The University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies released a new poll last week entitled, Faith and Global Policy Challenges: How Spiritual Values Shape Views on Poverty, Nuclear Risk and Environmental Degradation (PDF). The poll sought to answer a series of questions:
How many people recognize the connections between their spiritual beliefs and global policy challenges?
And how do ideas about moral and religious responsibilities translate into beliefs about appropriate action by individuals, faith communities, and national governments?
What are the similarities and differences in how these concepts are applied to different challenges such as climate change, global inequality, and nuclear weapons?
Additionally, how do these responsibilities and actions square with the recommendations of policy experts, such as international treaties that proscribe or limit certain behaviors?
Although the polling data was just released last week, the poll of 1,496 American adults was in the field from September 9-19th.
The poll began by identifying “believers” as those who either believe in God or that “there are spiritual obligations to act in certain ways.”
In one question, “believers” were given a list of public policy issues and asked if they believed addressing the issues was a spiritual obligation. On this particular question, environmental issues did poorly compared to other issues (see chart).
That’s where things got interesting (emphasis mine):
Though less than half of all believers and a bare majority of Evangelicals are familiar with the idea of a spiritual obligation to act as good stewards of the environment, when presented with this concept, three out of four believers embraced it. Most rejected the counter-argument that out of humility one should leave the environment in God’s hands. Among those who embraced the obligation to be good stewards, an overwhelming majority said that it applies to preserving the natural world as well as humans from the effect of environmental degradation. A majority of this group (4 in 10 of all believers) also said that the obligation to be a good steward of the environment includes the obligation to prevent nuclear war.
After being presented with arguments for and against a spiritual obligation to act as good stewards of the environment, 3/4 of “believers” were convinced, with 23% strongly convinced and 50% somewhat convinced.
The polling report explains the implication (emphasis mine):
It is clear that as believers worked through arguments about a spiritual obligation to be good stewards of the environment, they grew more inclined to endorse the idea of a spiritual obligation to act in this area. Of those who embraced the idea in this series, 62% had earlier said they did not feel that seeking to prevent the loss of species was a spiritual obligation; 74% had earlier said the same about seeking to reduce pollution; and 80% had said the same about seeking to prevent climate change. Thus a large majority of those who expressed comfort with the idea of environmental stewardship arrived at that view through deliberating and gaining greater familiarity with it.
Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, shared his views on the poll’s findings with the Washington Post. “People moved in their positions as they reflected on them more. They saw more of a spiritual connection,” he said. “What that says to me is that religious leaders need to really engage people more on these issues, because in fact, they are teachable.”
For those of us who think the United States will only address climate change once a majority of conservatives accept that it is a legitimate problem, this is a hugely important finding. If minimal exposure to the idea of environmental stewardship makes religious “believers” significantly more likely to feel an obligation to address environmental issues, a sustained effort to increase and improve religious outreach could go a long way toward shifting public opinion.
Update — Brian Merchant has more on this:
This has huge implications: a gigantic, key demographic might be much more open to fighting climate change than previously assumed. It means, as Nelson notes, that greens should be doing more and better outreach to religious communities. And it reinforces the notion that the kernel of anti-climate policy sentiment lies more in industrial interests (which spirals outward to partisan media organizations like Fox that disseminate its ideas), not in religious ideology. Religious Americans, it turns out, may even be eager to become environmental stewards on the basis of their faith; to fight climate change on spiritual grounds.
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