For the final installment in this month’s issue of the Forum, Sarah E. Fredericks, Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics at the Divinity School, offers a response to the previous contributions to the roundtable. For this issue, we invited a small cadre of religion scholars to participate in a “scholars’ roundtable” reflecting on the implications of a Trump presidency for the academic study (and teaching) of religion. Throughout the month we published pieces by a diverse group of scholars in the fields of religion and religious studies. Each scholar was invited to share how the “Trump phenomenon” will shape (or has already shaped) their particular research, teaching, and activism as scholars of religion. We invite you to continue this roundtable conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.

Previous contributions to the roundtable:

  1. Anthony M. Petro (Boston University), “How Not to be a (Religious Demographic) Size Queen in an Epidemic”
  2.  Kent Brintnall (University of North Carolina at Charlotte), “It’s Complicated”
  3. Jawad Anwar Qureshi (University of Chicago), “‘I think Islam hates us’: Teaching Islam in an Islamophobic Era”
  4. Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, “Writing Latinxs into the Canon”
  5. L. Benjamin Rolsky,  “Taking Conservatism Seriously in the Era of #MAGA”

A Response to the Roundtable 

by Sarah E. Fredericks

Several weeks ago, after hearing that I would be teaching a class on climate ethics in the spring quarter, a colleague asked whether and how my teaching would be changing given the new presidential administration. My first response was to answer “Not much” because the problem of anthropogenic (human caused) climate change was already incredibly dire even with a supportive administration and the significant (but far from sufficient) steps taken in Paris. Millions of people, most of whom contributed little to climate change, are already suffering its effects in life- and community-threatening ways and the problem is growing.1 There haven’t been great new advances in climate ethics since the new administration came to power and the role of religion in the rising environmental activism in the Trump era is as yet not well investigated let alone understood.2 And yet, there is something different about teaching and doing research on climate ethics at a time when Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, is a climate denier (also here), when the federal government is obscuring or deleting data about it, and threatening to back out of international climate agreements about it3 while working to roll back many domestic environmental policies that aim to protect the most vulnerable (also here and here). This reality highlights and intensifies the intersectionality and interdisciplinarity of climate ethics as power structures, knowledge of the environmental and behavioral sciences, and broader worldviews including visions of human agency, responsibility, and justice all shape one’s assessment of the issue.

This position of deep continuity with the past and the change of “scope and intensity” of the issues (Anthony Petro) is one of the major themes running through the five thoughtful pieces in this Roundtable on Studying Religion in the Era of Trump. Kent Brintnall focuses on one set of scholarly virtues, the commitment to nuanced thinking, even when that takes time, arguing that such practices are still and even more in demand in an era of soundbites, quick reactions, and the drive to continually demonstrate “the cash value” of scholarship. Jawad Qureshi notes that rhetoric and overt or implicit political and physical actions against Muslims have “long been latent in American culture” even as they have risen after 9/11 and in recent months. Arlene Sánchez-Walsh maintains that the role of Latinx communities in American religious history and American history in general has been so marginalized that our view of history is “historically inaccurate” and facilitates Trump’s portrayal of Latinxs Benjamin Rolsky’s argument about the need to take conservatism seriously relies on a similar theme—that the lack of knowledge about or misunderstanding among conservatives contributed to the “progressive left[‘s]… continuing inability to comprehend the results of November 8th” and that we religious studies scholars have tools to better understand if only we take the people involved, methods they use, and issues they are concerned about seriously. As each scholar looks to lessons of history or the methods and knowledge (or its lacunae) of religious studies that predate Trump, they show us that the study of religion today must rely on the strengths of our past and, for most authors, transform itself beyond its limitations.

I came to the study of religion and the environment, particularly religious environmental ethics, through the scholarship on the interaction of religion and science. This body of knowledge includes rich theoretical and historical analyses of how people, whether in the scientific community or broader public, come to support new ideas including, but not limited to scientific ideas (e.g., of evolution or relativity theory) and new technologies. Much of this research reveals that shifting to a new viewpoint or understanding of the world is based not only on scientific results but also on a constellation of concepts, values, epistemological commitments, and views of and experience of authority.4 Such scholarship, coupled with that of psychology, education, and work on the development of a person’s ethical commitments and practices, can help us understand the positions of climate denial and skepticism. This is critical work because all too often scholars of religion and environment—whether ethicists, theologians, anthropologists, or historians—have focused on what they consider environmentally-friendly religious movements or the construction of environmentally-supportive arguments rather than on the full range of historical and contemporary movements and thought about human-environmental interaction and the value and status of the natural world. Such nuanced, detailed scholarship would help our understanding of the contemporary situation and would promote the values of scholarship Brintnall and others describe.5

Yet an approach that carefully considers various positions also leaves room for critical evaluation and for making an argument, even about rapidly developing situations such as anthropogenic climate change and environmental policy.6 Indeed, as a pragmatist I maintain that one can and may need to try out and refine ideas over time in part because some issues demand a response before a perfect solution is found, in part because there will never be a perfect response to issues as “wicked” as climate change7, and in part because the answers to such problems need to be developed not only with nuanced academic analysis but also with careful consideration of the lived experience of the wider community. We can and should model this careful and experimental response in our classrooms, in dialogue with colleagues, in our published scholarship, and in our public engagement. As we do so, we need to learn about the details of other positions, be willing to actually engage with diverse viewpoints, to put forth arguments and be willing to consider their limits as we work to strengthen them. All of this should be a familiar set of values and processes for scholarship in the humanities, including in religious studies.

