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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Caring for creation: Faith groups have a role in environmental causes

Published: Friday, Feb. 17 2012 12:54 p.m. MST

LDS Church architect Dave Alley leads the Interfaith Power and Light group on a tour of a silver LEED-certified LDS chapel in Farmington Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

At first glance, the simple red brick church at the end of the road looks a lot like all of the other red brick churches in Farmington, Utah. There's a view of the mountains on one side and a maze of power lines on the other, but on this fairly warm February day, the clue to what makes this church different is on the roof: solar panels and a light dusting of snow.

The solar panels are an obvious difference. The snow is subtle. It melted on the grass and the pavement a long time ago, but on the roof — a place often warmed by a building's escaping heat — it's still frozen. That's a good sign to the Interfaith Power and Light activists gathered in the lobby for a tour of the building owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For one thing, it's a sign of energy efficiency. For another, it's a sign of change.

Faith groups have not always held a proactive role in addressing environmental issues. In the late 1960s, some scholars even went so far as to blame the Christian concept that humans have dominion over the Earth for the damage that's been done to nature over the centuries. Religious groups in turn, have bristled at an environmentalist cause that seems to focus on worshipping nature, rather than the God who created it. But experts say religious attitudes toward the environment are now shifting to be more proactive toward preservation.

In 2010, an average of 47 percent of churchgoers said their clergy regularly teaches about the environment during Sunday sermons, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. And the message is commonly one of stewardship and responsibility, experts say. As faith groups take more of an active role in teaching worshippers to "care for creation," some conservationists say they look to religion to have a key role in changing America's environmental future — and addressing climate change.

Some changes are already taking place, such as in this Farmington church. It capitalizes on natural light, saves water, provides its own energy and is recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

"It's just being a good citizen," said David Alley, an architect for the LDS Church, as he led the crowd through the church's ultra-eco-friendly prototype. "One of the impacts of LEED certification is (asking), 'Do we become better citizens?' I think we do."

Religious influence

Last June, Dave Folland, a retired pediatrician-turned-environmental activist with the Citizens Climate Lobby, found himself sitting in a senator's office in Washington, D.C., discussing climate change.

He wasn't having much success — until he read out loud a statement from a scientific committee assembled by the pope last year to study why certain glaciers are melting.

"We call on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants," reads the statement, signed by members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican. "We are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us. The believers among us ask God to grant us this wish."

At those words, Folland said he finally got the attention he was looking for, and an insight into just how powerful religion can be in presenting a moral argument in favor of caring for the environment.

Although scholars acknowledge the impact religion has on shaping an individual's values and morals, people of faith might not agree when it comes to the environment. According to the 2010 Pew poll, only 6 percent of those surveyed said their religious beliefs influence their opinions on tougher environmental regulations.