Faith, Voting and Climate Crisis
The Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center
for Peace and Nonviolence,
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS
With the mid-term elections just weeks away, it's again the season for yard signs. The sign placed in our yard reads, "Vote Climate! For Our Children." Pictured are children of diverse skin tones holding hands and encircling the earth. Its message calls out to those who pass by to keep the climate crisis in mind when deciding which candidate to vote for. The drawing of the world's children and the earth could just as easily have been depicting "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world." That in itself is a very good reason to address the climate crisis.
Voting and encouraging others to vote for candidates that prioritize addressing the climate crisis may be the most effective climate action we can take during the next month. With the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change having warned the world that greenhouse gas emissions must peak and start to decrease by 2025, the importance of having leaders at all levels of government focused on this issue as an immediate high priority is obvious. Admittedly, there are other important issues in this election that also need to be taken into consideration, but if we do not deal with the climate crisis, many of them will continue to get much worse. Getting out the vote and electing national, state, and local leaders committed to climate action could make a significant difference for the future of our children and all who inhabit this earth.
Many people of faith may vote as a civic responsibility but feel disinclined to engage it as a faith issue. They may feel that the mixing of religion and politics too easily leads to partisanship and conflict. They may be concerned about upholding the separation of church and state. These are legitimate concerns, and congregations should not endorse particular candidates. However, this does not mean we should not be involved in the political process of voting and engaging with those we choose to represent and govern us.
The word for politics derives from the word Greek word politikos, meaning "of citizens, pertaining to the state and its administration; pertaining to public life," from the word polites, meaning "citizen," and from the word polis, meaning "city." In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (2011), Quaker educator and author Parker Palmer defines politics as "the essential and eternal human effort to craft the common life on which we all depend" (p. 6). He explains further with these words.
Rightly understood, politics is no game at all. It is the ancient and honorable human endeavor of creating a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day. "We the People" must build a political life rooted in the commonwealth of compassion and creativity still found among us, becoming a civic community sufficiently united to know our own will and hold those who govern accountable to it (p. 8).
Surely people of faith are needed to actively engage in this process and to choose leaders with integrity and good values who are concerned to address the daunting problems of our day for the common good. We are needed to be salt and light.
It seems that many black churches and their leaders understand this well. Having been denied the vote and still often being subject to measures that suppress it, they understand the importance of voting in their pursuit of justice and living out the belief that God created all with equal worth and value. Facing hundreds of newly proposed voter restriction laws across the country in 2020, black and brown faith leaders started a multi-faith campaign called Faith United to Save Democracy, which is "rooted in the belief that everyone is made in the image of God and deserves to vote for their convictions in free, fair, and safe elections."
The spiritual basis and model of action by these faith leaders and congregations are instructive. In our sacred Scriptures, themes of seeking justice, caring for the poor and vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, and caring for the land are prominent. Many laws of ancient Israel dealt with these concerns. Although voting did not exist in the forms of government of that day, expectations that leaders be just, watch out for the poor, and work for the common good were expressed. When leaders failed to follow these ways of God, prophets spoke out. It was as a prophetic figure that Jesus stood up for the oppressed and called unjust leaders to account. These were forms of political engagement. In our nation, such engagement is open to all citizens in the form of voting.
There is much we can do as individuals and congregations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and live in more sustainable ways. But so much more is needed that requires policies, funding, programs, and laws at all levels of our government. Voting for people committed to addressing the climate crisis can make the difference. We've seen how this was true at the national level with a change in leadership. Our nation has now rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and is working with other nations on this issue. It has passed significant funding bills that potentially could provide the resources to decrease greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
I've seen how this is also true at the state and regional levels here in Kansas. Since our governor has the authority to appoint members to the state body that regulates utility companies in Kansas, she has set the tone for clean energy decisions. Several years ago, Mike Kelley was voted in as mayor of one of our metro cities, and Lindsey Constance was voted in as city council member of another. Each with small children, they were impassioned to address the climate crisis. Together they kicked off a remarkable process of getting our whole Kansas City metro area involved in developing and instituting climate action plans. Electing the right people with a commitment to act can make a significant difference.
So, let us vote as a form of prayer for the kind of world for which we hope and invite others to do the same. It has been found that what is most effective in getting people to vote is a reminder from someone they know. We can research the candidates and find the ones most committed to addressing the climate crisis, as well as other issues about which we are deeply concerned. We can share our findings with others, when requested. We can help people know how to register to vote and update their registrations. We can share where and how to vote. Websites such as VOTE411.org provide such information.* We can offer assistance with transportation, if needed. We can join a voter engagement program in our community. Or if there is a particularly promising candidate, we can volunteer or donate to their campaign. All of these many activities can be offered as spiritual actions emanating from our faith, desire of justice, and love for God's good creation.