Other roundtable pieces also emphasize valuing diverse kinds of people (Muslims, Latinxs, women, conservatives, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community) and their views, along with understanding the intersectionality of issues (race, class, religion, sexuality) they face in today’s political climate. To this constellation of issues I add environmental degradation since those most affected by polluted air, water, and soil; climate change; biodiversity loss etc. are the same people marginalized for other reasons and often with few political or economic resources to mitigate such challenges.8 As other scholars note, we can learn from historical studies about oppressing communities and combatting this oppression through education about religion and the rhetorical means of oppression.

Yet many articles in the roundtable rightly also note the need to intensify our previous efforts and sometimes lift up diverse, and often underutilized content and methods that can be used to understand religion in our age. Consider, for example, Petro’s claim that plays can challenge our “neat categories into which we hope to understand the world.” Sánchez-Walsh’s emphasis on the need to understand the use of “communication and surveillance,” emotions, “data and entrepreneurship” for religious and political ends similarly pushes religious studies in new directions.

Sarah E. Fredericks is Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics at the Divinity School. Her research focuses on sustainability, sustainable energy, environmental guilt and shame, and environmental justice. Professor Fredericks is the author of Measuring and Evaluating Sustainability: Ethics in Sustainability Indexes (Routledge, 2013), and articles in Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and CultureInternational Journal of Sustainable Development and World EcologyEnvironmental Justice, and Ethics, Policy, and Environment. Fredericks co-edits a book series, Religious Ethics and Environmental Challenges (Lexington Press), with Kevin O’Brien.

 * Photo images: Feature image: Climate March 2014, New York City (Shadia Fayne Wood); Shoes are symbolically placed on Place de la Republique in Paris in after the cancellation of a planned climate march following shootings in the French capital, November 2015 (Reuters | Eric Gaillard)

  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers,” (Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC, 2014).
  2. For texts on the ethics of climate change see J. Baird Callicott, Thinking Like a Planet (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Dale Jamieson, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle against Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Stephen M. Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Rosalie Gardiner et al., eds., Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2013); Sanna Joronen and Markku Okasanen, “Taming the Climate Emergency: Geoengineering and Ethics,” Nordicum-Mediterraneum: Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranen Studies 7, no. 2 (2012); Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, and Collective Action,” Hypatia 29, no. 3 (2014). See also the many statements written by religious bodies to articulate their position on climate change compiled at http://fore.yale.edu/climate-change/statements-from-world-religions/. For studies of religion climate change pre-Trump see Robin Globus Veldman, Andrew Szasz, and Randolph Haluza-Delay, eds., How the World’s Religions Are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations (New York: Routledge, 2014).
  3. Fortunately, some in the administration including Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, thinks that the United States still needs a “seat at the table” in international climate negotiations, but what that means in practice remains to be seen. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trumps-pick-for-secretary-of-state-backs-paris-climate-accord/
  4. Imre Lakatos, “Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceeds of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London 1965, ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1991); Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996); Heidi Campbell, When Religion Meets New Media (London; New York: Routledge, 2010).
  5. Here I parallel Rolsky’s concerns about studying conservatives but want to be clear that many conservatives are not callous about the environment or and indeed prioritize caring for creation and note that many secular and religious liberals are complicit in environmental degradation and/or have ideals that support it.
  6. To be clear, my position is that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and is an ethical issue of grave concern. I come to this position for a host of reasons about climate science, the experience of climate change by local peoples, international policy-making and security concerns, ethical theories including but not limited to those about justice from a host of religious and philosophical traditions. My position is informed by my understanding that it is not cultural and ideological forces alone that shape our knowledge—the world pushes back. Seas are rising, the world’s temperature is changing, and ecosystems all over the world are affected. Alternative models of climate change that do not acknowledge anthropocentric effects do not sufficiently explain this data. The effects of these changes on the most vulnerable humans and the challenge of them for all societies make it an ethical issue that demands attention.
  7. Gardiner.
  8. United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007,” (Cleveland: United Church of Christ, 2007); Julian Agyeman, Robert D. Bullard, and Bob Evans, eds., Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, Urban and Industrial Environments (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).
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