God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White

God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White

by Amanda J. Baugh

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American environmentalism historically has been associated with the interests of white elites. Yet religious leaders in the twenty-first century have helped instill concern about the earth among groups diverse in religion, race, ethnicity, and class. How did that happen and what are the implications? Building on scholarship that provides theological and ethical resources to support the “greening” of religion, God and the Green Divide examines religious environmentalism as it actually happens in the daily lives of urban Americans. Baugh demonstrates how complex dynamics related to race, ethnicity, and class factor into decisions to “go green.” By carefully examining negotiations of racial and ethnic identities as central to the history of religious environmentalism, this work complicates assumptions that religious environmentalism is a direct expression of theology, ethics, or religious beliefs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520291171
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 205
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Amanda J. Baugh is Assistant Professor of Religion and Environment at California State University, Northridge.

Read an Excerpt

God and the Green Divide

Religious Environmentalism in Black and White

By Amanda J. Baugh


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96500-3


People, Not Polar Bears

Faith in Place's First Ten Years

"It's about people, not polar bears," Faith in Place spokespeople pronounced as part of their standard talk on developing environmental ministries. "By all means, love nature, take your kids outside, and make interaction with the natural world part of your spiritual life. But when it comes to environmental issues in church, talk about people and where people live." While popular associations with environmentalism might evoke images of backpackers hiking the Sierra Nevada, Greenpeace activists defending whales, or Al Gore warning about melting polar bear habitats, Faith in Place leaders wanted to convey that their work was about something else: the human faces of environmental disasters and the growing challenges that regular people confront, day to day, as a result of environmental degradation.

Although Faith in Place leaders shared other environmental organizations' concerns about natural places, endangered species, and climate change trends, Faith in Place looked fundamentally different in its coalition, activities, and priorities. Each year when several Chicago environmental organizations traveled to the state capitol for Environmental Lobby Day, Faith in Place's was the only coalition that included a Zoroastrian and several African Americans. Whereas other nonprofit organizations' donor events involved gourmet food and bountiful wine, Faith in Place raised funds over a spread of fried chicken and homemade pie. And while the Sierra Club's mission statement talked about protecting wild places, using resources responsibly, and restoring the quality of the natural environment, Faith in Place's mission statement focused on love, care, and faith.

Like many other participants and observers of Faith in Place, I was initially absorbed by the organization's distinctive approach. Shortly after I began my fieldwork, Faith in Place received a Chicago Magazine "green award." The accompanying magazine article included a full-page color photograph of Faith in Place's executive director and the coordinator for Muslim outreach, who was wearing a black hijab that revealed only her hands and face. The story began by contrasting Faith in Place's "small and fair" Unitarian Universalist director with its "tall and dark" Muslim outreach coordinator before describing how the women overcame their seeming differences. The article and photograph, like much of Faith in Place's own promotional material highlighting its ability to unite diverse communities through environmental involvement, signaled Faith in Place's distinctive approach and priorities. As my time at Faith in Place progressed I never saw reason to doubt the sincerity of their message, yet I did come to understand how these dichotomies played into constructions of fantasy and desire among Faith in Place participants and supporters.

In this chapter I describe Faith in Place's origins and development within the context of the American environmental movement and with attention to strategic decisions its leaders made to help their organization survive and ultimately flourish. Although Faith in Place originated with priorities, activities, and participants that were quite similar to those of numerous other environmental groups, its first ten years involved a series of strategic decisions in which leaders developed measures to differentiate their work from mainstream environmentalism. The environmental movement historically has been associated with the interests of white elites, and despite the best efforts of white environmental leaders most mainstream organizations have had difficulty attracting minority audiences. Faith in Place became much more successful in that endeavor in part because it rejected its own place within the history of American environmentalism. Instead it positioned itself as an authoritative leader within a new movement, religious environmentalism, which offered its own set of priorities and concerns. Placing itself outside the community of mainstream environmentalists and inside the broad community of "people of faith," Faith in Place was able to attract minority communities who previously had discounted the environmental movement.


