What can churches tell us about climate action?

I grew up without ever once stepping foot inside a church. Everywhere I’ve lived, most people I knew hadn’t either. Because of this, it was initially hard for me to comprehend the extent to which American society is influenced by churches. Yet it is, and greatly so. In an article by American sociologist and professor Claude Fischer, Fischer writes, “Congregations have been the key association for Americans.” By this, he means that Christian churches form the backbone of civil society. Not only do they provide the scaffold for secular institutions, but they also have the power to mobilize people. Historically, there have been many examples of this. 

Fischer argues, “The reversal of Roe v. Wade is the culmination of grassroots organizing, joining together people who were already participants in associational life, particularly in churches, to elect conservative Republicans.” This is just one example of the influence that churches can have on people. 

Churches have been weaponized successfully for all kinds of causes, not just conservative ones. According to Scientific American, “Movements are generated by grassroots organizers and leaders—the [civil rights movement] had thousands of them in multiple centers dispersed across the South—and are products of meticulous planning and strategizing. Those who participate in them are not isolated individuals; they are embedded in social networks such as church, student or friendship circles.” Many civil rights leaders were also church leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Considering the success churches have had in the past with inspiring groups of people to fight for change in America, it may seem that they could similarly be a main organizing force in the movement against climate change. However, there are a few key issues with this idea. For one, according to NPR, churches are rapidly decreasing in popularity. This is largely the result of both the secularization of society and the association between Christianity and conservative political ideology. As stated by Pew Research center, another issue is that the people most willing to engage in climate activism are liberal—the exact demographic, according to Barna, that is least likely to be involved with churches. 

Is it possible, then, to integrate a church model to create a new type of organization that could advocate for fighting climate change as effectively as churches advocated for the reversal of Roe v. Wade? 

In order to accomplish this, it is necessary to identify the aspects of churches that make them effective in getting people involved with social movements. An article by Jaime Kucinskas and Evan Stewart published in SAGE Journals showed how the moral and theological frameworks that religion provides motivate people to engage in social and political movements. In the case of the civil rights movement, for instance, churches provided a spiritual foundation for the equality that many civil rights leaders advocated for. This is a piece of the puzzle that could inform a new secular organization, or any organization we already have in place. Many hiking and outing clubs could assert to their members the morality in being not only someone who wishes to spread the enjoyment of nature to others, but also someone who is a caretaker of and advocate for the land. If they made developing an empathetic view of nature a specific focus, outing clubs could better inspire climate action. 

Another aspect of churches that may make them more conducive to social movements is how they function as communities. Kucinkas and Stewart also explain how experiencing the joint emotional energy in churches and in church-organized activities often results in an increase in political engagement that occurs throughout the church. This was shown to be true regardless of where subjects fell on the religious ideological spectrum. 

This research suggests that the community aspect of church involvement contributes to people’s engagement in larger global issues. The whole concept of congregating to attend church supports the importance of community to church-goers; even though typical religiosity emphasizes an individual’s connection to God, making practicing religion alone more convenient, people commute to churches, conforming to the schedule of the church they attend. When people go out of their way to participate in social events organized through churches, such as teen activity programs, church groups, church dinners and celebrations on holidays, opportunities arise for people to connect with one another, another factor that contributes to civic engagement. 

It would therefore make sense that in an association modeled after a church, engagement in climate action would be positively impacted by fostering a sense of community. In addition, the association would ideally prevent the egoism caused by a lack of participation in social groups in general. Egoism is dangerous for environmental action; when people stop associating with each other–as many experienced during the pandemic–they risk losing sight of their values and their morals. In a world constantly shifting towards seemingly superficial modes of virtual communication, forming these associations that force people to socially interact may help them develop a larger sense of purpose outside of themselves. Populations of post-COVID Americans who find themselves isolated could take refuge in community-oriented climate advocacy programs. 

Strong central leadership is another characteristic of churches that may contribute to their success in mobilizing people. Christianity uses a model of central human authority, as opposed to a more egalitarian “society of friends” model. Successful church leaders have been able to greatly motivate their congregations through being knowledgeable and charismatic. Climate advocacy often begins in the voices of individuals who have the ability to inspire others. In theorizing an organization with the mission of promoting climate action, it may be helpful to have a central authority figure. 

Ultimately, it may prove difficult to create an organization from scratch that emphasizes an environmental ideology, fosters a sense of community that allows members to hold each other accountable and features a popular, motivational leader. Perhaps the beginnings of such an organization already exist. Groups like the Vassar Outing Club are community spaces that already help people understand the beauty and importance of nature firsthand. Although this hypothetical organization would ideally be more universal than a hiking group or even an outing club, I believe that outing clubs at universities may be a great starting point for better climate advocacy. Beyond their ability to foster community, outing clubs can provide the spiritual experience of existing in nature. Still, outing clubs may have a lot to learn before they become key associations in creating a powerful community of climate activists.

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