in, as far as I can tell, is not the direction we have been working over the past year to go in as a Board. 

  • Charles W. Nuckolls says:

    Site Management Note:  There seem to be no way for the rank-and-file members of the LDSES to post directly to this blog.  Is that the case?  Can only board members say what they in the first instance?  And can te rank-and-file speak up as “comments” on that they say?  If so, I would suggest this be changed immediately.  That will have effect of encouraging more discussion, and avoidng the impression — however unintended — that only certain people are permitted to speak first. 

    Charles W. Nuckolls

  • E B says:

    I’m new here, both LDS and a scientist by training. I believe in stewardship. I do not believe that the current environmental fads, at least in the United States, are productive. For example, taxing doesn’t solve any environmental problem, and never will. CO2 is still widely misunderstood. Nuclear power could really bless people’s lives with cheap energy, yet America continues to be anti-nuclear amid stringent standards protecting the safety of all Americans. Japan’s disaster could easily have been avoided had they heeded the counsel of the nuclear engineers involved with its construction, for example. Food irradiation is likewise rife with misinformation on both sides of the political aisle yet could increase shelf life and decrease waste. Self-reliance totally ties in with stewardship. I am a conservative, but I think you can see that there is common ground across political divides in the LDS Church, but real education is key, rather than leaning on sources of information all biased the same direction.
    Thanks for listening.

    • Georgebhandley says:

      Thank you for your comments. It is precisely conservatives like yourself who, when well armed with good science and sound stewardship principles, can have special influence in awakening others from their indifference or hostility. We won’t always agree on specific issues, but I believe that the best decisions emerge from the context of healthy difference of opinions from an informed and caring citizenry.

  • Robert C. says:

    Very nice post, George. I’ve been thinking a lot about what the proper distinction is between political activism and its relation to religious communities. The danger that I think your post nicely highlights is the sense in which the religious community is at risk of becoming politicized. 

    And this would be a conflation of politics and religion, and it would be a threat to the unity of the Church (which seems to require tolerance of many kinds of political and cultural differences). 

    Because of these risks and threats, I’m leery of efforts that use Mormon doctrines and theology to push political agendas. It’s a fine line, of course, because Mormons should use doctrine and theology to inform their political views. And Mormons should be politically active. So it’s not just a fine line, it’s a very difficult line to bring to light, let alone draw. But just because this line —  between being informed by (and even explaining to others in various fora the link between theology and one’s political views) and using/reducing theology to a political agenda — doesn’t mean the distinction shouldn’t or can’t be made….

    • Georgebhandley says:

      Yes, Robert. It is a fine line and on my darker days, I wonder if it can ever be drawn. The heat I get from both sides is tremendous.

  • Craig Friedel says:

    I am glad realclearreligion.com posted a link to this article and congrats! I was especially intrigued when I saw the author because a few years back I took a religion and the environment class at BYU from Prof. Peck and was assigned to read George Handley’s book HOME WATERS.  The following is my assigned review of the book. I thought it was especially pertinent to the post.  And i thought I would share it so more people (especially those that re LDS) can read it
     “George Handley, in his book Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the
    Provo River, wrote that due to his career as a BYU Professor and literary
    critic he had “an overdeveloped skill for interpreting the dreams of others but
    an underdeveloped capacity for dreaming” (pg. 14).  I think that could not be further from the
    truth.  Dreams are not limited to the
    fantastical creations of the imagination. 
    Dreams are also goals, hopes, and visions of a better future.  His goal
    to reach out to the Mormon community to be more conscientious of their
    surroundings combined with his hope
    that it will lead to better care of the environment, specifically the Provo
    watershed, will truly lead to that vision
    of a brighter future.  From this
    perspective then I contend that George Handley truly is a dreamer.  His dream, in book form, is divided into four
    parts that takes the reader on a year-long journey through the four seasons-
    Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring- along the Provo River.  His unique writing style flows effortlessly
    amongst swirling eddies of thought in which he explores many different
    themes.  For the sake of brevity, I will
    analyze just three central ideas that most resounded with me-the ability of
    nature to nurture, our responsibility to nurture nature in return, and how this
    inverse mutual relationship has and will play out over time.

                We are a composite of our individual
    experiences and our experiences are played out on the stage of our environment.  Unfortunately, for many, nature has become a
    miniscule part of their environment. 
    Yet, for those that seek out nature’s beauties and become familiar with
    its secrets therein lie peace, comfort, and sense of self. As Handley
    eloquently explains, “Something strange there is about familiarity [with
    nature]—beauty and surprise always scurrying away … And then unexpectedly it
    stands boldly before you, making believe that you were always looking but just
    never seeing. As if beauty was a form of remembering what you always knew, as
    if looking to hard will make you blind. I know this much: I’ve got to stick
    around if I want to catch it” (pg. 177). This is exactly what I think Handley
    did in order to cope with the loss of his brother Kenney. He stuck around
    nature hiking, fly fishing, snow-shoeing, and kayaking until he remembered the
    eternal truths he always knew. By exploring nature and contemplating its
    beauties he was given the opportunity to discover himself.  This in turn helped him cope with his
    devastating loss. Mother Nature it seems, like most mothers, has an intrinsic
    ability to nurture, and, if given the opportunity, the capacity to mold man
    into their best selves. This is man’s recompense for sanctifying nature.

