Can Francis break the US climate change stalemate?

April 7, 2015, 11:05 am | Posted by

This commentary was published in Global Pulse magazine on April 6.

A resurgent libertarian ideology drowns out authentic debate and progress

For decades now, scientists have raised increasingly urgent warnings about human-induced climate change. Headlines grow more ominous every day. Global carbon emissions are at record levels. Water shortages, including in the western United States, have reached crisis proportions. The Pentagon expects climate change to intensity global instability. The world’s poor—those least responsible for the carbon emissions in the first place—are already paying the heaviest price. Even in the face of this stark reality, a growing number of Americans say global warming is not occurring, or rank the issue low in importance. This is both dispiriting and unsurprising. A well-funded climate denial industry, politicians nestled in their pockets, casts a cloud of doubt over the overwhelming scientific consensus that our world faces a threat of existential proportions.

Enter, Pope Francis.

If anyone can help break the stalemate over climate change and reach an audience far beyond the progressive choir, it’s a global leader with approval ratings  most politicians crave and the moral gravitas they usually lack. The first pope in history to take his name from Francis of Assisi – the saint most associated with poverty and reverence of nature – is working on a highly anticipated encyclical focused on the environment, expected to be released in early summer. When it comes to the Catholic Church, Francis is not exactly a maverick on this issue.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI both addressed care for the environment as a profound moral issue and called for action to tackle climate change. “The depletion of the ozone layer and the related ‘greenhouse effect’ has now reached crisis proportions,” said Pope John Paul II back in 1990. He applauded “a new ecological awareness” that “ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programs and initiatives.” Pope Benedict XVI, dubbed the “Green Pope” for taking steps to make the Vatican the first carbon neutral state in the world, also warned against delay. “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers?” he asked in 2010.

While Pope Francis is clearly following in the tradition of his predecessors, he will make a much bigger splash by becoming the first pope in history to issue a lengthy encyclical about the environment. From the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has linked what he calls an “economy of exclusion and inequality” with ecological devastation. “An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it,” he told a meeting of social movements last fall. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is one of several Vatican officials helping Pope Francis shape his encyclical. “The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related, and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today,” Turkson said in a recent speech.

Expectations are high.

The encyclical will be released in advance of Pope Francis’s address to the United Nations in September and before high-stakes climate negotiations in Paris at the end of the year. “We have been negotiating this issue at the political level for more than 20 years, and we look to Pope Francis to untangle this stalemate, because this issue is beyond merely a political issue,” Naderev Sano, the Philippines’ climate commissioner told Democracy Now. “It is a profound moral issue that affects the whole world.” Sano, whose country was devastated by a typhoon in 2013 that killed more than 7,000 people, thinks the pope’s encyclical will be a “game changer for the international process.”

A Wake-Up Call for U.S. Conservatives?

The first pope from Latin America will likely find his toughest audience in the United States, a country he will visit for the first time this fall. Some conservatives are already throwing punches. The pope is part of “the radical green movement that is at its core anti-Christian, anti-people, and anti-progress,” writes Stephen Moore, a Catholic who is an economist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.  Robert George of Princeton University, a prominent Catholic philosopher, argues that the pope should steer clear of an area where—in his own misguided view—the science is unsettled.

Powerful Catholic politicians are climate change skeptics. Speaker John Boehner, who invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress, routinely blasts the Obama administration for “job killing” environmental policies. “The idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical,” the graduate of Xavier University, a Jesuit college in Ohio, has scoffed.

Prospective GOP presidential candidates are also singing from a different hymnal than Pope Francis.  Sen. Marco Rubio has denied that human activity is driving climate change and saysmeasures to reign in emissions warming the planet will “destroy our economy.” Jeb Bush, a leading GOP presidential contender whose conversion to Catholicism was recently profiled in the New York Times, concedes global warming “may be real” and took steps to protect the Everglades from off-shore drilling, but is nonetheless a self-described “skeptic.”

Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate and a likely contender in 2016 who frequently invokes his Catholic faith, thinks any human role in climate change is “patently absurd.” He strongly opposed an Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting mercury emissions from coal fired plants, a ruling lauded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “an important step forward to protect the health of all people, especially unborn babies and young children.” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who recently announced his candidacy at Liberty University – founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — has mocked “global warming alarmists” who he compares to “modern day Flat Earth proponents.”

