Inside the evangelical push to rally around animal ethics

A group of evangelicals is working on a statement on animal ethics that will be released later this year, leaders involved in the project said Thursday. The effort comes as some evangelical leaders are seeking to change attitudes about issues like factory farms and animal fighting that many see as liberal concerns.

In the past, some evangelicals have cited the biblical command in Genesis 1 that humans should have dominion over the earth, including animals, to argue against practices like vegetarianism. More recently, some leaders say, evangelicals have become concerned about issues surrounding the treatment of animals, as specific as food production and as general as care for God’s creation.

“The attitude by some that the idea that humans and animals are equal in value makes evangelicals nervous,” said Barrett Duke, vice president for The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “But there’s a diminishing attitude that humans are free to do as they please with animals.”

For the past three years,The Humane Society of the United States has worked with Christian leaders in crafting a statement that evangelicals from differing theological perspectives could sign onto. An early draft of the statement, being circulated among leaders now and scheduled to be released in October, focuses mostly on beliefs and less on calls to action.

“While we recognize that all living creatures deserve respect as part of God’s creation, we want to help focus attention on animals, as these creatures can be most subject to irresponsible and cruel treatment by humans,” the statement reads. “We resolve to exercise our responsible rule in part by confronting any and all cruelty against animals, seeing it as a violation of our rule and an affront to the ultimate Ruler who created, values, and sustains these animals.”

The statement makes it clear that while God provided animals to humans to be eaten, “this does not mean we can treat them as objects or act cruelly towards them.”

Leaders cite the influence of historical figures admired by evangelicals, including William Wilberforce and Hannah More, who both worked to end slavery in England in the 19th century and also wrote about their concern for animals.

On Thursday, the Humane Society hosted a gathering of evangelical women to discuss animal ethics. The evening included a reading from Karen Swallow Prior, who recently wrote a book called “Fierce Convictions” about More. She read from a chapter that discussed how 19th century abolitionists also promoted the fair treatment of animals, and drew a connection to contemporary concerns.

“I think years from now when we face this issue and look back at it in history, we will wonder how we could’ve tolerated it so long in the same way we wonder today how people could have tolerated slavery,” said Prior, an English professor at Liberty University. “I’m not sure how long we will get away with the excuse that we don’t know what is going on in factory farming.”

Prior’s book documents historic evangelical interest in animal ethics. Because animal welfare has been more recently seen as an issue central for people who hold more liberal views, Prior said, evangelicals have tended to take the opposite view.

“We have to prick the conscience on factory farming, so we have to say the economy of the country be damned, this has to stop,” she told a group of about 20 women.

The Humane Society is beginning to set up panel discussions at evangelical institutions and churches later this year to discuss animal ethics.

“It used to be a surprise to me that evangelicals were so open to this issue,” said Christine Gutleben, senior director of faith outreach for the Humane Society. “Now it’s no longer a surprise. What I’ve seen is grappling with the concept of dominion and stewardship.”

Gutleben said that when she would try to recruit evangelical men, many of them said they agreed to engage with the issue because their wives were interested. Women also tend to make most household purchasing decisions, she noted.

“Religious leaders are crucial in animal welfare becoming mainstream,” she said.

Gutleben cited the involvement of evangelicals on the issue, including the Southern Baptist Convention, which has become active in efforts to combat animal fighting. ERLC president Russell Moore sent a letter in March to Tennessee’s House speaker supporting a bill that would increase animal fighting deterrents.

Once it releases the statement, the Human Society will likely face the challenge of making animal ethics more of a priority for evangelicals. Evangelicals are especially concerned about issues related to global and domestic religious freedom, same-sex marriage and abortion, so animal ethics might not get as much attention.

“It ought to be put on the radar screen, but what to do about it won’t be black and white,” said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The treatment of animals on farms is a prudential calculation where there’s room for disagreement.”

The Humane Society is working on the statement with the Clapham Group, a consulting firm run by Mark Rodgers, the former chief of staff for former senator Rick Santorum (R-Penn.). Abby Skeans, who is working on the project, said that she has spoken with a diverse set of evangelicals, from strict vegans to evangelicals who hunt elk in a humane way.

“We’re looking at how we’re treating the lowliest among us,” she said. “This is an ecosystem of issues that revolves around us welcoming the divine and fighting for life.”