Father Robert Sirico (right), a former "soft Marxist," now frequently blames environmentalists for "strident" rhetoric.Courtesy of ICES
What the Christian right and free-market think tanks have done for the debate on social and political issues, the Washington, D.C.-based Interfaith Council hopes to do for environmental issues—exercise faith-based dominion over the debate. In 1999, 25 economists, environmental scientists and policy experts convened in West Cornwall, Connecticut, and hammered out the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, the first major pronouncement on environmental issues by the religious right. It 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 with a gloom-and-doom approach.
Father Robert A. Sirico, 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. Acton applies market principles to such hot button topics as overpopulation, welfare reform and economics on what it calls “a foundation of religious liberty, economic freedom and personal moral responsibility.”
Father Sirico has a colorful background. According to Jerry Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Project Tocsin, in the 1970s, “Sirico was a roll-em-on-the-floor Pentecostal boy preacher, who was packing 1,500 people into a Seattle theater every week.” He then turned up in Los Angeles, where he became a minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. He later served as executive director of what is now the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
Sirico has called this his “soft Marxist” period. After a political transformation to libertarianism, he returned to the Catholic Church. “I heard homilies preached that inevitably insulted business people,” he says. He was determined to turn that around.
In 1997, 94 percent of the Acton Institute’s $1.8 million budget came from conservative foundations like the Scaife Family Foundation ($100,000), the [Amway-derived] Richard and Helen deVos Foundation ($50,000), the John M. Olin Foundation ($50,000) and the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation ($40,000).
Father Sirico’s social activism has not impeded his ongoing work in the highest circles of the Vatican. 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.” His The Social Agenda: A Collection of Magisterial Texts is a 225-page book containing nearly 370 quotations from some 75 Church documents, which was released at the Vatican last April.
Sirico chooses, as the central theme in the papal social encyclicals, an emphasis on “the right to private property.” His goal in editing Vatican texts is to align the Church’s historical teachings with his free-market philosophy. His aim in the environmental arena is essentially the same: to gain official Catholic approval for reducing regulation in favor of market-based solutions.
Just how engaged the new group will be is open to debate. Michael Bankey, who serves both as Acton’s environmental policy analyst and editor of Acton’s Environmental Stewardship Review, unequivocally denies a Religion News Service (RNS) report that ICES would be initiating environmental legislation. He says that the group “will not be engaged in legislative battles.” But the Declaration’s signers are drawn from the inner circle of the religious right. Amongst them: Focus on the Family president James Dobson; Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright; Prison Fellowship Ministries leader Charles Colson; the Reverend 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 with the inclusion of high-profile Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders who are aligned with conservative politics. ICES includes such highly controversial figures as 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 the separation of church and state, says, “If ever an issue needed sound Biblical doctrine brought to bear, it’s the environment.” Another advisory committee member is Dr. Marvin Olasky, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin and George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” guru during the 2000 campaign.
According to the Religion News Service, ICES 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.” Rabbi Lapin, a declaration signer, sums 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.”
The Interfaith Council makes no secret of its purpose: It wants to lead an army of faith-based organizations in challenging the modern environmental movement. It’s well funded and deeply committed to its task.