The greening of religion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

More than 30 prominent scientists, distressed by humanity's inadequate response to the deepening environmental crisis, took a surprising step in 1991: They wrote an "Open Letter to the American Religious Community." They realized that more than scientific data and economic incentives were needed to delve to the heart of the crisis.

An environmental award was given out this month in recognition of the depth and scope of the religious response to that letter.

Paul Gorman, who has shepherded the development of The National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), won the $250,000 Heinz Award for helping "change the discourse about the fate of the earth" from "one based solely on scientific argument to one rooted in religious, spiritual, and moral values." The award is one of five given annually by the Heinz Family Foundation in fields of special concern to the late Sen. John Heinz.

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Yet NRPE, an alliance of major faith groups serving more than 100 million Americans, is not primarily a public-policy or lobbying group. This "is not just another campaign on yet another issue," Mr. Gorman says, and "we are not the Green Party in clerical garb."

NRPE's first concern has been "a deep inquiry into the meaning and message of religious life itself, in light of what appears to be a crisis in God's creation at the hands of God's children," he says. In the past six years, partnership members - the US Catholic Conference, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life, the National Council of Churches, and the Evangelical Environmental Network - have reexamined the roots of their theologies and introduced programs throughout their denominations.

"Each group has developed its own distinctive message and materials," Gorman says. "We're not trying to create new scriptures or new teachings, but to recover and renew what has been there but been deeply neglected. It is an effort to weave care for all of God's creation across the entire fabric of religious life."

Resource kits have gone to more than 150,000 congregations. Clergy and lay members have been trained. Local projects range from new hymns, series of sermons, or Sunday-school curricula to churches working with utility companies, or the "Redwood Rabbis" connecting with business to protect old-growth forests.

NRPE is bipartisan and nonpartisan. It meets with legislators to discuss principles, not to lobby for specific legislation; and it seeks solutions for the common good. "Timber workers and conservationists sit in the same pews and sing the same hymns," Gorman says.

A graduate of Yale and Oxford, Gorman was formerly vice president of programs for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. His eclectic career embraces public service (US Senate-committee staff, presidential-campaign press secretary, and speechwriter), university teaching, and serving as host for almost three decades of a radio talk show called "Brunch."

He was "pulled into" the "rather huge and scary" role of bringing people together around this issue, Gorman says. He had realized in the '80s that the faith community had long been active on issues of human well-being, but seemed to ignore the rest of God's creation. Then he attended the Moscow conference of parliamentarians, scientists, and religious leaders called by then-President Gorbachev that helped spur the scientists' letter. He ended up helping them write it.

"I didn't set out to start the NRPE," he says. "It was simply 'How can we move this forward?' And one thing led to another."

"Paul's genius," says John Carr of the US Catholic Conference, "is that his leadership facilitates the leadership of others.... We've been involved in a lot of ecumenical endeavors, and this is by far the best."

Gorman stresses that "this is very early" in a long-term effort. "We're trying to address habits of behavior that go down through human history.... It requires a shift in basic values so that people begin to make deeper moral connections between what they see around them and what they do every day," he says. "That could sound very daunting as a task, but people once couldn't imagine a society in which slavery didn't exist, or couldn't imagine anything other than the divine right of kings."

While NRPE can point to a lengthy list of projects, "the single most important accomplishment," in Gorman's estimation, "is a deeper recognition that God indeed is caring for God's creation.

"Many, many people are coming to understand ... that what some call 'protecting the environment' is a profoundly religious responsibility and an opportunity to renew faith life itself."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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