"In 1999 a light bulb (compact fluorescent, of course) goes off in Steve Perkins' head and Faith in Place is launched to create a welcoming landscape for dialogue and action on environmental sustainability." So goes the origin story of Faith in Place as recorded in the organization's ten-year report. As this story suggests, Faith in Place began with the vision of Steve Perkins, vice president of a Chicago environmental nonprofit, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). Having worked at CNT for nearly two decades, Perkins was struck by the overwhelming absence of religious communities from environmental efforts in Chicago, and he sought to redress that problem at CNT. He organized an advisory group of theologians, religious leaders, and activists to help develop the idea. In 1998 the group published a statement, "One Creation, One People, One Place," intended to initiate conversations about the environment among religious communities across the region. After declaring the unity of the Chicago religious community despite differences in languages and styles of prayer (the "one people" who shared the "one place"), the statement called on congregations to "act as responsible citizens of Creation." To implement that vision, the group advised CNT to develop an "Interreligious Sustainability Project" (ISP) where participants could reflect and take action on the religious mandate to protect creation. Perkins established an "interreligious sustainability circle" that drew members from congregations in the affluent suburb of Evanston in 1999, and CNT obtained foundational support to hire Rev. Clare Butterfield, a Unitarian Universalist minister who had interned for CNT as a seminary student, to lead the project full time. Under Butterfield's leadership the ISP established sustainability circles in six other regions across Chicagoland over the next year.

With varying levels of involvement the groups engaged in interfaith reflection on environmental teachings and initiated local environmental projects. Although CNT staff chaired the circles' monthly meetings, each group had significant leeway for determining its structure, activities, and programming. Activities ranged from developing sustainable food initiatives and an urban agricultural program for neighborhood youth, to engaging in local political organizing for improved public transit and helping the city invest in energy-efficient streetlights. ISP leaders intended to cultivate religious diversity by creating interfaith circles, but in practice the groups were mostly Protestant with a mix of liberal Jews and Catholics. A 2003 evaluation report notes the membership of a single Sikh and a single Zoroastrian in one of the suburban circles. Like most other environmental organizations the circles drew participants who were almost entirely white, affluent, and highly educated.

The ISP began to change its focus in 2002. First, Butterfield changed the organization's name to Faith in Place because she thought the previous name "was just nasty from a marketing perspective" and did not adequately convey the organization's focus. Second, she initiated two regional projects independent from the sustainability circles as a way to cultivate increased participation and support. This shift marked the beginnings of Faith in Place's transition away from CNT. The first regional project, Twenty Percent for Creation, promoted alternative energy by encouraging congregations to purchase wind power and contribute to building the necessary infrastructure in the region. The second, Taqwa Eco-Halal, provided a source of sustainable meat slaughtered according to Muslim dietary requirements. Shireen Pishdadi joined the staff to oversee that project and recruit Muslim communities to Faith in Place.

With its expanding staff and programming, Faith in Place was experiencing growing pains as it struggled to compete for funding with other CNT projects. In 2003 the project's leadership determined it would be best for Faith in Place to separate from CNT, and the following year Faith in Place incorporated as an independent nonprofit. With the addition of a development director, a youth program coordinator, and its own office suite inside a church on Chicago's northwest side, Faith in Place began to move away from its work with the sustainability circles to focus more on regional projects and direct interaction with congregations.


As Faith in Place expanded its outreach efforts, its leaders began developing measures to address a challenge confronting the environmental movement: attracting minority participants. Scholars and activists alike have long noted the absence of people of color in the environmental movement and have offered several explanations to account for minority communities' seeming lack of environmental concern. A dominant explanation in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that poor minority populations were too overwhelmed with the pressing concerns of daily life to consider less urgent problems such as the long-term health of the environment. While this theory remains influential in popular understandings of the gap between the environmental concerns of whites and minorities, more recent scholarly explanations have shifted to emphasizing the social locations of those empowered to define what constitutes an environmental problem. Revisionist accounts of environmental history contend that environmental concern transcends lines of race and class once we expand the definition of environmentalism. Both Robert Gottlieb and Carolyn Merchant offer comprehensive environmental histories along that model, integrating urban, public health, and industrial themes as well as examples of minority populations' interactions with the environment through subsistence farming and slavery. Both point out that poor and working-class urban populations engaged in environmental activism throughout the twentieth century but that their efforts have not historically been considered "environmental." Scholars have also noted that the Congressional Black Caucus has a strong environmental voting record and that minority groups were central to the passage of clean air and water legislation. But mainstream environmental organizations fail to attract minority involvement, these studies suggest, because of their wilderness-focused agendas and overwhelmingly white leadership, membership, and image.

Despite a growing body of literature suggesting an expansive understanding of environmental history that includes working-class, industrial struggles, American environmentalism in the popular imagination continues to be associated with a legacy of white, middleclass efforts to protect nature for white middle-class enjoyment. The modern environmental movement developed from Progressive Era conservation efforts of powerful figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt, forester Gifford Pinchot, and Sierra Club founder John Muir. As a precursor to modern environmentalism, conservationism entailed efforts to use natural resources wisely. The Sierra Club, the prototypical conservationist group, was founded in 1892 under the leadership of educated, affluent men. Understanding themselves as "moral defenders of the great outdoors," Progressive Era conservationists promoted outdoor experiences such as hiking and camping that were oriented to the upper class. Ancillary to its primary focus on experiencing the outdoors, the Sierra Club also supported efforts to protect wild spaces from the encroachment of civilization through the establishment of national parks. Until the 1950s, conservationism focused almost exclusively on protecting wild areas.

