The Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship

A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to this year’s 30th anniversary
of Earth Day. A group of Religious Right leaders, scientists, and academics,
basking in the dual spotlights of Earth Day and Holy Week, launched the
Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES), an organization
to graft dominion theology onto right-wing environmentalism.

For years, Religious Right groups have anchored their views on environmental
issues in Genesis 1:28—God granted “dominion over every living thing that
moves on earth.” “Because nature is wild,” explains Nina George Hacker
in Concerned Women for America’s Family Voice, “we [humans] were given
the authority to ‘subdue’ it for life’s necessities.”

What the Christian Right and free-market think tanks have done for the
debate on social and political issues, the Washington, DC-based Interfaith
Council hopes to do for environmental issues; harness scripture in the
service of free-market environmentalism.

In October 1999, 25 economists, environmental scientists, and policy experts
convened in West Cornwall, Connecticut, and hammered out the Cornwall Declaration
on Environmental Stewardship. The Cornwall Declaration, the founding document
of ICES, is the first major pronouncement on environmental issues by a
coalition of conservative religious groups. The Declaration prioritizes
the needs of humans over nature, advocates the unleashing of free-market
forces to resolve environmental problems, and denounces the environmental
movement for embracing faulty science and a gloom-and-doom approach.

Father Robert A. Sirico, CSP, founder and president of the Grand Rapids,
Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, is
the intellectual author of this new collaboration. According to Michael Bankey, environmental policy analyst and editor of Acton’s Environmental
Stewardship Review, “For many years Father Sirico has been worried about
[misguided] theological trends in the environmental movement.”

Bankey added that the Institute “played a large part from the very beginning
of the project and lit the fire” that helped pull the project together.


The Cornwall Declaration

The conservative National Catholic Register summarized the Declaration’s
three “areas of common misunderstanding”:    “Many people mistakenly view humans
as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards….
The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental
stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.

    “Many people believe that ‘nature knows best,’ or that the earth—untouched
by human hands —is the ideal…. Denying the possibility of beneficial
human management of the earth, removes all rationale for environmental

“Greatly exaggerated or unfounded environmental concerns, among them global
warming, overpopulation, and rampant species loss.”

The Declaration warns that social collectivism and government intervention
cannot ameliorate environmental problems: “The relationship between stewardship
and private property [needs to be] fully appreciated, allowing people’s
natural incentive to care for their own property to reduce the need for
collective ownership and control of resources and enterprises, and in which
collective action, when deemed necessary, takes place at the most local
level possible.”

Publication of ICES’s Cornwall Declaration comes on the heels of George
W. Bush’s first environmental initiative unveiled in early April. Bush
aims to speed the cleanup of brownfields (abandoned or under-used contaminated
industrial sites) by restricting “cumbersome” environmental regulations.
Brownfields edged into the nation’s consciousness with the release of the
Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich. Based on a true story, Brock- ovich,
a file clerk, discovers a cover-up involving the Pacific Gas & Electric
Co., which had recklessly dumped highly toxic chemicals that seeped into
the groundwater in Hinkley, California, causing many of the town’s residents
devastating illnesses.

Jonathan H. Adler, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute
and long-time critic of the environmental movement, appreciates Bush’s
anti-regulatory thrust. Adler applauds Bush for a common sense plan that
will accelerate “the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields around the
country by increasing regulatory flexibility and easing up on draconian
liability standards that discourage developers from investing in brownfields.”
This initiative puts Bush on the right track, says Adler, “to capture the
moral high ground in the environmental debate.”

Bush’s proposal was roundly criticized by the Sierra Club in a press release
(“George W. Bush: The Polluter’s Governor”), claiming that his plan would
“weaken the Federal Superfund law for cleaning up abandoned toxic waste
sites.” According to Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, “Bush’s
promises on the environment are as credible as [TV’s infamous “Who Wants
to Marry a Millionaire” groom] Rick Rock- well saying ‘til death do us
part’.” (The Sierra Club has extensively documented Bush’s abysmal environmental
record at www.

In a recent interview, Acton Institute’s Bankey denied a Religious News
Service report that ICES would be initiating environmental legislation,
saying that the group would “not be engaged in legislative battles.” When
asked about the organization’s budget, Bankey said that while he wasn’t
clear about the details, each of the participating groups would contribute
financially to different aspects of the organization’s program.

The Declaration’s signers are a veritable Who’s Who of the Religious Right.
Among them: Focus on the Family president James Dobson; Campus Crusade
for Christ founder Bill Bright; Prison Fellowship Ministries’ head Charles
Colson; the Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association;
Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition; and Sirico.

The Interfaith Council distinguishes itself from run-of-the-mill conservative
anti-environment collaborations by the inclusion of these high-profile
leaders of the Religious Right. The advisory committee also taps a cross-section
of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders aligned with conservative politics,
including highly controversial figures like Dr. D. James Kennedy of the
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries. Dr. Kennedy, a leader
in the anti-gay movement and an outspoken denier of separation of church
and state, says, “if ever an issue needed sound Biblical Doctrine brought
to bear upon it, it’s the environment, and the Interfaith Council for Environmental
Stewardship, through its Cornwall Declaration accomplishes this.” Two other
advisory committee members of note are Diane Knippers, president of the
Institute on Religion, a persistent critic of mainline Protestant denominations,
and Dr. Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism and history at the University
of Texas, Austin and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” guru.

