THE BLOG
01/02/2015 08:17 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2015

They're Not All the Same: Labels and Stereotypes Fail to Recognize Religious Diversity

Here's a critical and simple point to keep in mind: as difficult as it may be for some to accept, not all religious individuals believe the same thing.

The latest example of this sort of intellectually bankrupt stereotyping can be seen in an article published last week in The Guardian. In fact, you don't have to read the entire article to see just how simplistically, and erroneously, many view religion; the headline makes the point all by itself. It proclaims: "Pope Francis's edict on climate change will anger deniers and US churches."

The article notes that "Following a visit in March to Tacloban, the Philippine city devastated in 2012 by typhoon Haiyan, the pope will publish a rare encyclical on climate change and human ecology. Urging all Catholics to take action on moral and scientific grounds, the document will be sent to the world's 5,000 Catholic bishops and 400,000 priests, who will distribute it to parishioners."

After noting that the Pope's encyclical will be resisted by some in the Vatican and by both John Bohner and Rick Santorum, the article goes on to say that "Francis will also be opposed by the powerful US evangelical movement, said Calvin Beisner, spokesman for the conservative Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, which has declared the US environmental movement to be 'un-biblical' and a false religion."

All of that is likely to be true but it misses the point completely - and by doing so continues to shape public opinion in an unrealistic and counterproductive manner. Bohner, Santorum and the Cornwall Alliance don't speak for all, perhaps not even a majority, of evangelical Christians in the United States and, far more importantly, their extreme positions certainly don't reflect those of US churches in general.

A couple of examples will make this case clearly. There has been a growing and important evangelical environmental movement for quite some time now. In 2006, 86 leading evangelicals issued a public statement saying that their faith compels them to fight global warming. In 2013, 200 evangelical scientists sent a letter to Congress calling for legislation to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment.

Natalie Winston, an editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, put it best when she selected her favorite interview from 2014, a conversation between host Rachel Martin and evangelical scientist Katherine Hayhoe. Winston, describing Hayhoe, said, "She is a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and also a devout Christian. And she has spent time going around to other evangelical communities where she lives trying to kind of explain why climate change is real and also how caring about climate change fits into Christian values."

Winston went on to note, "The thing I loved about Katherine is that she just defies all stereotypes. She defies the stereotype about scientists, about being conservative, about being a so-called tree hugger, about being an evangelical Christian. And that's what I think is just so cool about her."

Additional passionate religious voices, including those of evangelicals, can be heard in a fabulous film exploring the "vitality and diversity of today's religious-environmental activists." The film, entitled Renewal, was produced by Marty Ostrow and Terry Kay Rockefeller and puts an end to the absurd belief that religion and environmental activism can't comfortably coexist.

These are not isolated voices. Mainstream Christian denominations have been articulate about their position on climate change. Statements issued by the United Church of Christ, The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in addition to many others, forcefully call for action to alter the course we're on with respect to climate change.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because when the media pretend, or are fooled into believing, that the loudest and most extreme voices are representative of the majority, our conception of the majority shifts dramatically. Many of us accept the "fact" that the world is comprised of two camps, environmentalists and religious individuals. Reality, however, is far more complicated and nuanced. Environmentalists can be religious or non-religious and one's religious inclinations don't necessarily provide any meaningful information about environmental proclivities.

Even those most knowledgeable can be fooled by a constant media barrage that gives undue credence and coverage to loud and extreme voices. The most striking lesson I learned when I founded The Clergy Letter Project, an organization of 15,000 clergy and scientists devoted to reconciling science and religion, was that a huge number of clergy members felt that they were unique in the beliefs they held. I can't count the number of times clergy members, upon seeing the huge number of signatures on one of our Clergy Letters promoting the teaching of evolution, told me how relieved they were to learn that they were not alone. One sided media reports had convinced them that their views were so out of the mainstream that they felt compelled to keep them under wraps.

The world is a complex place and, together, we make far better public policy when we recognize that complexity. The headline writers of The Guardian, like so many others in the media, do us all a grave disservice when they present readers with a caricature rather than an authentic picture of reality.