Religious Australians are pushing for climate action, and want church leaders and politicians to get on board

Most religions believe the universe and everything in it is a creation of God or gods, and most demand that we nurture God’s creation.

So for many religious people in Australia today – particularly among younger generations – it makes sense for religious leaders to encourage care for the environment.

University student Hattie Steenholdt, who attends a Baptist church in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is part of this growing culture shift.

“Climate change is negatively affecting already marginalized communities,” she says.

A young white woman is sitting in a garden smiling.
Hattie Steenholdt says the issue of climate change needs to be depoliticized within the church.(Supplied: Hattie Steenholdt)

Hattie was part of a beach mission with Scripture Union in her hometown of Mallacoota during the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.

It was an experience that strengthened her conviction that Christians need to do more about the climate crisis.

And according to a survey commissioned by the Christian development agency Tearfund Australia, she is one of many young people who feel the same way.

Titled They Shall Inherit The Earth, the study examines the attitudes of millennial and older Gen Z Christians.

It found that three in five are very concerned about climate change, and two thirds want their local church to take action.

But it also found that 35 per cent of church leaders say they rarely preach on environmental matters, citing the politicization of the issue as a key challenge.

This figure doesn’t surprise Jessica Morthorpe.

She is the founder and director of the Five Leaf Eco Awards, an ecumenical program helping faith groups achieve sustainability goals like establishing community gardens, water tanks, and constructing giant crosses made of solar panels.

A large christian cross made of solar panels sits on the roof of a church
A church powered by a cross made of solar panels.(Supplied by Five Leaf Awards)

To her, though, caring for creation is pushback against the politicization of religion.

“Climate change has become this incredible political hot-button issue, which is just devastating,” she says.

“That has therefore influenced the reception of churches to the issue, rather than churches starting with the Bible, and starting with what God has actually said about creation and a need to care for it.”

Hattie feels a similar way.

“The issue of climate change needs to be depoliticized within the church,” she says, “to the extent that we approach it from the perspective of our Christian duty to act justly.”

Activists ask: where is the moral leadership?

While some religious Australians are focusing their energies on grassroots solutions, others also see the need to engage with electoral politics.

The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is a multi-faith affiliation of religious communities advocating for climate justice.

In the lead-up to the federal election, the ARRCC is amplifying its climate activism, targeting MPs in marginal electorates, and urging them to embrace meaningful climate change policies.

“We don’t just run retreats, and have workshops and talk about lifestyles and webinars,” says President Thea Ormerod.

“We actually get out there and hang out banners and meet with members of parliament, and protest at coal mining sites.”

A man standing outside a politician's office greets a priest and a Buddhist nun.
Samuel Batt, an advisor for Liberal MP Warren Entsch, meets with Father Neil Forgie and Venerable Rinchen Kelly.(Supplied: ARRCC)

She believes too many religious leaders are too close to conservative politicians and more concerned about rituals than morals.

“They’re not really living out the values ​​and teachingings of the faith that they purport to champion,” she says.

“The moral leadership is coming from secular people, the environment movement. They’re speaking out for the moral positions that should be championed most strongly by people of faith.”

A cause uniting Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim leaders

Joel Lazar, the chief executive of the Jewish Climate Network says a key role of the religious leader is to reach into their religion’s wisdom to inspire the community to embody the values ​​of that religion.

“The prophets of the Old Testament knew this well and were constantly speaking out on critical social issues that, today, might be called ‘political’,” he says.

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