Environmental historian Hal Rothman marks the 1950s battle over Echo Park Dam as a decisive turning point in which conservationism was transformed into the modern environmental movement. Seeking to address growing water needs in the aftermath of World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation proposed the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP), a chain of dams that would allocate water to support growth in several western states. One particular dam, to be sited at Echo Park in a remote corner of Utah and Colorado, caused widespread controversy because it would submerge Dinosaur National Monument. Through intense lobbying efforts and publicity campaigns — which included direct-mail pamphlets, news features, and even a motion picture — the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society convinced Congress to eliminate the Echo Park Dam from the CRSP. In the process, they developed methods for a new, politically aggressive form of environmentalism and expanded their constituencies beyond their narrow, elite base. The new constituency's concerns, however, remained narrowly focused on wilderness issues and failed to address pollution, sprawl, or other emerging issues that increasingly affected urban communities.

The growing constituency coalesced after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962. Ringing alarm bells about the effects of pesticides on human and wildlife populations, Silent Spring raised public awareness about the dangers of chemical pollution and contamination and led to major growth for the membership rolls of reform-focused environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Wilderness Society. Expanded resources helped national organizations persuade government officials to protect the environment and resulted in numerous federal regulations and protections for water quality, scenic rivers, and clean air. Members of the Nixon administration organized the first Earth Day in 1970 to help solidify growing environmental awareness among Americans, and extensive media coverage of that event helped define an emerging environmental movement focused on issues of population growth, pollution, wilderness loss, and the use of pesticides.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s three distinct branches of environmentalism emerged. First were the centrist national organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club, who largely defined environmentalism in this time period. These organizations worked on large-scale efforts to bring about reform on national and international issues through legislative and judicial actions. Second, a brand of radical environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First! developed from the tradition of American radicalism and advanced an alternative vision of environmental activism defined by protest and bearing witness. Through direct action campaigns such as sailing ships in nuclear testing zones, Greenpeace attracted former members of the 1960s counterculture who disliked the moderate tactics of mainstream environmental groups. Even more radical was Earth First!, which stood for the absolute defense of nature above all else. Drawing inspiration from Edward Abbey's 1976 novel, The Monkeywrench Gang, Earth First! activists interrupted construction and development projects that would destroy wilderness, using such tactics as damaging construction vehicles and occupying ancient trees.

A third branch of activism comprising grassroots efforts to protest toxics and pollution in local neighborhoods also developed in the seventies and eighties. In 1978 Lois Gibbs organized a grassroots network of housewives who successfully held the state of New York accountable for the toxic dumping in their Love Canal neighborhood. Using the expertise she gained with Love Canal, Gibbs established the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes to help other communities confront polluting industry forces and government agencies. The antitoxics agenda became explicitly racialized with the Warren County, North Carolina, protests in 1982, when activists challenged the siting of a chemical waste landfill in their poor, predominately black county. Driven by that and other antitoxics protests in minority communities, Reverend Benjamin E. Chavis Jr., a former civil rights leader and the executive director of the United Church of Christ's (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice, sponsored a five-year national study to understand the relationship between race and toxic dumping sites. Issued in 1987, the UCC report identified widespread evidence for environmental racism, a term Chavis coined, determining that hazardous waste sites were overwhelmingly and systematically located in minority communities. The UCC report proved influential in generating the environmental justice movement to protest the disproportionate and deliberate placing of environmental hazards in minority communities.

While grassroots and mainstream environmental groups shared concerns about toxics and pollution, differences in tactics, priorities, and images led each party to resist identifying with the other. Mainstream groups tended to focus on large-scale and policy tactics and were less interested in local issues, just as grassroots organizers tended to resist the label "environmentalist" because they did not want to be associated with mainstream efforts. Environmental justice advocates further resisted partnerships with mainstream groups because justice advocates expressly promoted environmental protections on behalf of people whereas they believed mainstream environmental groups prioritized earth-centric concerns.


Excerpted from God and the Green Divide by Amanda J. Baugh. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. People, Not Polar Bears: Faith in Place’s First Ten Years
2. Religious Environmentalism in the City
3. Paths Leading to Faith in Place
4. Food and Environment at an African American Church
5. Finding Racial Diversity with Religious Pluralism
6. Faith in Place’s Religious Message
7. From Grassroots to Mainstream


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