ICES also hammers away at environmentalists for their “faulty science and
economics, strident street theater, and demands for immediate, drastic
action on problems that are often hypothetical or overstated,” according
to the Religious News Service. Rabbi Lapin, a declaration signer, summed
it up by saying, “when we embrace the strident messages of radical environmentalism,
we are neither just, nor merciful, nor good stewards of the earth, and
we condemn the world’s poorest people to continued misery and disease.
This is not what God intended, and not what our traditions have taught.”

ICES’s web site, ( maintains that the organization
“is building a network of religious, academic, and community leaders who
can offer sound theological, scientific, and economic perspectives on these
issues. Soon, they will provide a credible alternative to liberal environmental
advocacy for people in congregations, schools, government, and the religious
and secular media.”


The Acton Institute

In 1990, Father Sirico founded The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion
and Liberty. Named for historian and conservative social philosopher Baron
John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, otherwise known as Lord Acton, the Institute’s
mission is to “promote a free and virtuous society, characterized by individual
liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

Father Sirico has a colorful background. In the 1970s, according to Jerry
Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Project Tocsin, “Sirico
was a roll-em-on-the-floor Pentecostal boy preacher, who was packing 1500
people into a Seattle theater every week,” until, under puzzling circumstances,
he was forced to leave town. He moved to Los Angeles where he became a
minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Church- es, and later served as executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian
Community Center.

Sirico later called this his “soft Marxist” period. After a political transformation
to libertarianism, he returned to the Catholic Church with a mission. “I
heard homilies preached that inevitably insulted business people,” he says,
and he was determined to turn that around.

In the mid-1990s, the Acton Institute, then little known outside of conservative
circles, played a significant role during the welfare reform debate. At
its 1995 Welfare to Work conference in Washington, DC, the Institute founded
the National Welfare Reform Initiative. Father Sirico became one of only
a few religious leaders to support welfare reform. In Congressional testimony
he argued for greater restrictions on welfare for recipients and for the
wholesale moving of social welfare programs into the hands of faith-based

According to The Right Guide, published by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based
Economics America, Inc., in 1997, 94 percent of the Acton Institute’s $1.8
million budget came from “contributions and grants awarded by foundations,
businesses, and individuals.” Grants from right-wing foundations included
$100,000 from the Scaife Family Foundation, $50,000 from the Richard and
Helen deVos Foundation, $50,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation, and $40,000
from the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation.

Father Sirico converts the Church’s advocacy on behalf of the poor, strongly
promoted by John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, into
a paean for the free-market. The Pope asks, “can it…be said that, after
the fall of communism, capitalism is the victorious social system…?”
While recognizing the failure of “the Marxist solution” and praising capitalism,
the Pope acknowledges, “the realities of marginal- ization and exploitation
remain in the world, especially in the more advanced countries. Against
these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice.”

Father Sirico’s open disagreements with many of the social teachings of
the Church make the news of his recent work on behalf of the Vatican even
more chilling. According to the conservative National Catholic Register,
Sirico just completed his most prestigious assignment, the “sift[ing] out
[of] the most important passages from the social teachings of the popes
from Leo XIII to John Paul II.” The finished work, The Social Agenda: A
Collection of Magisterial Texts
, a 225-page book containing nearly 370
quotations from some 75 Church documents, was released at the Vatican in
late April.

By selecting as the central theme in the papal social encyclicals “the
principle of subsidiarity” —wherever possible responsibilities should be
“handled at a lower organizational level” (read less government regulation)—and
emphasizing “the right to private property,” Sirico is clearly aligning
the Church’s teachings with his own free-market philosophy.

Professor Anthony Basile, in a lengthy critique of the Acton Institute’s
work in the September 1998 issue of Culture Wars, tears into Sirico for
supporting a view that “portray[s] poverty as the fault of the poor individual,
and not due to social injustices,” a fundamental departure from Catholicism.

Basile sees the Institute as undermining the Church’s teachings by developing
a “counter-theology” which “dismisses Church doctrine in the name of discussing
it.” The creation of the Institute’s Center for Economic Personalism allows
Sirico a platform for melding ideology and practice and “indoc- trinat[ing]
all [its] seminarians and theology students along these ideological lines.”

Having completed this formidable task, Father Sirico says he plans more
ventures with the Vatican including projects on “globalization, family
issues, and…[the] tax culture,” issues that he writes about regularly
in columns for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine.

In recent weeks, Father Sirico was a major player behind the launching
of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship. Father Sirico
has long argued, “environmental ideology is increasingly being used, not
to preserve nature’s beauty, but to restrict human enterprise that is essential
to a more humane existence for people.” The Interfaith Council allows Father
Sirico to add free-market environmentalism to his ideological quiver.

Although it is too early to tell if ICES will have a significant impact
on this year’s elections, if Bush wins in November, this new coalition
will likely lead many faith-based organizations lining up for government
dollars to challenge the progressive environmental movement.

Bill Berkowitz edits
CultureWatch, a monthly publication tracking the Religious
Right and related conservative movements, published by Oakland’s