The power of religion to mobilize people and engender change has oft been touted as one that surpasses that of politicians or activists. You may recall an earlier blog post about the Interfaith response to climate change, where I wrote about the Interfaith Rainforest Initiative, which was launched on the 19th of June as a part of the Norwegian Government’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. In that post, I claimed that “the uniting of such a wide array of leaders from a diverse spectrum of cultures, faiths, and nations, is a truly powerful show of unity that has the potential to catalyze a sea change in the attitudes of people throughout the planet. Religious groups have a singular ability to shift norms and the public opinion of large groups of people.” Bearing testament to these sentiments, the Pope’s recent address to the Peruvian jungle city of Puerto Maldonado proclaimed a stern condemnation of the lack of respect for indigenous peoples and their homes in the Amazon rainforest.
The Pontiff, in his 2015 encyclical, had already laid out his stance on environmental protection, and of the rights of the indigenous peoples who reside therein. However, in his recent speech in Peru, he spoke to a crowd of thousands of Amazonian natives, claiming that “we must break with the historical paradigm that sees the Amazon as an inexhaustible larder for other countries without taking into account its inhabitants.” (*1) He spoke specifically about the illegal gold-mining trade in the Amazon, which has significant cascading effects throughout the surrounding indigenous communities, including a proliferation of sex-trafficking, slavery, mercury poisoning, and sexual abuse. (*1) These egregious human rights violations, he contended, have not been adequately addressed by national or local governments, while the environmental ramifications of these illegal activities have wreaked irreparable havoc on the rainforest that has housed these peoples for centuries.
Given that Pope Francis is the leader of the world’s largest religion and, thanks to his somewhat uncommonly progressive political views and social media presence, his words reach an unprecedentedly large global audience of millions. Many are looking to his proclivity for outspokenness (at least compared to past Popes) on controversial subjects to result in real change for the better. Recent research, though, is showing us that the words of a leader, even one in such an influential position, are little more than rhetoric if they don’t inspire their audience to action. And, unfortunately, it looks like modern Christianity is doing a lot more “saying” than, well, “doing.”
In a recent study by Indiana University’s David Konisky, findings indicated that not only does religion not play a significant role in the degree of a person’s environmental leanings, but also that there has been an apparent decline in environmental interest among Christians over the past 2 decades. (*2) Through his research of Gallup Poll results since the early 1990’s, he found that “the likelihood that a Christian survey respondent expressed a great deal of concern about climate change dropped by about a third between 1990 and 2015,” and that “[this] pattern generally holds across Catholic, Protestant and other Christian denominations and does not vary depending on levels of religiosity.” (*3) To explain these results, Konisky noted that one’s affinity for the environment is much more strongly correlated to political affiliation and ideology than to religious identity. (*2) In a nation that voted Donald Trump into the Presidency, where evangelical Christians have proven themselves to be a formidable ultra-right-wing political force, it is hardly surprising that this rising tide of Conservatism inversely correlates with an environmental interest.
Sad though these results may be, there are some limitations to the scope of the study. Konisky’s research was based solely on the polling of Americans; the trend of waning environmental interest among Christians may not be reflected in other parts of the world. Further, this research does not encompass religions other than Christianity. So, although it is truly unfortunate that the Pope’s recent remarks in Peru may not strike as much of a chord among American Christians today, there is still hope that his message, and that of activists all over the world, will still resonate with audiences elsewhere. In any case, despite the Church’s declining sway over its attendees in the environmental realm, emphasis should be placed on inciting action in both secular and non-secular domains. One need not adhere to any specific religion at all to heed the words of leaders like Pope Francis when they decry the harm we have done to our planet, and implore us as a race to strive to do better.