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Churches flirt with false righteousness of foodie-ism

dolphin_safeThe long Lenten fast has nearly ended. You can taste the sausage biscuit, bacon burger or chicken salad you’ve valiantly avoided for six Fridays in a row. But, imagine for a moment that this Easter, woven into the message of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, comes a new proclamation of church discipline. Abstinence from meat, the pastor declares, should now continue indefinitely. And it arrives not as penitence for which Christians find Biblical justification and historical recognition, but instead to free your soul from the potential sin of participating in an unjust and unethical modern food system.

You scoff? Consider these developments:

  • The Anglican Communion, the world's third largest Christian denomination, celebrated an Animal Welfare Sunday in 2007, called for recognition of abolitionist William Wilberforce—not for efforts to free humans but instead for founding the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—encourages its parishioners to choose locally grown organic products in the (questionable) name of health and indicts modern agriculture as the key culprit in global warming.
  • The Episcopal Church in 2003 officially resolved that its 2 million members number among the neighbors Christ commanded them to love not just people, but all animals, that they exercise diligence that animals don’t suffer in “puppy mills” and “factory farms,” and that members educate and work for legislation that protects animals.
  • The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America advises its 4.5 million parishioners that their act of moral deliberation must now include consideration of the environment and animals in their personal food choices, farming and livestock practices, laboratory research, hunting and land-use planning.
  • The website of the Presbyterian Church is filled with content advocating for many of the new food movement’s aims, including presentations (“Climate Change and Our Wacky Food System”), advocacy projects (the Presbyterian Coffee Project which seeks to offer only Fair Trade Coffee), educational curricula (“Just Eating” which counsels middle schoolers that eating “can be part of practicing our faith” by drawing upon Eric Schlosser’s food-revolution manifestoes Fast Food Nation and Chew on This to advise provisioning only from local farmers, starting a backyard garden, and cutting back on beef to protect your health and the health of the planet), and interactive teaching tools (like Faith Practice, which asks participants to remember “to dust thou shalt return” not as a reminder of how lowly fallen man is, but as a reminder of his connection to the earth and the rest of God’s creation.) “This study is a call for Christians as food consumers and producers to participate in and influence the global agricultural revolution,” says the 2002 church’s 214th General Assembly report We Are What We Eat. “Today, genetic manipulation, multinational monopolies, food safety and security, land and water conservation, rural economics, and international treaties combine to create circumstances that can no longer be dealt with through historic programs and policies. New food, fiber, and fuel policies must be developed in these revolutionary times. It is the responsibility of the Christian community to strive to make new policies consistent with biblical teachings.”
  • Although the Catholic Church has not officially defined any one teaching that would oppose the current food system, some splinter groups openly attempt to borrow the whole of the Catholic social teaching—along with the church’s 1 billion members worldwide—by using the name “Catholic.” One such organization, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, says, “Catholic teaching about the stewardship of creation leads us to question certain farming practices, such as the operation of massive confined animal feeding operations. …these operations should be carefully regulated and monitored so that environmental risks are minimized and animals are treated as creatures of God.” An organization that began eight decades ago to help isolated rural Catholics get better access to priests, churches, hospitals and Catholic schools has today morphed into an organization that publicly opposes “factory farms,” animal confinement, antibiotic use in farm animals; advances global warming principles; supports locally grown food, fair-trade food and community gardening; and entices consumers to shop at farmers markets. NCRLC’s Eaters' Bill of Rights reads:

    As consumers, we have rights that our food system and policy makers must respect. The right to food means the right to safe, nutritious food.
    We also have the right to know how our food is produced:
    Are farmers paid a just wage?
    Do farm workers have safe working conditions?
    Is the environment harmed?
    Are animals treated humanely?
    Is the food produced locally or transported for thousands of miles?
    Is the food system controlled by a few agribusiness cartels?