Some vocal evangelicals, a pillar of the Republican Party and the religious group most skeptical of climate change, are preparing for a fight. “The pope should back off,” says Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an organization that has called the environmental movement “un-biblical.” Critics of Pope Francis need a basic theology lesson when it comes to the environment. The pope isn’t cribbing talking points from Greenpeace or sprinkling holy water on a progressive agenda. His views are rooted in a traditional religious commitment to protect the gift of God’s creation, a biblical call to be good stewards, and respect for the sanctity of life and human dignity. “A Christian who does not protect creation,” Francis says bluntly, “is a Christian who does not care about the work of God.”

Environmental justice and prudent action to address climate change should not simply be a progressive cause. Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and later Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency, understood that stewardship and conservation matter. After all, classic conservative philosophy begins with preserving what is good, and surely our fragile environment is an inheritance we don’t want to squander. As Pope Francis himself said, it’s not just a legacy from the past, but a loan for our children. Conservatism traditionally casts a skeptical eye on the notion of progress at any price, and rejects a view of human flourishing that is only measured by the standards of crass consumerism.

A resurgent libertarian ideology is drowning out the voice of authentic conservatism. It has made an idol of free-markets and a virtue of self-centered hooliganism. The bottom line is protecting children from deadly toxins, safeguarding limited natural resources and transitioning to a more sustainable energy policy should all be part of a pro-life, conservative agenda.

If Republicans can’t stomach listening to progressives in Washington, perhaps they might take a cue from the world’s most popular religious leader?

John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. Anthony Annett is a Climate Change and Sustainable Development Advisor for the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. 

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Georgia Jewish Leaders Speak Out Against “Religious Freedom” Bills

March 24, 2015, 1:07 pm | Posted by

Atlanta, GA – A group of Georgia’s Jewish leaders gathered at the Capitol Rotunda Tuesday to voice their opposition to the divisive “religious freedom” legislation in the state legislature. The group cited their opposition to the bill as members of the Jewish faith, as well as the concerns they share with countless other faith leaders about the legislation.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah said, “This bill does not add any protections, but fails to protect Georgians from those who are biased against them. Not a single voice representing our Jewish community has come forth to champion Senate Bill 129, which purports to be a defense of religious liberty. I believe that God is diminished when we impose upon the diversity of God’s handiwork our own limited mold. Those who would pass this unfair and unnecessary legislation choose a narrow vision that divides us over the limitless possibilities of what can be accomplished together in good faith.”

“In just a few days, Jews will join together to tell the story of Passover, the story of our Exodus, a story of oppression to freedom which resonates beyond our faith alone,” said  Rabbi Loren Lapidus of The Temple. “We will remind ourselves of our responsibility as a free people to bring freedom to others, to join hands in working together for a better future. To the legislators, I would say simply this: These bills are not the freedom we seek.”

Rev. Julie Pennington Russell of First Baptist Church of Decatur said, “As a follower of Jesus Christ my faith calls me to treat every man, woman, and child as I would wish to be treated. That principle is embedded in virtually all world religions. Creating a law that defies or weakens that basic principle hurts us all.”

These leaders are among the more than 200 clergy from many different denominations who signed a letter released at the beginning of the legislative session that urged legislators not to pass the “religious freedom” bills.

The press conference is part of an ongoing campaign by Georgia clergy to lobby against the passage of controversial “religious freedom” bills.

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Georgia Clergy Statement Calling for the Life of Kelly Gissendaner to be Spared

February 28, 2015, 11:04 am | Posted by

As religious leaders, we are deeply concerned that the execution of Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled to be carried out in a matter of weeks by the State of Georgia. We respectfully write to you as a key public servant who can make the critical difference in this tragic case of national importance.

Our various faith traditions and teachings hold that all life is sacred. On the issue of the death penalty, we unanimously believe that fairness must be paramount. We also believe in the power of mercy.

Shaped by these beliefs, we find grounds for the commutation of Kelly’s sentence to a sentence of life without parole. These grounds include:

- Kelly has accepted full responsibility for her involvement in the murder of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner, saying “it is impossible to put into words the overwhelming sorrow and remorse I feel … there is just no way to capture the depth of my sorrow and regret. I would change everything if I could.”

- Over the course of her 18 years of incarceration, Kelly has experienced a profound spiritual transformation, maturing as a person and in her faith. Her journey is vividly demonstrated in her support of other inmates and her witness to young people in prison-prevention programs. On more than one occasion, Kelly has prevented another inmate from taking her own life. As one correctional officer said in the clemency petition, “Her witness has been an amazing beacon in a very dark place. Kelly touches everybody …The kindness and witness she shares with inmates in lockdown has a positive ripple effect.”

