Sure, you’re used to hearing from animal rights activists online, in commercials set to sad music, in social media, and maybe on the occasional billboard. Perhaps a print ad with a celebrity here and there.
But in church?
Yes, says Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit industry coalition formed to bridge livestock communication gaps. Smith says her organization noticed animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals using religious language and blatantly working to infiltrate churches in the late 2000s.
Why religion? Wes Jamison, associate professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has spent the better part of his career studying the animal rights movement and says activists in church makes more sense than you might think. Here’s why:
1. People of faith have sustained beliefs. “They don’t waver and change,” Jamison says.
2. People of faith give more to charities, and they give both time and money.
3. Animal cruelty issues appeal to a Christian’s sense of compassion. HSUS plays up that an animal has to die and sacrifice its life for us.
4. Animal rights groups offer an exchange: to make you feel less bad about the animal dying, you can give money to an organization that looks out for the interest of animals. “It makes you feel better about going out for a steak,” Jamison says.
To get a better sense of biblical doctrine, HSUS has even gone so far as to pay for a staff member to attend seminary, and then made her senior director of faith outreach. From HSUS’ website: “The faith outreach program of the Humane Society of the U.S. seeks to engage people and institutions of faith with animal protection issues, on the premise that religious values call upon us all to act in a kind and merciful way towards all creatures.”
Not surprisingly, PETA is more graphic in its descriptions: “As we learn from the life of Jesus, Christians are called to stand up for the marginalized and downtrodden. That means promoting a culture of respect for everyone, including the animals who are suffering right now on severely crowded factory farms, in burning hot transport trucks, and in blood-filled slaughterhouses.”
Think it can’t happen in your church? Think again, says Smith, who sat in her home church near Washington, D.C., on a recent stewardship Sunday, only to hear a lay pastor read a statement encouraging parishioners to participate in “Meatless Mondays.” Smith was taken aback — after all, she works in the business of getting ahead of statements like those. She and her husband sent a carefully composed letter to the pastor.
“I didn’t anticipate it in my church, but it happened,” Smith says, adding she wished she’d thought further ahead. “I wasn’t proactive enough. You can’t correct your pastor in church when it happens!”
The Animal Ag Alliance commissioned research by Jamison back in 2009, studying how the animal rights movement is using faith to advance its agenda across America — often in churches just like Smith’s. What they found was that many denominations had already accepted or adopted policies on animals. A sampling:
• “Eating can be an opportunity to thoughtfully live our beliefs about justice — a vehicle for practicing our faith … good nutrition is stewardship of a gift God gave us — our bodies … choose healthier sources of proteins ... animal proteins such as beef or whole milk dairy products come with a heavy helping of saturated fats. Vegetable proteins come with plenty of fiber and vitamins. The meat industry does not always handle animals humanely.” — “Just Eating? Practicing our Faith at the Table,” Presbyterian Church USA, Page 12.
• “The Episcopal Church encourages its members to ensure that husbandry methods for captive and domestic animals would prohibit suffering in such conditions as puppy mills and factory farms.” — Episcopal Church, Support Ethical Care of Animals
• “Humans, and particularly North American agricultural practices, have lost or obliterated strains of corn and apples, reduced the varieties of cattle and sheep to a virtual handful, bred chickens that do not ever get to walk, and turkeys so large they cannot even stand, much less fly. Multinational agribusiness has sought to expand profits and control of agricultural practices by exporting such exploitative practices to peoples in the developing world. These practices have also threatened the diversity of the human community.” — The Social Community #3184: Guidelines for Developing Genetically Modified Organisms in The Book of Resolutions 336, United Methodist Church
Other groups and authority figures have weighed in, too, with Stephen Kaufman of the Christian Vegetarian Association saying, “We know that animal ag is inherently cruel.” Jeffrey Cohan of Jewish Veg has said that dominion does not give human beings permission to kill animals for food, while Lisa Levins of In Defense of Animals says the Interfaith Vegan Coalition helps people “widen their circles of compassion to include non-human animals.” Smith says that particular group provides religion-specific advocacy kits on its website to help bring those of faith into the animal rights movement.
This op-ed on The Washington Post website even suggests Franklin Graham has gone vegan; no word on whether he stuck with it.
Jamison, however, says HSUS and others take scriptures out of context, misrepresent clear Bible teaching regarding the relationship of animals and people, and incorrectly reinterpret the place of people in creation.
“Putting religion in service to the agenda of the vegetarian/animal food ethic has penetrated the fabric of evangelicalism,” Jamison says. “This co-opting of religion, theology and Bible quoting in service to animal food morality is no longer restricted to some faddish cleric blessing pets in church and composing the associated litany. It has now acquired a semblance of intellectual and institutional endorsement among those presenting themselves as Bible-believing evangelicals.”
Smith says HSUS and its ilk have an ultimate goal: to eliminate animal agriculture, through undercover videos and by changing the mindset of the country. “Using religion is one of those ways,” she adds.
What can you do?
Be aware of the issue locally and at higher levels in your denomination, says the Animal Ag Alliance’s Hannah Thompson-Weeman.
“Help us be the eyes and ears out there. We cannot be in every church on Sunday, and we can’t be on every council,” she says. Note the mention of related concepts during sermons or in church materials — meatless Mondays, factory farms or calls to eat less meat or meat with certain labels.
Watch for proposed resolutions at national denominational meetings. “If you’re on those committees, read the language and know what’s going on. Ask the people in your church who are on those committees,” Thompson-Weeman says.
It helps to be prepared, too, she says, adding that farmers who are interested in resources can contact her directly. Those resources can be shared with church leadership. She also recommends writing a letter to the editor of your local paper explaining your commitment to animal care and the environment, which establishes yourself as a resource regarding animal agriculture.
“Don’t just react — be proactive,” Thompson-Weeman says.