Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Low Risk Political Cover for a Religion

In a recent LDS Earth Stewardship (LDSES) survey, 93% of respondents indicated that the most important LDSES program was working with the LDS Church to promote and encourage stewardship. Can LDSES efforts be effective and are they worth it?

We recently learned that the Pope is set to issue the first-ever comprehensive Vatican teachings on the environment. The document will urge 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to take action. The document will be sent to the world’s 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests who will distribute it to their parishioners. Given the number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide, the Pope’s teachings could reach far more people than even the largest environmental groups. The Catholic Church has never before issued a major document on this subject.

Observers indicate that the Pope will also show that the environment is paying the price of a global model of excessive consumerism.  However, the Pope’s environmental teachings are likely to attract resistance from conservatives in and out of the Catholic Church.  Dan Misleh, director of the Catholic climate covenant, said: “There will always be 5-10% of people who will take offense. They are very vocal and have political clout. This encyclical will threaten some people and bring joy to others. The arguments are around economics and science rather than morality” (my emphasis).

Misleh continues, “A papal encyclical is rare. It is among the highest levels of a pope’s authority. It will be 50 to 60 pages long; it’s a big deal. But there is a contingent of Catholics here who say he should not be getting involved in political issues (which are) outside his expertise.”

“Francis will also be opposed by the powerful US evangelical movement”, said Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the conservative Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has declared the US environmental movement to be “un-biblical” and a false religion.

“The pope should back off,” he said. “The Catholic church is correct on the ethical principles but has been misled on the science. It follows that the policies the Vatican is promoting are incorrect. Our position reflects the views of millions of evangelical Christians in the US.”

Why would any church risk any form of alienation with their members by taking a position on an environmental issue?  Why would any religion risk alienation of their members with teachings on stewardship?

Leaders in every religion have the opportunity to determine what to emphasize in their teachings. Many religions have emphasized stewardship in their teachings while other religions have little to no emphasis.  Permit me to suggest the following capitalistic-oriented points to those that are worried about alienation due to a topic perceived to be political:

1) Teaching stewardship has a low risk for alienation as few people are influenced by religious teachings on the environment.

In a master’s degree project at Duke University titled Mormons and the Environment in America, J. Justin Rauzon surveyed a sample of the general population and members of the LDS Church and asked: Which one of the following has had the biggest influence on your thinking about the environment?  The results were as follows:

  1. A personal experience- LDS 21.62%, non-LDS 14.79%
  2. Seen and read in the media- LDS 32.43%, non-LDS 35.68%
  3. Religious beliefs- LDS 9.46%, non-LDS 4.98%
  4. Education- LDS 21.62%, non-LDS 34.44%
  5. Other responses-LDS 14.87%, non-LDS 10.11%

The LDS respondents in the survey were generally less concerned about environmental issues than the non‐Mormon individuals surveyed, and neither group describes religious beliefs a major influence on their thinking about the subject.

Education and media information were the largest influences. The general population was more likely to be influenced by education (34.4%) than Mormons (21.6%).  In both groups, religion was the least cited specific influence on participants’ environmental views. Despite the fact that what appears to be twice (9.5% versus 5%) the percentage of individuals in the LDS survey citing religious beliefs as the biggest influence on their thinking about the environment, a Z‐test comparing the proportions of the two groups who cited religion as the biggest influence, the difference was not statistically significant. Religion is not widely considered the major influence on environmental views in America.

In a survey published on this website in January 2012, respondents were asked to react to the following statement: “The LDS Church, as an institution, should do more to promote and practice environmental protection”.  Approximately 53% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.  It appears, however, that the majority of the respondents agree with the statement but a much smaller percentage would actually be significantly influenced should the Church do more.

In another statement, respondents were asked react to the statement: “My beliefs regarding Earth stewardship and the environment have been influenced by the teachings of the LDS Church”. Approximately 70% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed, but again, the influence of religion is not that strong when compared to other influences.

2) Not everyone in you religion is going to agree with how you interpret the teachings of your religion.

In the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, 27% of respondents nationally indicated that there is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.  On the other hand, 68% indicated that there is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.  Among LDS respondents, 54% of respondents nationally indicated that there is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.  On the other hand, 43% indicated that there is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

Can LDSES efforts be effective and are they worth it? I suggest that that the answer to both questions is yes. However, we must not expect too much from any religion as most people do not turn to their beliefs on environmental issues. On the other hand, we should continue to try as a large percentage of members of any religion indicate that there is more than one way to interpret the teachings of their religion.