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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
25 June 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 26

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Using Religion for a Political Cause

When religious leaders claim their factually-incorrect viewpoint is morally correct, they are misusing religion for a political cause and doing great harm.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Earlier this month our bishop sent out a fax asking church members to turn off all non-essential electrical appliances on the evening of the summer solstice -- June 21 -- as part of a "rolling blackout" event. Unlike California's real rolling blackouts, which were triggered by the state's refusal to deregulate retail electricity prices, this one was to be voluntary and with advance notice, from 7 to 10 p.m.

The event was planned by the Interfaith Climate Change Campaign of the Minneapolis Council of Churches. According to the fax, participation in this event "signals a willingness to conserve energy and consider lifestyle changes in order to address the threat of global climate change, and signals to President Bush's administration the broad base of concern about this matter."

Underlying this stance were several assumptions: 1) Global warming is a proven fact and is caused by human activity. 2) People participating in a planned "rolling blackout" political event can rightfully expect to turn their power back on at 10 p.m. by flicking a switch. 3) Everyone with deep moral and religious convictions should be disturbed by President Bush's views on energy. However, many thoughtful moral people disagree with these assumptions. When religious leaders claim that their stands are the only possible moral ones and then use the church to propagate their viewpoints, they are misusing the church in a very profound way. This is especially true when the viewpoints are highly questionable, as are the assumptions behind the proposed "rolling blackout" event.

First, the assertion that humans have warmed the climate is not a proven claim. Earlier this month the National Academy of Sciences released a report on global warming. Many people apparently read only the report's summary and not the main body of the report. The headline for an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune read, "Report gives no weasel room." CNN's Michelle Mitchell announced the report was "a unanimous decision that global warming is real, is getting worse, and is due to man. There is no wiggle room."

Richard S. Lindzen disagreed with these declarations, writing: "As one of 11 scientists who prepared the report, I can state that this is simply untrue. For starters, the NAS never asks that all participants agree to all elements of a report, but rather that the report represent the span of views. This the full report did, making clear that there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends and what causes them."

He went on to say, "I cannot stress this enough--we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future" and said the NAS report "tells us almost nothing relevant to policy decisions" such as the Kyoto Treaty. In spite of such scientific statements, Robert Edgar, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, states flatly, "U.S. energy use is causing global warming."

Second, the notion that we can vilify energy companies and still expect to turn on our electric power at will is absurd. Some special interest groups don't want any more power plants or transmission lines and readily admit that they are motivated by NIMBY (not in my back yard) and BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody) concerns. "Use wind power," some say. But, as Jim Howard, the retiring head of Xcel Energy recently pointed out, "Even if you build more windmills, you've got to have transmission lines, because you're not going to put windmills up in the center of Minneapolis."

Third, there is no clear basis to impugn President Bush's integrity because he opposes the Kyoto Treaty. Even if global warming exists, it's not yet clear how we should respond. MIT economist Richard Schmalensee offers a helpful analogy: "If you smell smoke at home, it would be silly to do nothing until you actually see flames, but you also should not hose down the house after one whiff of what might be smoke." R. Glenn Hubbard, the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, argues we need to work with other nations that similarly smell smoke to work collectively on basic research. He says finding the "lowest-cost abatement opportunities" will benefit not just the industrialized countries, but especially the developing world.

Perhaps what is in order is a little less moralizing, a bit more attention to research, and a modicum of respect for our opponents. Moral certainty that is based on questionable facts can be quite harmful.

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