    For this reason, I believe another central
    theme invoked in Home Waters is our
    personal responsibility to nurture nature in return.  More generally, the book examines how Utah’s
    LDS religious roots have shaped this sense of stewardship. As Handley notes, “Religion
    can teach a chastened human hope that balances an awareness of our human
    nothingness and violence with an awareness of our deep and special belonging in
    and responsibility for creation”(Pg. 18). In essence, the metaphysical often
    provides insights into the problems faced by our physical world. The atonement
    is a prime example.  In and through
    Christ we can metaphorically cleanse ourselves of the filth incurred by a
    lifetime of sin.  Likewise, “Some sins
    don’t recycle…quickly. It’s simple really. 
    The ugliness won’t go away until someone steps in the water and pulls
    the garbage out” (pg. 175).  In essence,
    we can be a type of savior to the environment by fulfilling our role as a good
    steward.  This demonstrates the only way
    in which nature will receive its recompense in return for all it does for us.

    Furthermore, taking the middle ground between
    Mormon critics and apologist, Handley writes, “It is true that Mormons deserve
    criticism for how they allowed the primordial struggle with the elements for
    survival to become a triumphalist mantra that what humans make of nature is
    always better than what nature might make of us” (Pg. 224).  In other words, the saints have not always
    been saint-like.  Yet, he then goes on to
    contend that in reality LDS doctrine itself is very favorable towards
    nature.  Knowing is audience, he then
    gently rebukes the Utah community for its history of not living up to what God
    expects from is chosen people.

    This history has been defiled by the scars
    made by the continual destruction of the Provo watershed, the wounds incurred
    from the mistreatment of the Indians, and the hole left by the Mountain Meadows
    Massacre.  About this unfortunate history
    Handley writes, “with the momentum of time, [these stories seem] like nothing
    more than a brief flash of light on the rivers surface.  The water has long sense absorbed the blood
    from the river banks, long sense recycled the stuff of the past into its deep
    cycles of regeneration” (pg. 175).  This
    is by no means meant to excuse the darker moments in LDS history.  Instead, Handley, quoting Walt Whitman, ask,
    “why not…let the sweet peace of nature’s strange chemistry become the flag of
    our disposition?” (175). In other words, the Mormon community must accept and
    integrate this unfortunate part of its past, along with its inspiring legacy of
    righteous living, into its sense of self. 
    As the book suggest, it can do this by not repeating the mistakes of the
    past and by more fully embracing the commandment to be righteous stewards.   Only in this way can nature receive its earned
    and extremely overdue recompense.  Only
    in this way can we truly nurture nature for natures constant nurturing.  

    In conclusion, I promise you that if you read
    this book you will, as Emerson wrote, “place yourself in the middle of the
    stream of power[of the Provo] and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and
    you…without effort [will be] impelled to truth, to right and perfect
    contentment” (pg. 33).  

    • Cfriedel says:

      I apologize for the formatting…I should have checked it before I posted.

    • Georgebhandley says:

      Thank you, Craig! What an honor to read your generous review of my book. It means a great deal to me. You were lucky to have studied with Steve Peck, one of my favorite people anywhere.

  • SDH says:

    First of all, as a new member of LDSES, I would just like to remind everyone (including myself) that, in our discussion, we absolutely must be very careful to avoid sarcasm or words that could be interpreted as being contentious/sarcastic/patronizing.  We all know that contention or discussion that is not edifying will get us exactly nowhere; worse- it could completely destroy our ability to work together to do good.  (Part of our religion requires us to disagree without being disagreeable.) 

    I tend to agree with George’s posting.  While Charles should be commended for his desire to take action on his beliefs (we can all learn from his example), aggressive involvement with political advocacy is simply not the mission or purpose of LDSES.  If Charles and others wish to engage in this and to unite with other LDS in doing so, why do they not start a separate organization designed for that purpose?  We would welcome and many of us would support and join such an organization.  However, LDSES’ mission is to get the general LDS membership (including and starting with ourselves) more excited and educated about LDS doctrine pertaining to Earth Stewardship so that they/we can direct their enthusiasm in ways they/we deem appropriate.  In doing so, we must be ever-so-careful how we approach the general membership of our Church for the reasons George outlines.  We are indeed talking about politics here: 

    As George suggests, it is my opinion that while the right seems to ignore environmentalism almost completely, the left has been known to go too far/radical.  As a well-published and distinguished scientist myself and as someone with a fair understanding of LDS doctrine, I can definitively say that SOME tenants within popular philosophies/movements of “social justice,” “climate justice,” and “sustainability” are expressly contrary to LDS doctrine because they are either too radical or off target altogether (i.e. involuntary income redistribution w/o principles of self-reliance, state-mandated population control, banning of natural resource use altogether, putting evolutionary ecology and “science” generally ahead of faith, etc.) 

    As LDS, we have the responsibility of identifying the truth where ever it is found.  In my opinion, this suggests a much more nuanced effort at investigating doctrines and their application and connection to existing philosophies and policies than most realize.  In fact, in my opinion, embracing general policies, philosophies, and legislation is not something that LDSES should ever do quickly or often, given LDSES’ mission and purpose to target the general Church population.  LDSES should move boldly forward to stand up for what is right and true; but there should be crystal-clear doctrinal and general consensus about what is right and true before taking action.

    • Georgebhandley says:

      Thank you for these thoughtful comments. I agree, and I am also grateful for the reminder about tone. Charles, my apologies if I sounded unduly contentious. I hope you know of my lasting respect and admiration for you. 

  • Jason says:

    You lost me at “The right is defiantly anti-environmental”. Not true.