ASHLAND, ORE. — Theological heavy-weights are descending on Washington this week to deliver a politically pointed sermon on the environment: Protection of nature is important in itself, but it's as important to people - particularly the poor and vulnerable - as it is to plants and animals.
Some 20 leaders from the major faith groups - including Roman Catholic, Jewish, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and evangelical - will meet Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, as well as Vice President Al Gore and other senior members of the Clinton administration.
The timing of the meetings Wednesday and Thursday - just after President Clinton's State of the Union address and just before release of his budget - reflects an urgency in the religious leaders' message. It also points up a growing activism by mainline churches on environmental issues. In total, the groups represent some 100 million worshippers, though not all presumably agree on every cause and concern.
"The moral integrity of environmental protection is at stake here," says the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, former dean of the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. "It's hard to be poor in America without bearing disproportionate burdens of poison and pollution."
At a time when campaign finance scandals fill the news, the leaders stress that they are not simply another political action committee or special-interest group come to wheedle or twist arms.
"We're not the green party at prayer," says James Carr of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There's not a PAC treasurer among us. We bring a very different set of assets."
The gathering is organized by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, comprising the National Council of Churches, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and US Catholic Conference.
"For us it really is a Biblical issue, a spiritual issue," says the Rev. Stan LeQuire of Wynwood, Pa., director of the Evangelical Environmental Network. The evangelical group, which has about 1,100 affiliate churches and several hundred campus organizations in the United States, has taken the lead on endangered species issues.
"The core of it for us is that the Lord God is the creator of everything and has entrusted it to us for our stewardship," says Mr. LeQuire.
More than 'good works'
To many religious leaders, tackling the environment as a contemporary issue - whether by preaching sermons, promoting congregational recycling efforts, protesting logging in the redwoods, or lobbying against a local waste incinerator - is more than a worldly activity.
"Clearly the 'good works' part is important," says Rabbi Daniel Swartz of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md. "But there is more to it than that. A presence in the natural world helps you understand that there are lots of wonderful things, and not all of them are created by humans. The sort of humility you can get from that is a fundamental religious attitude. If you're not humble, it's very difficult to reach very deeply spiritually."
Since the National Religious Partnership for the Environment was formed three years ago, program manuals have gone out to more than 100,000 congregations. Many churches and synagogues have gotten actively involved in local environmental issues.
"This doesn't mean that you turn away from redemption, from traditional focuses on sacrament or theological inquiry," says Paul Gorman, the New York-based partnership's executive director. "But what has been happening - and here we quote Psalm 24: 'The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof' - is that we began to really appreciate 'the fulness thereof' more than ever before. The fullness of life in the diversity of species, the intimacy of God's handiwork in the understanding of ecology, an appreciation of cosmology ..., so that the religious imagination and devotion itself were really being brought to life and deeply stirred."
The religious leaders going to Washington this week stress that they are bipartisan. "In the pews you've got Republicans and Democrats sitting side by side together, worshipping the same God," says LeQuire, a registered Republican.
"We're not the folks who were out there trying to defeat these people three months ago," says Mr. Carr. "We're trying to say to the White House and the Congress - particularly the Republican majority - that this is common ground, that they should try to weigh this on the merits and not on the basis of whose PAC gave how much last year."
Religious involvement in environmental policy has not been without some controversy.
When the Evangelical Environmental Network last year expressed opposition to what the group saw as efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act, Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska and Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California sent a letter saying, "Don't use the pulpit to mislead people."
Other critics, including Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R) of Idaho, have charged that environmental activism amounts to a new-age religion close to pantheism.
Environmental leaders listen
While most may see environmentalism as a strictly secular activity, at least some prominent environmentalists apparently have been drawn to the message of the faith groups.
In April, the chief executives of 17 national environmental groups will attend a retreat sponsored by the National Religious Partnership. Privately, partnership leaders say their emphasis on the "people" impacts of pollution and resource degradation is meant as much for environmental leaders as it is for politicians.
"This is the core of our faith," says LeQuire. "Jesus Christ demonstrated so much compassion, and we feel we need to reflect that, show compassion to our neighbors who suffer when we don't take care of creation. And of course so many times these neighbors are in poorer communities, marginalized communities where we decide we'll place our dumps and our incinerators. It's just got to stop."