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Evangelicals are embracing animal rights

Evangelicals are embracing animal rights as a cause that goes beyond the secular agenda


Los Angeles Times

She spent years as an outspoken opponent of abortion, and that cause remains dear to her.

But these days Karen Swallow Prior has a new passion: animal welfare.

She wasn't sure at first that advocating for God's four-legged creatures would go over well on the campus of Liberty University, a fundamentalist Baptist institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.

Among the Liberty faculty ' and conservative evangelicals in general ' the animal rights movement is often disdained as a secular, liberal cause.

But animal activists have been working with increasing intensity to shed that image. They're lecturing in Quaker meetinghouses and Episcopal churches, setting up Web sites that post Scripture alongside recipes for vegan soup ' and using biblical language to promote political initiatives, such as laws mandating bigger cages for pregnant pigs.

Too many religious people, the activists say, remain in the dark, not recruited as potential allies.

"Very often ' I'll hear a preacher talking about our obligations of mercy and compassion to one another and our stewardship of the earth, and I just want to jump up and say the missing piece in the middle is the animals," said Lois Godfrey Wye, an animal advocate who attends the Washington National Cathedral.

Recently clergy from 20 faith traditions ' including Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic ' signed a statement declaring a moral duty to treat animals with respect. At a ceremony in Washington, they called on all people of faith to stop wearing fur, reduce meat consumption and buy only from farms with humane practices.

The Best Friends Animal Society, which brought the interfaith group together, plans to recruit volunteers to bring that message into at least 2,000 congregations.

At Liberty University, meanwhile, Prior took a risk: She wrote an editorial for October's university journal declaring animal welfare an evangelical concern. She pointed out that the abolitionist William Wilberforce, an evangelical hero of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, pushed for laws to protect animals from human cruelty. And she cited "ample biblical support" for continuing such activism today.

To Prior's surprise, she has gotten plenty of praise on and around Liberty's campus. Her pastor even has asked her to lecture on the topic at Bible study.

"A lot of these ideas get dismissed out of a view that they fit into a conservative-versus-liberal (split). But there are some issues that transcend that," said Prior, an English professor. To be sure, Liberty University isn't about to turn its dining halls vegan. (Even Prior has not embraced every aspect of the animal welfare cause: She admits to indulging in the fresh venison her husband brings back from his hunts.)

But animal activists say they're encouraged by even modest efforts to raise awareness.

"With the last presidential election, it became clear how powerful religion is in this country," said Christine Gutleben, director of the Humane Society's Animals and Religion program. The organization "has a tremendous opportunity to create change for animals," she said, noting that there has never been "a successful social movement in history without religion."

Gutleben, who studied theological and ethical food choices at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., said many believers, "if they knew what was going on," would not support the unjust treatment of factory farm animals.

Her new department, funded at $400,000 a year, aims to persuade faith communities to take a series of small steps: offering a vegetarian entree at a fellowship meal or insisting that the coffee cake set out on Sundays is made with free-range eggs.

"The evangelical community ' is expanding its definition of values to include work on poverty and the environment," Gutleben said. "We hope to insert concern for animal welfare as well."

The Humane Society also is seeking to enlist religious leaders in its political campaigns. In California, for instance, the group has been pushing a ballot measure to ban certain confinement systems for farm animals. Promotional ads show photos of hens in crowded cages and ask: "Is This Faithful Stewardship of God's Creatures?"

Animal stewardship has not been a common sermon topic, said the Rev. Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics in Britain and author of Animal Theology.

"When did you last hear a sermon on animals? When did a national church synod or conference last discuss the need for a cruelty-free lifestyle?" he asked. "When did you last hear a national church leader saying ' for example ' that a Jesus-shaped ethic involves privileging the poor, the marginalized, the outcast and the vulnerable ' including animals?"

Linzey said churchgoers are reachable, but a successful appeal will have to explain how animal stewardship is a biblical mandate.

"It is there in the Bible. Animals are God's creatures; the land animals are created on the same (sixth) day of creation (as humans). We have dominion over animals, but that doesn't mean despotism. It means that we should look after them because God cares for them," he said.

Some religious traditions have taken aggressive stances in support of animal welfare. The Episcopal Church encourages members to work against "puppy mills and factory farms." The United Methodist Church advocates supporting farms where animals live as much as possible in their natural environments.

Before he became pope, Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) spoke against force-feeding geese to produce foie gras (a liver product) and packing hens so closely "that they become just caricatures of birds."

The challenge for animal activists has been in translating those sentiments into concrete codes of behavior for congregations. They also must overcome a lingering distrust, especially on the religious right, where some people claim that the very phrase "animal rights" subverts God's plan for mankind to exert dominion over the rest of creation.

In a recent radio broadcast, evangelical commentator Charles Colson suggested that animal rights activism implies that "humans are ' just one of many living accidents roaming the planet."

Christians must treat animals humanely, Colson says. But that doesn't mean granting them the legal right to live in bigger cages. Such initiatives blur the distinction between humans and animals, he says: "Christians need to beware."

Despite such cautionary voices, animal activists say they expect religious communities to become a major force in their movement in the next decade.

"God designed other animals with needs, desires and the full range of emotions," said Bruce Friedrich, a Catholic whose faith brought him to a career in activism with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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