Scattered voices of climate concern among members of the Mormon Church can’t drown-out the veritable cone of silence from the church itself on environmental issues. But stereotyping any such large group overlooks important nuances.
Search online for “Mormons” and “Global Warming,” and Google will reward you one-third of a second later with 777,000 results.
Whether you’ll be any closer to understanding the actual position of the Mormons on the issue — that is of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — is an entirely different issue. You won’t be.
That’s the case primarily because LDS has no official position on contemporary environmental issues, says George B. Handley of Brigham Young University, himself a Mormon and generally considered the leading scholar on Mormonism and environmental issues.
In that void characterized by their own silence, it’s perhaps inevitable that some stereotype Mormons as not only silent on the issue, but also as hostile. As with most stereotypes, there may be some truth to that generalization, but also some overstatement. As with stereotypes generally, proceed with caution.
Church’s Silence Seen Obscuring Individuals’ Actions
“Official positions are not identifiable,” Handley has written, but “LDS scriptures and teachings provide a consistent picture of the role of human beings as stewards accountable before God for the use and care of His creations.” Lost in the fog of Mormonism’s official silence on climate change and other environmental issues, according to Handley, “is how many Mormons are actively involved in environmental causes and how directly LDS belief has motivated their efforts.”
That may well be the case, but there’s little question that the roughly 2 percent of Americans describing themselves as Mormons share a punch line associated with the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield. “I don’t get no respect” is the catchphrase popularized by Dangerfield, who died in 2004.
It’s not just respect but also understanding by non-Mormons that many Mormons apparently feel is wanting. A survey earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life says “many Mormons feel they are misunderstood and discriminated against by other Americans.”
That study says 62 percent of Mormons feel Americans “know little or nothing about Mormonism” and that three out of four Mormons say Americans “as a whole do not see Mormonism as part of mainstream American society.” At the same time, 63 percent indicated they are confident that acceptance of Mormonism is “on the rise” across the country, and 56 percent of the 1,000 Mormons surveyed by Pew say the U.S. is “ready to elect a Mormon president.”*
Given widespread levels of misunderstanding and, in some cases, animosity, it’s perhaps not surprising that not much is known authoritatively about Mormons’ overall attitudes toward a specific issue like climate change.
LDS’ absence of a position on the environment leads some to criticize the LDS Church “for appearing to support the often noisy-anti-environmentalism of many of Utah’s politicians and citizens and of business and development interests,” says, Handley, despite the church’s commitment to remaining “politically neutral whenever possible.”
As with Others, Climate Influences Well Beyond Just Science
Which is by no means to suggest that LDS or Mormons generally are a hot-bed of concern over and activism over prospects of a hotter planet. Clearly they are not, notwithstanding the efforts by Handley and a small cohort of like-minded Mormons to increase awareness of climate change risks. Mormons overall — like those of other faith groups and of societal interests more broadly — are likely influenced in their approach to climate concerns by their political, societal, and economic characteristics and associations.
That same Pew Forum study represents Mormons as “quite conservative” politically, compared with the general U.S. public, with 66 percent of Mormons, compared with 37 percent of the general public, accepting that identification. Nearly three-out-of-four Mormons support the Republican Party compared with 17 percent saying they generally support Democrats.
The Pew study found 75 percent of the 1,000 Mormons surveyed preferring “a smaller government providing fewer services to a bigger government providing more services,” compared with 48 percent of the general public. Many studies have associated support for a smaller government with resistance to accepting climate science or the regulatory responses that could be needed.
LDS Scriptures on ‘Centrality of Human Beings as God’s Offspring’
Those are numbers few would interpret as suggesting a tendency toward environmental concerns or, specifically, climate concerns. It’s in the face of such realities that Handley has outlined LDS “theological underpinnings of environmental stewardship”:
“The LDS worldview stipulates that the world is holy and animated by spiritual matter,” and both plants and animals are “living souls.” The notion that “physical matter and all living things have some living spiritual character grants a sacred identity to the nonhuman realm, and this would seem to give us pause to consider the ethics of our use of such inspirited material.” LDS prophets “have consistently taught [that] no earthly possession truly belongs to us but to the Lord and we should therefore exercise care to use only what we need.”
Noting that LDS scriptures “clearly announce the centrality of human beings as God’s offspring and declare that all of creation was provided for human enjoyment and use,” Handley nonetheless insists that “this human-centered view does not justify abuse of nature; enjoyment and appreciation come before use.”
He has written that he finds it inconceivable that Mormons, while avoiding alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea, and illicit drugs, would seek to justify “our willing participation” in destroying Earth.
“If it is inconceivable to justify pollution of the body since it will die anyway, why do Mormons and other Christians give in to the faulty logic that the Earth’s prophesied death justifies our willing participation in killing it?” he asks.
His reply: “The Earth, in other words, is hopefully our ultimate destiny, not to be discarded in favor of some better place but to be prepared for the Savior’s return.”