  • Tele-evangalist Joel Osteen, author and the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, told his 7 million weekly broadcast viewers in 2008 that eating pork and shellfish is a sin, not only because of Old Testament admonitions against eating scavengers, but also because it is unhealthy. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take the risk of putting that kind of junk in my body. I made changes not only for my health’s sake; I made changes to honor God.”
  • Orthodox Judaism’s “Hekhsher Tzedek” Commission aims to develop a more-kosher-than-kosher seal of food approval, the Magen Tzedek, to help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced not only according to Jewish law, but also in accordance with higher Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice. New standards hope to ensure fair pay, worker health care and sick leave, a safe workplace, animal welfare, humane treatment of animals, product traceability, reduced environmental impact, recycling, limited energy consumption, lower carbon and water footprints, increased food safety and corporate transparency.

Sidebar: Where does your church stand on the Food Morality Movement? Click here to find out.

 

The Dawn of a New Religion

To church-going farmers, grocers, restaurateurs and others involved daily in feeding us all, the extent to which the vocabulary and philosophy of radical environmentalism and new-age foodie-ism have invaded their churches may come as a shock. But those who have kept tabs on the wider new Food Morality Movement aren’t surprised to find the movement has begun speaking in angelic tongues—both inside and outside the church.

For one, it reflects an overall societal shift in devotion to traditional religion. Says author Mary Eberstadt, “What used to be differences that would be debated as matters of faith have instead become differences that are debated with much of the same passion and indignation, but that instead revolve around things like whether to put a turnip grown in Oregon into your mouth or a turnip grown in Chile.

“For many people,” she believes, “schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith.”

And then, the politics of food make for the proverbial strange, though useful, bedmates. “The buying power of the religious community in this country is really a force to be reckoned with,” Christine Gutleben, director of the Humane Society of the United StatesAnimals & Religion campaign told the United Methodist Reporter in 2007, “and we want to tap into that.” The HSUS campaign uses church outreach to sway members to its message of cutting down on meat eating, lobbying for an end to what it considers offensive livestock practices, and—many in agriculture believe, despite HSUS’s denials—an ultimate goal to end use of animals for meat. “There’s never been a successful social-justice movement in history without the support of religion,” she told the Reporter.

But it’s not just a marriage of political convenience. The affinity goes deeper. “Environmentalism began as a religion,” writes TIME magazine reporter Brian Walsh. That’s how founder of the Sierra Club John Muir saw it a century and a half ago, when he called Yosemite "the grandest of all special temples of Nature." And that’s the way Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai views a sustainable food system, as Walsh also quotes her, “…when she points out that we can't forgo the natural connection that we feel for nature, even if we are becoming an urban animal. ‘A certain tree, forest or mountain itself may not be holy, [but] the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible…. The environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.”

If environmentalism has become the new religion, then the food movement is its frontier mission, the zealot’s revival of an ossifying and increasingly ineffective mother church. Walsh, in another TIME article, recognizes this in “Foodies Can Eclipse (And Save) The Green Movement.” In it, Walsh explains that the environmental movement is losing steam; therefore, he recommends jumping tracks to the food movement. “The food movement, if it continues to grow, may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve,” Walsh writes. And the recipe Walsh wants to follow to ensure that growth? Turn the food movement into a sacred religion. Today’s foodie-ism is but a new denomination in the church of environmentalism, according to Walsh. It’s “a religion that John Muir would recognize — and one we shouldn't surrender.”

In today’s cultural environment, it requires studied courage to take a stand that even suggests the appearance of being opposed to saving the planet, protecting helpless animals and helping starving developing nations feed their hungry. Yet it’s time for churches to take a second hard look at who’s knocking. Congregations opening their pulpits to the false prophet of the Food Morality Movement are risking more harm than simply being distracted from the gospel. In borrowing the language of the church and its attendant credibility, the new foodie-ism poses some real dangers to those churches, both secular and spiritual. Here's how:

Debilitating the mission to feed the poor

From a purely practical, secular standpoint, supporting the ascetic fashion of many aspects of the food morality movement presents immediate challenge to the church’s stated mission of feeding the poor. It’s a mission every church takes with the seriousness God intended in, for example, the parable of Matthew which makes no secret of God’s wrath for failure to provide for the earthly needs of brothers (“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink…”)

Yet, many of the churches inviting in the gospel of the righteous palate advise their members to seek local food, organic food or foods that have been produced “as close to the natural process as possible.” In doing so, they cast doubt and unduly raise suspicion on modern technology and farming practices that actually contribute toward that very mission of increasing crop yields and thus feeding more people.

