The question of whether religion has been more of a force for good or evil is, like hell, eternally hot. Blessed are those who blaspheme, for their books shall inherit the best-seller lists. Just ask Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, who all come down firmly on the side of reason, to the dismay of tooth fairy fans, Santa supporters and faith-based followers of other dubious deities.

I would love to believe there’s a God, particularly a benign, compassionate God who wants only the best for all his children and our fellow creatures. But there are a whole bunch of different Gods running around out there, each with his or her own cult following, and some of them seem, quite frankly, to be rather hostile or downright hateful. Like the God pastor Fred Phelps’ worships, who “hates fags.” What the hell kind of a God is that? Then there’s that Allah who apparently advocates blowing people to smithereens. I think I’ll stick with the Reverend Billy and Buddha, thank you very much.

Some Christians are convinced the impending Rapture renders conservation entirely unnecessary. Conservation for whom? For us godless Left Behind lefties? As Ronald Reagan’s enRaptured Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, told Congress, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” So it made perfect sense to Watt to propose that we open all 80 million acres of undeveloped land in the United States for drilling and mining by the year 2000.

But there are a growing number of evangelicals and other religious types who don’t think it’s our God-given right to plunder our God-given resources. And now, according to an article in today’s New York Times, people of faith are beginning to rethink our food chain, too:

Christians, Jews and Muslims who see food through a moral lens are increasingly organized and focused on showing their strength. The Religious Working Group on the Farm Bill, a national coalition of more than a dozen religious organizations, is lobbying Congress for legislation to help small farms. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference is helping congregations and universities in the Midwest buy local produce from family farmers.

Environment-minded Jews are asking the leaders of Conservative Judaism to rewrite their kosher certification rules to incorporate ethical concerns about workers, animals and the land. Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization, has set up community-supported agriculture programs, or C.S.A.’s, in which customers purchase shares of a farm’s harvest.

“This is the first time I have seen such a deep and growing involvement of the faith community,” said Brother David Andrews, who is on sabbatical from his job as executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and has followed these kinds of issues for 30 years.

If this nascent cause was taken up by large numbers of churches and synagogues, the economic effect alone could be profound. “The religious movement is a huge force,” said Arlin S. Wasserman, the founder of Changing Tastes, a consulting firm in St. Paul that advises food companies and philanthropic organizations on trends in food and agriculture. “Already, religious institutions oversee the production of $250 billion per year in food if you bundle together halal, kosher, and institutional buying.

Does this groundswell of spiritual support for sustainable agriculture and compassionate consumption represent a sea change?

“Food and the environment is the civil rights movement for people under the age of 40,” said the Rev. John Wimberly, pastor of the Western Presbyterian Church in Washington.

Hallelujah! I’m about as fond of organized religion as I am of organized sports, but if these folks are going to cast their lot with us secular proselytizers on behalf of pasture-based agriculture, all I can say to Rev. Wimberley is this--from your lips to God’s ear.

hmm ...

If you really think that reason is necessarily opposed to faith, it might be helpful to take a look at Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonedes, Averroes, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Newman, Kierkegaard, Tillich, Levinas, ... uh, just about anyone in the long theological traditions of all the major religions, before you start writing them off. And, as for religion's necessary opposition to the environment, perhaps we should follow the example of the most famous atheist countries, like China, the USSR, and its satellites?


This can't be a bad thing.

After all, if you look at the history of religious food practices, most of them evolved for practical reasons. Bans on pork, for example, came about at a time when pork was highly prized food whose cost (use of scarce resources, risk of trichinosis) was too high to be practical. Kosher and halal rules are aimed somewhat at making animal slaughter as humane as possible, and somewhat at preventing food-borne diseases in an age before refrigeration. There are practical reasons for God to lay down Her culinary laws, you know? (Huston Smith's classic "The World's Religions" gets into this a little, if I remember correctly.)

Not that I'm expecting any organic-food guidelines to be handed down from on high, but it's nice to think that religion and gastronomy are continuing to co-evolve in ways that might benefit humanity.