Fossil Fuels Aplenty … But No ‘Theological Mandate’ to Use Them
On climate change specifically, Handley has written that “human communities often fail to think in global terms because it brings unwanted complexity, uncertainty, and responsibility …. Climate change tests our culture’s capacity to imagine the remote and often unseen threads of inter-connectivity that knit all human communities together and that make social and environmental concerns inseparable.” He sees the climate issue as “unprecedented in the demand it makes on us to be answerable to unseen, complex, and global processes of degradation.”
On the politics of the issue, he has written that “Addiction to the idea of unlimited growth … is nurtured today by think tanks devoted to fabricating reasonable doubt about climate change and other evidence of the consequences of growth …. Much of what can be done to fight climate change is consistent with traditional Christian values of good stewardship and modern living.”
While recognizing that the availability of cheap and abundant fossil fuels “has made modern life possible,” he insists that “the fact that fossil fuels still exist is not a theological mandate to make use of them.”
Simply debating, “yet again and ad nauseum,” conservative vs. liberal approaches to government in effect would “allow ideology to trump religious principle,” according to Handley. Instead, he has written, LDS members should be motivated because “the Church has taken revolutionary steps recently to green its architecture, putting it in the very vanguard of religious institutional action on climate change.”
Nonetheless, it’s clearly an uphill battle to change the perception that LDS and Mormons as a whole show little real interest in addressing climate change. In some ways, Handley could be justified in feeling himself too often a “one-man band” in beating the drums on the issue to his fellow LDS members.
Some Images of Environmentalism a Turn-Off for Mormons
That’s not quite the case. As with any group, it would be foolish and short-sighted to paint all its members with a single broad-brushed stroke. Another Mormon to have expressed serious concerns over climate change is Jason Brown, currently working as a federal government employee and teaching in Utah.
“The absence of a robust contemporary Mormon environmental ethic stems largely from a deep polarization of environmental issues on the American political landscape during the past fifty years,” Brown wrote in “Whither Mormon Environmental Theology?”
“When those who would advocate for environmental issues become stereotyped with free love, drug culture, and secularism, conservative Mormons tend to stop listening,” he wrote. “In such a volatile political atmosphere, the Church has increasingly shied away from declarations or sermons on our duty to care for the Earth.”
At the same time, Brown writes that he is proud of “a dramatic increase in grassroots environmentally focused Mormon activism, art, symposia, scholarship, blogs, and listserves.” He points to the younger generation of Mormons as a cause for hope about a growing environmental consciousness across LDS.
Reflecting similar optimism, Handley has written in “The Environmental Ethics of Mormon Belief” that LDS teachings have “more than enough in common with environmentalism to promote genuine and productive change … Not only is Mormon doctrine environmentally friendly, but it also provides powerful moral incentives for ecologically sustainable living.”
Yet he fully recognizes that some critics accuse LDS of “officially encouraging anti-ecological positions,” and he points to one survey showing LDS to be “one of only a few churches that had no formal environmental policies and no institutional entities dedicated to fostering more sustainable environmental practices.”
Rejecting any suggestion that LDS formally opposes environmentalism, he urges “greater dialogue between different value systems and a more sincere effort to find the necessary common ground for that dialogue.”
Who Speaks for LDS on Climate? No One
Nature abhors a vacuum just as the policy world deplores a void. In a vacuum in which the church itself does not officially express “any official position,” a deafening silence can be filled by those concerned about climate and related issues, such as Handley and Brown. Or it can be filled by others not so inclined. At the moment, there appears to be no concerted or substantial effort carefully targeted at Mormons by those in what Handley calls “ideological and dogmatic denial.” That may be because they see no real need to do so.
Neither Handley nor Brown, of course, speaks for LDS on the issue, and neither pretends to do so. There are indeed some Mormon local leaders who share their concerns, though no conspicuous ones at the federal level (Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is a Mormon, but he has barely taken a visible leadership role on this issue. Reid generally is less well-regarded among those polled by Pew than either Romney or Huntsman.)
In the general cacophony of silence that surrounds LDS and Mormons and issues related to climate change and associated energy matters, Handley’s views are heard most often and most emphatically. What is unclear is just how well, if at all, his words are being heard and listened to within the larger official structure of the LDS church.
He’s resolute nonetheless. “Religion needs environmentalism as much as environmentalism needs religion,” he insists.
*That’s of course relevant given the near-certainty of the first Mormon, Mitt Romney, as a major party presidential nominee. A second Mormon GOP candidate, former Utah Governor and former Obama Administration Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, also had run, unsuccessfully, for the GOP nomination. It’s interesting to note as an aside that Romney and Huntsman, along with Newt Gingrich, are the only two of the once-serious GOP 2012 primary candidates to have once taken positions in support of action on climate change. During the course of the primaries, however, all three moved significantly away from their previous positions.
Also see as part of this series on faith-based groups:
Nationwide Climate ‘Preach-In’ To Target Broad Faith-Group Congregations
The Catholic Church and Climate Change
Judaism and Climate Change
Episcopalians Confronting Climate Change
Baptists and Climate Change
The United Church of Christ and Climate Change
‘Green Muslims,’ Eco-Islam and Evolving Climate Change Consciousness
Presbyterians and Climate Change
Preachable Moments: Evangelical Christians and Climate Change