Their advice exacerbates the problem of world hunger and increases its fold: Currently less than 1 percent of U.S. cropland is certified organic. If each church member followed the advice of demanding only organic food, many people would starve in the short run. In the long run, demand for organic foods would quickly outpace supply, pushing the already high cost of organics even higher. (Organic food already ranges between 45 percent to 200 percent higher in cost than conventional.) Even if farmers converted their fields to the liking of the Organic Consumers Association and achieved a 30-fold increase in organic production in the next four years, the conversion disruption would be crippling to the food system, yields would be much lower and people would starve.

These are real world consequences.

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'When farmers increase their productivity, nutrition is improved and hunger and poverty are reduced.'

- Bill Gates

Gates Foundation

When we talk about feeding the poor we have to assess the modern food system soberly and without pastoral fantasy. We are producing more food and feeding more people than at any time in human history, thanks to the very technology the Food Morality Movement is agitating against. As author Jay W. Richards writes in Money, Greed and God, to wax nostalgic and conjure up images of Hobbits peacefully tending their crops in the Shire is to confuse aesthetic judgments with economic arguments. Organic food is fine. Local food is fine. But, the reality is that neither is a solution to world hunger. As an African official of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization said after a Greenpeace representative called for more organic farming, ''Organic farming is practiced by 800 million poor people in the world because they can't afford pesticides and fertilizers -- and it's not working.''

 

Advancing politics you may not endorse

Food and food production have become much more than just about the food itself.

Food is now a platform to launch many social issues into the media spotlight that until now have been resisted by the political class that tends to attend church in the United States. As Marion Nestle, activist and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says, “You can view food as an entry point into the most important issues of society. Food and agriculture are connected to climate change, to employment, to the economy, to people's health, even to immigration.”

The success of the environmental movement offers both a stark warning and a blueprint for how churches can be employed to advance a political agenda they normally would oppose.

The first step is to position a cause as a grave moral act. In 2007, when Al Gore accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on climate change, he said, “The climate crisis is not a political issue. It is a moral and spiritual calling to all humanity.” This gained traction in religious circles, and soon Christians of all stripes heard the call of God anew to “cultivate and care” for the land. But intertwined with their penitential acts of planting a garden and buying hybrid cars and squiggly light bulbs was the aggressive expansion of government, loss of individual freedoms and restrictions on the free market (just to name a few).

The next step is to speak in angelic tongues. Speaking the language of religion is important for advancing a political agenda. Even though many consider this a secular era, research shows that the majority of people hold a belief in God. To deploy a vague form of religiosity (not too rigid or “zestas”) gives your cause increased credibility. Words like “fair,” “equitable,” “just” and “compassionate” redound especially if sprinkled with an occasional scripture verse.

Matthew Scully, for example, a political speechwriter and author of Dominion, The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy quotes the scriptures more than 30 times in his 434-page call to return American animal agriculture to a kindler, gentler version of yesteryear. “At least here in America,” Scully says, “it is worth noting that no moral cause ever got very far that could not speak of religious conviction, drawing on the deeper sensibilities that guide public opinion even in our more secular era.”

Such a model of persuasion works to advance the underlying political aims of the movement, but churches that graft the language of the new food morality onto the gospel must be careful not to be played as political pawns in food politics, politics that don’t necessarily fit comfortably with the persuasion of their often more right-leaning members. Environmental politics that found the food movement have a long and distinct association with left-leaning liberalism, according to Keith Woodhouse, University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point historian and a specialist in environmental history.

“After [the first] Earth Day,” Woodhouse writes in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism, “the environmental movement quickly associated itself with the politics of liberal reform, as mainstream environmental groups settled into a tacit partnership with the federal government. A flurry of environmental legislation passed by the Nixon Administration set the terms for environmental activism: filing environmental impact statements, pressing the Environmental Protection Agency into action, identifying endangered species, and suing industry under a handful of revamped laws to protect air, water, and soil.” Although Woodhouse cautions that the radical New Left of the ‘60s was ambiguous to the environmental movement, if not openly hostile because it didn’t go far enough in lobbying for social justice, the movements politics were nonetheless always more left-leaning than right. “The 1970s was the decade that the mainstream environmental movement became tied to the liberal state.”

