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Can Christianity Take Vegetarianism Mainstream?

10/31/2013 03:19 pm 15:19:06 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

It is a state of affairs lamented by everyone from Gandhi to Chesterton. Christianity is a fine idea, but it would be great if Christians actually tried to live it out.

Take the issue of wealth and poverty, for instance. The founder of Christianity couldn't have been more clear: radical care for the poor is an absolute requirement. Jesus doesn't talk about Hell very often, but when He does, it is almost always connected to our failure to meet the needs of the poor. Sadly, most Christians aren't even close to living this kind of life. Indeed, they aren't even trying to lead this kind of life.

Though it is in the process of changing, something similar can be said about our ethical obligations toward non-human animals. Most Christian are simply ignorant of what our churches teach about these matters, and this ignorance is most often connected to idolatry of secular politics. Concern for animals is dismissed by politically conservative Christians, in particular, as belonging to the soft and sentimental views of liberals. Ultimately, they say, we need to make space for personal choice and freedom to eat as human beings prefer.

But for Christians who refuse to make an idol out of secular politics, a very different approach is beginning to emerge. Such Christians are hyper-aware that a focus on the freedom and choice of the powerful leaves the weak and vulnerable populations to be dominated, and even killed. They believe we are called to stand against violence in favor of those who do not have a voice, and that this describes each and every one of the 50 billion non-human animals tortured and killed in factory farms each year.

But wait, doesn't Genesis say that human beings are given "dominion" over animals such that we can use and eat them? While humans are given dominion, the Bible understands it as nonviolent stewardship. In fact, in the first two chapters of Genesis God gives human beings vegetarian diet and creates animals because it is "not good man should be alone." We have sin to thank for screwing up Eden's ideal that animals are our companions and not our food.

This mistake about what "dominion" means is made, not only by Christians, but also by secularists who wish to blame "religion" for how badly we treat animals. Of course, our ancestors have been dominating and killing non-human animals long before the writing of Genesis, and even before humans had the capacity for moral reflection. It is all about power: we can dominate and kill animals, so we do. If we must look for an ideological culprit for the horrific way we treat animals in factory farms in our contemporary culture, we would do well to blame both the Industrial Revolution and free market economics. These are products, not of Christianity, but the secular Enlightenment.

In fact, secular communities of concern for animals desperately need the boost that Christianity can provide. If vegetarianism is to move beyond the current small portion of the population, it will need to build on and connect with religious ideas and communities.

The Catholic Church is an excellent candidate for this kind of partnership. Just before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger condemned factory farming as a violation of the Biblical understanding of how humans and animals should relate to each other. Pope Francis recently revealed himself as a supporter of the "slow food" movement. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that (1) we "owe animals kindness" and (2) we may only cause animals to suffer and die in situations of "need."

Despite the headwinds of political idolatry and ignorance, these teachings are starting to take root in the Christian community. Both National Review and First Things -- bastions of conservative Christian thought for decades--have had multiple vegetarian-friendly pieces in recent days. Secular communities who support concern for animals and just eating practices would do well to partner with these and other religious-friendly communities. Though it may make for strange bedfellows, this is the only way forward if animal-friendly practices are to go mainstream.

And the stakes couldn't be higher. Beyond the horrific injustices they perpetuate against billions and billions of non-human animals, factory farms are bigger contributors to climate change than all the planes and cars in the world combined. These farms also dose their animals with antibiotics, and this had led to CDC experts declaring a virtual state of emergency when it comes to creation of drug-resistant diseases. Add the fact that many humans end up dying from cancers and heart disease related to meat consumption, and the urgency becomes clear. Both secular and religious groups have a duty to join forces in resisting our culture's addition to artificially cheap meat, and the factory farms which feed that addiction.

Fordham Theology Professor Charles Camosy's new book is titled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action. He can be contacted reached via Twitter @nohiddenmagenta and e-mail:camosy@fordham.edu.