by Rusty Pritchard
For over twenty years I’ve been a student of American environmentalisms. The plural is intentional. Environmental concern flows from many springs, and though some of the streams merge, they also divide, so rarely does it form a single channel. Homeschooling moms, national security hawks, peace and justice advocates, hunters and anglers, Christian missionaries, garden club members, ecologists, city planners, and public health officials simply cannot all be lumped in the same category of “environmentalism.”
Similarly, I’ve seen that there is more than one conservatism at work in America. I predict a coming divorce (or at least a separation) for the unholy marriage of traditional conservatism and libertarianism, the latter having much more in common with the feel-good individualism, utopianism, and anything-goes-ism of radical liberalism. Traditional conservatives are more likely to affirm the fallenness of humanity, the primacy of the family as an institution, the value of community, and the need to preserve a rich heritage (cultural and natural), instead of obliterating it and replacing it.
Given such diversity in political communities I know well, it should have come as no surprise to me to find vast diversity in those concerned with animal welfare. But instead it set me on my heels.
At our first Flourish conference in 2009, I was delighted to find in attendance a handful of Christian conservatives the secular world would have considered anti-environmentalists. We had previously found ourselves on the opposite sides on political issues like climate and energy policy. I chatted in the corridor with Dr. Barrett Duke from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Duke is a conservative’s conservative. I was grateful he came to our gathering, but I was also feeling a warm glow of self-satisfaction at organizing an event he would attend.
Then he asked me what Flourish was doing about animals.
Well, I said, protecting the environment certainly includes protecting endangered species, conserving valuable habitat, helping people appreciate biodiversity.
But he gently pressed me about our work on animal cruelty. Cruelty to individual animals.
We didn’t have any. In fact, I had made every effort to put plenty of daylight between our work and the work of animal rights activists. I had actively discouraged nascent creation care groups in churches from making an issue of animal welfare, warning them that there was no wetter blanket than criticizing someone’s diet. I had seen it as stereotypically liberal, and I felt “creation care” needed to escape that label.
But here was one of the most outspoken Christian conservatives in the nation, asking me whether we were doing anything about actual animals and not just “species.” He identified a gaping hole, not just in our variety of environmentalism, but in others as well.
Dr. Duke is neither a radical animal rights advocate nor a vegetarian. He is crystal clear on the distinction between humans, created in the image of God, and animals. But over the next two years he introduced me to people who taught me a great deal about the human obligation to mitigate cruelty and show kindness to individual animals, and how it is a necessary part of the creation stewardship mandate I so loudly proclaimed.
One thing Dr. Duke had noticed was that the remaining states where cock-fighting was not a felony were states where his organization had significant influence. Through the work of the ERLC, a number of those states now have stronger laws on the books.
Through the network of common-sense animal stewardship advocates Dr. Duke introduced me to, I met Randy Craighead, executive pastor of Church of the King, whose New Orleans medical and dental ministry added veterinary services to its urban outreach. Low-income residents lined up around the block to get care for their pets, and the church showed in tangible ways that it cared for whole people—people who love their animals.
I visited dog-trainers in Atlanta who helped inner-city youth to train their pit bulls for obedience and for showing, instead of for fighting. I met Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who had befriended Michael Vick, former quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, and a convicted dog-fighter. Wayne and Michael have travelled the country together, as Michael talks with at-risk youth about his former pastime, about being brought low, and about being restored.
I met Ben DeVries, graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Moody Bible Institute, who runs the blog site Not One Sparrow, which has outstanding resources for evangelical Christians who want to understand the Biblical basis for animal stewardship.
Christine Gutleben, faith outreach director for HSUS, gave me a copy of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully, Christian conservative and speechwriter for George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. Scully peels back the fig leaves of euphemism and rationalization from the factory farming system, revealing the scandalous abandonment of tradition, honor, and decency that has come to characterize that industry.
Evangelical Christians were among the first to recognize animal cruelty as a modern problem. The anti-slavery statesman William Wilberforce made the prevention of cruelty to animals one of his Parliamentary priorities. Far from a radical liberal cause, animal stewardship is part of a conservative Christian heritage worth claiming and conserving.
Rusty Pritchard is President of Flourish.
[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays. This is a version of an article originally published in PRISM magazine.]
HSUS has produced Animal Protection Ministries: A Guide for Churches, and a DVD called Eating Mercifully, which includes study guides. They are outstanding resources for churches that want to begin to engage this issue.
Flourish’s own Kendra Langdon Juskus recently published an article in PRISM magazine about the evangelical legacy of animal stewardship.