With few exceptions, the descendent of that movement on the 41st anniversary of its founding Earth Day continue to advance the liberal state’s cause, including those like Gary Hirschberg, owner of Stonyfield Farms appearing in the anti-food system movie Food Inc. (“We’re not going to get rid of capitalism, certainly we’re not going to get rid of it in the time that we need to arrest global warming and reverse the toxification of our air, our food and our water."), and author and local-food activist activist Mark Winne (“The fact that our food system is racist, classist and sexist should come as no surprise to anyone.”)

Disrupting the created order

But beyond the secular reasons of practicality and political persuasion, more enduring reasons exist to resist the siren call of the church of the righteous palate. For Christians, the book of Genesis tells of God’s creation. In that creation exists a hierarchical order that is divinely ordained. From earth to plants to animals to people to angels and finally to God, Judeo-Christian spiritual thought moves from matter to living things to people to spiritual things. Yet hidden in today’s food morality movement are those who wish to dismantle or reverse this order.

  • Twenty-five years ago in an interview with Washingtonian Magazine, Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made her now famous statement that defined the radical animal-rights organization’s philosophy of universal order: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals.”
  • Bolivia recently announced it will present a document to the United Nations seeking to give “Mother Earth” the same rights as humans. Bolivians have already passed a similar law in their own land, and it is said to be the first time legal personhood status was granted to natural systems.
  • The Anglican Church's 74th General Convention recognizes that responsible care of animals falls within the stewardship of creation and expands our understanding of who is neighbor to include all animals.
  • The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology asserts that people have the duty to take the dignity of living beings into consideration when handling plants. The constitutional term “living beings” encompasses animals, plants and other organisms. It also raises the bar on animal rights, saying, "Aanimals should be protected from unjustified interventions on their appearance, from humiliation and from being disproportionately instrumentalised.”
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'This is the same pursuit that accounted for man’s original fall, the belief that by eating, Adam and Eve could achieve a God-like status, re-ordering their place in the divinely ordered.'

There is a fine line between being good stewards of the earth and the creatures God has entrusted to us and overindulging false movements to elevate the earth, animals or anythingto a greater status than God intended.

What seems to be missing is a right order of human concerns!

God’s creation is supposed to show forth His glory, which in turn becomes a worshipping of Him--not a worshipping of the thing itself. Yet many zealous people, speaking the language of religion, simply will not allow their zeal to be carried to its ultimate fulfillment--the exaltation of God. And, isn’t this the same pursuit that accounted for man’s original fall? That by eating, Adam and Eve could achieve a God-like status, a re-ordering of their place in the divinely ordered (Genesis 3:5).

 

Diminishing the Creator and His crowning creation

Ultimately, the greatest risk of all in uncritically examining the ramifications of marrying the new religion of the Food Morality Movement with the old religion lies in its focus on disrupting the spiritual order in the name of saving the planet through our diets. In doing so, it diminishes the greatness of its Creator.

Whether by happy accident or artful planning by a public-relations ear carefully tuned to the tides of public opinion, this year Earth Day falls on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, Good Friday, in which Christians recall the passion and crucifixion of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet pastors, church spokesmen and laymen alike are darkening the day of crucifixion by heaping the Day of Earth upon it:

  • “On Good Friday, the day we mark the crucifixion of Christ, God in the flesh, might we suggest that when Earth is degraded, when species go extinct, that another part of God’s body experiences yet another sort of crucifixion — that another way of seeing and experiencing God is diminished?” Mike Schut of the Episcopal Church’s office of Economic and Environmental Affairs.
  • This year Earth Day falls on Good Friday, a day we observe the death of Jesus but know and envision His resurrection at Easter. Good Friday is an appropriate time to remember the many ways we are heaping carnage on the Earth and her people, and be stimulated to work at restoring life and energy to our world. Let it be a wake-up call that rouses us to renew our awareness and then focus on remedies to repair this fragile planet Peace and Justice Committee of Califonia's Sisters of the Holy Family
    • April 22, 2011, is Good Friday. It is also Earth Day, a good day to remind ourselves that the Earth is a community of life dependent on one another for its existence. All organisms which breathe, inhale and exhale the same air. That includes us. We even trade oxygen and carbon dioxide with our neighbouring plants and trees. Yet, for many centuries most people, including most Christians, have thought of humanity as being higher, greater, more valued than or even separate from the rest of Creation. This hierarchical attitude has also infected relationships among humans. In this way we have broken our Covenant with God. — Dr. Christopher Lind, a lay Anglican theologian
    • Because Earth Day falls on Good Friday, probably the only reasonable time to celebrate it is the weekend after Easter, which is what our parish is doing. It will take some ingenuity to connect the resurrection-themed readings with Earth care, but it can be done. If politicians can take any question a reporter throws at them, and maneuver it around to their favorite agenda, then surely we can too! — Carol Meyer, executive director of the Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition.

    The massive inroads of the environmental movement into Christian circles should become troubling when the discussion subtly shifts from Christ on the cross to the value of the tree He is hung upon. Consider the Sustainable Sanctuary's Meyer, who openly admits she wants to take the resurrection themed readings and maneuver them to fit her own agenda, an agenda that looks not at creation as visible signs of Gods power and divinity but rather as immortalization of the earth and its life-giving properties. It is no longer a theology that sees man as being uniquely made in the image and likeness of God with “rulership” over His creation. Instead, he is diminished to the status of but co-equal among the animals.

    This week that human person, the crowning creation of God, celebrates the crowning truths of his Christian faith. Yet the environmental movement has shouldered its way into this celebration. Following at a distance but taking notes is the food movement, which isn’t going to just try and take its seat alongside the other disciples at the table, but instead intends to become the Master who commands us to “Take and Eat,” for theirs is the one real food; theirs, the one real drink.

    Churches, be warned. If centuries of church history have taught anything, it’s that the second most dangerous war you can find yourself in is a religious war (the first most dangerous being a religious war you don’t recognize as such). If TIME’s Walsh is correct, and a failing environmental movement that duped so many Christians into an overzealous pursuit of “green” is now shifting to the food movement for its own salvation, then churches who invite the message of the new food morality movement in are inviting a new schism.

    Comments   

    # Nelson D Kloosterman 2011-04-22 00:20
    Kevin,
    Thank you for this clear and forthright article! It deserves wide reading. Would you consider putting it into pamphlet form, the more easily to insert into church bulletins and pew racks?!
    # Thom Katt 2011-04-22 15:25
    The primary reason that Judeo-Christian religions and congregations should shun the animal rights and environmental movements is because the people leading those movements are frequently pagans. They worship the earth and put animals and plants, streams, mountains, what-have-you on par with humans. Those who put their faith in Jehovah have been commanded to not worship false idols and not associate with the people who worship them.
    # Stephen Vantassel 2011-04-22 18:34
    Thank you for reminding Christians to follow Christ's command that all food is clean.

    Those interested in learning why animal rights perverts Christianity, perverts ethics, and damages the environment should consider reading Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009).
    # Mannie 2011-04-25 17:58
    And why is the "dolphin safe" logo used to illustrate this article? That was one of the stupidest campaigns ever!
    See this US News & World Report expose on it at www.maninnature.com/Fisheries/Whatpricedolphin.pdf
    # Krissa Welshans 2011-04-28 18:17
    Kevin,

    Excellent article!

    Want to share some verses with you that I believe sum up where we are today in society.

    1 Timothy 4.

    1 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.
    2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.
    3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.
    4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,
    5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

    There is more to the chapter, but verses 1-6 are key.

    Thank you for writing such a great piece.

    Krissa
    # Margie Smith 2013-12-02 19:30
    How do the church leaders that say some foods are not to be eaten explain Acts 10:10-15? God says not to call anything he has made unclean. Seems I learned in Sunday School that God created everything.