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Episcopalians to Push for Divestment

HOST: Some Episcopalians are pushing their church to pull its investments out of fossil fuels. And they’re taking advantage of the Church’s ongoing 30-day environmental action to gather momentum. But, as Pola Lem reports, it’s not entirely clear how effective they might be.

LEM: Stephanie Johnson is the pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Fairfield, Connecticut. Johnson is sitting on a bench on the Yale campus surrounded by science labs. She’s reading her sermon for this Sunday’s Easter vigil aloud for the first time. It talks about the pascal candle—a symbol of Christ and of purity. But Johnson’s message is about the environment.

JOHNSON: I began to imagine, what if we take the Pascal candle out of the dark, enclosed sanctuary to the ocean, where rising waters caused by climate change threaten the lives, homes, and livelihoods of millions upon millions?

A lot of Episcopalians may be hearing sermons like that as the church nears the end of its month-long action to address climate change. But Johnson’s wants the church to practice what it preaches. She wants it to wield its 12 billion dollars of investment muscle by putting any of it that’s in fossil fuels into green energy. It’s a conversation she says has been percolating for a while—one that bishops are now considering. She says the vote should be a no-brainer. Johnson hopes they’ll take a stand—

JOHNSON: ….and say, we will no longer invest our future, invest our time and our monies, and take a stake in an industry that is immoral.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. According to Tucker, a move like that would send a message to other denominations.

TUCKER: The institutional power, the investment resources of many of these churches, are substantial. And they can make a statement of how is our future going to be a just and flourishing future.

But, relatively speaking, Episcopalians are just a drop in the bucket. There are about 2 million of them in the United States compared to roughly 80 million Catholics and 90 million Evangelicals.

SHERKAT: That’s why I think we’ve seen environmentalism really never take off as a substantial movement in the United States.

Darren Sherkat is a sociologist who teaches about religion and society at Southern Illinois University. He says it comes down to the numbers, and those 2 million Episcopalians aren’t necessarily inclined to do what the church wants.

SHERKAT: And that’s a problem of control within liberal protestantism. Because what it means to be liberal is you let people do whatever they want to do. And that can include going with the money rather than going with the morals.  

And when the moral choice is more expensive…

SHERKAT: That’s going to be a tough sell for most people. Especially when you cut across the rest of cultural factors in the United States—that we have no mass transportation. We have a culture of individual automobiles.

According to Sherkat, it’s far easier for people to give to charity than to support the environment.

SHERKAT: Carbon tax credits are not very exciting. Feeding the poor? Jesus said that, right? Jesus said nothing about carbon tax credits.

Sherkat says he doubts that religion alone can fix climate change. But Yale’s Mary Evelyn Tucker says religions have shown they’re capable of bringing about change.

TUCKER: Religious communities in particular have this moral possibility of change. They were absolutely crucial in the civil rights movement, and I think here we have that same opportunity.

The Episcopal bishops are expected to vote on the proposal in June.

Pola Lem. Columbia Radio News.


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