Forces of faith enter fray over energy policy

The biblical declaration about God's lifting of darkness as part of creation is not typically thought of as a political pronouncement.

But when a congressional staffer recently expressed surprise that the faith community had anything to say about federal energy policy, Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in New York, replied straight from the Old Testament: "Genesis, first chapter, third verse - 'Let there be light.' "

As the Senate this week takes up major proposals on energy generation and conservation, the leaders of major religious groups around the country are looking over congressional shoulders, hoping to generate a little political heat while spreading some theological light.

Yesterday, in a letter to every member of the US Senate, more than 1,200 religious leaders reminded lawmakers of the "moral obligations" involved in deciding energy policy initiatives. Signers include high-ranking figures in Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox denominations.

Not every denomination or member of the clergy agrees with this view. Presumably, some favor oil drilling and nuclear power plants. But the political weight of this week's message is clear.

Pulpit versus president

In general, the religious leaders take a line clearly at odds with the Bush administration: They favor more conservation and renewable energy sources, plus a "substantial" increase in vehicle fuel economy; they oppose more oil drilling, especially in wilderness areas. Referring to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where President Bush wants to drill for oil, the religious leaders say, "Conservation is a morally superior alternative to drilling in such places."

When the administration was putting together its energy proposal last year, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to dismiss energy conservation and renewables as scarcely more than "a sign of personal virtue," as he put it.

But such efforts, say the religious leaders, should be "the central strategies of our nation's energy policy."

There's an urgency to the religious message. Like Mr. Bush's own energy plan, it's tied to last September's terrorist attacks on the United States.

"We're telling the Congress that energy conservation is necessary for homeland security as well as environmental protection and justice," says the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "Lives are at stake."

But this week's effort to influence the debate over national energy policy has some important context that predates Sept. 11.

Launched in 1993, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment now connects with 135,000 US congregations from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox, and Evangelical faiths, providing everything from energy-saving tips for church sanctuaries to sermon ideas and Sunday School lessons. The organization also has arranged retreats for corporate executives and environmental group leaders.

While it didn't sign this week's letter, the generally conservative Southern Baptist Convention has cited scripture to advocate environmental protection

Over the past two years, "interfaith climate and energy campaigns" have been launched in 21 states, involving training sessions, letter-writing campaigns, and meetings with lawmakers.

"I would say that this represents the increasing authenticity, motivation, and maturity of creation-care work at the most local level in the religious community," says Mr. Gorman.

A pastoral letter signed last June by all Roman Catholic bishops in the United States sought to raise the level of debate about global warming.

"At its core, global climate change is not about economic theory or political platforms, nor about partisan advantage or interest group pressures," the bishops wrote in their pastoral letter titled "Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good." "It is about our human stewardship of God's creation and our responsibility to those who come after us."

Image risks for both sides

It may be hard for the president - especially one who has declared such strong faith - to be seen bucking so many religious leaders urging him to "protect God's creation and God's children."

On Monday, Bush posed with experimental gas-electric hybrid cars in the White House driveway, to promote the tax credits his energy plan offers for Americans who buy the low-mileage vehicles.

The president may not be the only one with image problems here. As with other kinds of social and political activism, religious groups risk being seen as clearly partisan on energy and the environment - "the Green Party at prayer," as some have warned. Recently, the National Council of Churches joined with the Sierra Club in sponsoring a TV commercial on energy conservation.

"Many of us thought this was inappropriate," says Gorman of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. "Our teachings are not those of secular environmentalism, and these can't be bridged in sound bites. Our call is to be distinctively ourselves, and for the long term."

Part of that distinctiveness comes in expressing a sense of environmental protection (including energy issues) that transcends the secular.

In this sense, it's part of such profound theological questions as the biblical meaning of "dominion ... over all the earth."

"More than ever our central message must be the need for religious, moral, and cultural transformation," says Gorman. "This is about the future of religious life itself, not just rapid partisan response to policy challenges."

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