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Religion and Politics—A Good Mix?

By Peter Slavin

At Swarthmore’s baccalaureate ceremony in June, Professor of Religion Mark Wallace mentioned Mathew Louis-Rosenberg in the same breath as College co-founder Lucretia Mott, women’s suffragist Alice Paul (Class of 1905), and civil rights worker Ralph Roy ’50. He called them all “religious prophets,” singular Swarthmoreans who have resisted the evils of American society—slavery, male dominance, Jim Crow, and now mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” said Wallace, quoting a motto of the women’s rights movement.

In an interview, Wallace explained that religious prophets “put forth a moral vision … the moral call of their time” and “tap into the deep vein of American psychology that uses religious and moral language to motivate social change.” He put Louis-Rosenberg in this company “because he is putting his life and freedom on the line to advance the … cause of saving the planet.”

Wallace, whose 2005 book Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature explored the theological basis of modern environmentalism, said the use of civil disobedience by the environmental movement is but the latest turn in a time-honored American tradition. Unfortunately, he added, this tradition is under siege. Laws adopted just before and after 9/11, he says, “define environmental civil disobedience as domestic terrorism.” He notes that Massey Energy, which has labeled Louis-Rosenberg and his comrades “environmental terrorists,” is undoubtedly aware of these laws.

By contrast, he points to Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as individuals who mobilized religious symbols and ideas “to touch Americans at their core and motivate them to change social institutions.” Until similar figures employing religious language arise, he said, “the environmental movement will not be successful.”

Former Swarthmore political science professor Jeffrey Murer, now at St. Andrews University, Scotland, sees his friend Louis-Rosenberg through a personal and political lens. As a student, Murer observes, Louis-Rosenberg wanted to be “true to himself and his values in an uncompromising way” and “wanted to give of himself to fight for social justice.”

“Mat understood that politics is less about institutions and more about people,” Murer says. “That, in the end, people can make change even when it appears that the odds are against them.”

Murer says Louis-Rosenberg, unlike most of his peers, who saw government or large international NGOs as vehicles for change, wanted to work at the grassroots. “Mat understood intuitively that to make real change, to create modes of resistance to power or new loci of resistance … it must be at the micro-level. At the grassroots, big power, institutional establishment power, loses many of its tools.” For example, Murer says, it is not prepared to deal with outlandish tactics like tree-sitting.

The Climate Ground Zero campaign, he says, shows how a few highly motivated people like Louis-Rosenberg can resist a large company possessing money, political connections, and the means of intimidation. “This is the power of human action,” he says, “the power for change.”

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