- Kelly is respected by Department of Corrections staff; she is seen as an example to other inmates and viewed as an asset to the institution. A former warden said of Kelly, “[s]he can provide hope to the most desperate female offender in a manner no one else could possibly understand.”

- If the state proceeds to execute Kelly, it will be the first time in the modern death penalty era (post-1976) that Georgia has executed an individual who was not the “trigger person” — that is, a person who did not physically kill the victim and was not present at the scene when the murder occurred.

While we can recognize and deeply sympathize with the profound grief of the parents and extended family of Doug Gissendaner, we also must attend to the ongoing grief of Kelly’s children who have already lost a father and who will experience immeasurable pain in losing another parent. In solidarity with their pleas for their mother’s life, in keeping with the value of mercy, and in hope for the good works Kelly could perform during a sentence of life without parole, we ask that Kelly’s life be spared.

To add your name to the letter, click here and enter your information. A very temporary stay has been granted on Kelly’s case. More than 542 Georgia clergy have already added their support to this petition.

You can watch a video about Kelly here.

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Forward Together, Not One Step Back

February 20, 2015, 1:01 pm | Posted by

The following is a guest post from one of FPL’s interns, Amanda Smith. Amanda is a senior at George Washington University.

This Valentine’s Day, the Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, told the thousands of people gathered in downtown Raleigh that this Valentine’s Day was not simply about flowers and candy, but was a time to address America’s heart problem. Rev. Barber, along with more than 170 groups from across the state, marched towards the North Carolina capitol building as part of this year’s annual Moral March. The diversity of the crowd was made evident by the issues they were there to address: voting rights, health care reform, public school teacher pay, immigration, anti-religious discrimination, raising the minimum wage, anti-fracking, and equal pay.

unnamed-1Thousands of attendees, observers and signs united rally goers by the same movement in spite of the many issues they were there to represent. Rev. Barber said that our nation does not have a right or left partisan problem, but that we the people have a heart problem. It is a heart problem, he said, when greed, ego and beating an opponent become more important than lifting up humanity. It is a heart problem when corporations matter more than people. It is a heart problem when after 50 years, Selma’s history is being repeated in North Carolina as voting rights are being threatened. These issues are why the crowds united under one chant saying, “Forward together, not one step back.”

How can we shock the heart of this country? How can we move this nation not towards the right or the left, but to consider its heart condition? Reverend Barber said, “I still believe there’s a God who can change a stony heart.” The crowds were charged with a challenge: Shock this state. Reverend Barber rallied the crowds to give North Carolina a shock to its stony heart. One speaker said, “Instead of getting angry, I got active.” Through active voting, informed populations and courageous action, we can give America’s democracy the shock to send our country into a new era of social justice.

The Moral March began nine years ago as a mass people’s assembly to hold lawmakers accountable to the people of North Carolina. As seen this past weekend on a freezing Valentine’s Day morning, the movement has not grown stale, but has a charged and beating heart ready to fix the divisive, political issues preventing America from moving forward.


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Must-reads on Georgia’s Religious Discrimination Bill

February 12, 2015, 1:55 pm | Posted by

The ongoing debate in the Georgia state capitol about bills labeled “religious freedom” legislation has been moving fast and marred by misleading arguments. Contrary to claims made by supporters, the bills in question — H.B. 218 and H.B. 29 — are unnecessary, divisive and dangerous. Here’s some coverage of the debate and analysis of the legislation that cuts to the heart of the matter.

Legal scholars against the Teasley bill
A letter from 18 distinguished legal scholars to Governor Deal and the Leadership of the Georgia Legislature detailing objections and concerns regarding the “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act.”

Religious liberty law needed? Unintened consequences skew freedom
By Peter Berg and David Key Sr., Atlanta Journal-Constitution
An op-ed by faith leaders explaining that their commitment to religious freedom informs their opposition to this legislation.

Religious Freedom Proposal in Georgia Draws Baptists into Debate
By Don Byrd, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
The BJC, the church’s foremost authority on religious freedom, raises questions about the legislation and notes that the organization officially opposed a similar bill in Georgia last year.

Religious freedom bill misnamed and unnecessary
By K. David Cooke, Jr., The Macon Telegraph
Cooke, the district attorney for the Macon judicial circuit and a member of the Baptist Committee for Religious Liberty’s board of directors, explains some incredibly dangerous potential consequences of passing this legislation.

Atlanta fire chief fired after calling gays ‘vile’ claims religious bias
By Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times
Supporters point to the firing of Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran as proof that the legislation is necessary. This story shows that Cochran was fired for violating workplace policy, defying orders from the mayor, exposing the city to lawsuits, and creating a hostile work environment — not because of his religion.


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