From the earliest days of the
Puritans, the animalwelfare movement in America, like so many other
movements of liberation and social reform, was driven by people of
But in our own time, mainstream
religion has tended to ignore our fellow creatures.
In our continuing series about
animals in religion, Best Friends executive director Paul Berry, who
grew up in the evangelical Christian tradition, argues that it’s time
for the church to recapture the initiative and treat kindness to animals
as one of the moral imperatives of our time.
When I was four years old, I saw someone do the unthinkable –
something so wrong that I blocked it from my memory until my brother
reminded me about it years later.
We were at our house in New Orleans, playing under the carport with
some puppies our dog had just had. She was a street dog, a sweet stray
we’d named Skipper.
A man and a woman were arguing nearby.
Visibly angry, the man got in his car and sped down the driveway.
My brother and I screamed, “Don’t go yet! Don’t go yet!”
But the man was upset and mad, and he went anyway. He knowingly ran
over three of the puppies.
That man was my father.
He was a troubled individual, and I’ve long since forgiven him.
But such displays of rage and violence are scattered throughout my
Thanks to my mother, I don’t look back on my youth with any grief or
sadness. She did a good job of making us kids feel safe and loved. A
devout Christian woman, she introduced us to faith and prayer as a
refuge for our struggling family. She upheld the life of Jesus as the
ideal role model: courageous, kind and merciful.
Mercy and nonviolence came naturally to us kids. My brother, sisters
and I were always bringing home some lost pet or other.
Seems we always had a house full of animals, and everyone was
considered part of the family.
We were raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, and Sunday
was reserved for church and family. If we missed going to church, Mom
would make us all watch a church service on TV. Her favorite preachers
were Oral Roberts and Robert Schuler. I liked Oral Roberts because he
always began his service by saying, “Something good is going to happen
to you.” We all needed to hear that. But Robert Schuler was my favorite.
With his booming voice and theatrical flair, he’d say audacious things
like “Every problem is a possibility
in disguise” and “Every person is a gold mine of hidden possibilities!”
He was fun to watch, but he also had an empowering message
of hope and personal transformation. And being my father’s son, I needed
to believe I could find goodness in myself.
With all the spiritual influences around me, I came to believe
that you could create that goodness in yourself by doing good in the
world – caring for all that God has given us: the animals, the Earth,
and each other.
But I can’t say church leaders helped shape my reverence and
respect for animals and nature. That was personal.
“ We’re all
born with an innate sense
of reverence for animals and nature that
the church should be fostering.”
Nature and nurture
Today, with kids of my own, I’m convinced that we’re all born with an
innate sense of reverence and responsibility for animals and the earth;
kids just need reassurance from their parents and role models.
It’s also clear that the concept of caring for all of nature is becoming
more and more a concern for people all over the country, regardless of
their faith or philosophy.
Last summer, when Best Friends commissioned a nationwide
poll, we discovered that 89 percent of Americans agree that “we have a
moral obligation to protect the animals in our care.”
That’s an astounding consensus. But how does it relate to people of
In an informal survey of Best Friends members following the national
poll, we asked them what their churches, temples and synagogues are
talking about with respect to animals and morality, and how their
religious leaders are teaching their congregations to act on those.
The answer: Beyond the human species – ourselves – God’s
creation is barely talked about at all.
So if this moral obligation toward our fellow
creatures is such a core moral value for people, why isn’t it upheld by
The evangelical movement prides itself on taking
strong positions on moral issues. And congregations look to their
churches for leadership. But the churches aren’t setting much of an
example on the subject of kindness to animals.
So is it any surprise that we’re not seeing much
follow-through from the congregations?
For myself, I long ago gave up even expecting to hear
anything meaningful from the pulpit about the importance of protecting
And many people I used to go to church with and still
up with occasionally tell me the same thing. We want our children to
grow up in the church, but we want it to address all aspects of moral
And if most of us are indeed born with an innate,
sense of moral responsibility, then surely it is the church’s business
to foster this responsibility and remind us of it into our adulthood.
Instead, it all gets lost along the way.
Worse, many of our members told us, their churches
have become so politically organized, so focused on narrow wedge
issues, that they have pretty much lost sight of the big picture stuff –
universal kindness, compassion, mercy and nonviolence.
So it should come as no surprise that when the
churches start leaving their congregations, the congregations start
leaving the churches. The Washington Post reported last summer that
since 2000, more than 20 million Americans have left traditional
churches to explore alternative venues of worship, including home
churches, workplace ministries and online faith communities. And in
early October, the New York Times reported that evangelical Christian
leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the
faith in droves.
“Inasmuch as you have done it to the least
of these …”
The founders of Christianity had a bold vision for a
church built on the Golden Rule as spelled out in the Beatitudes.
But with so much of its focus on issues that have more
to do with Caesar than with God, much of the church that I grew up in
has lost its sense of divine mission.
That mission should be to care for all creation: the
the Earth and each other. And if more Christians demanded that level of
moral scope of their leaders, the church would be out in front on causes
that relate to the animals and nature, ranging from environmental
protection to animal welfare.
Just for starters, we should be demanding no-kill
homeless animals in our communities. And we should be fighting against
the fur trade, factory farming and sport hunting, too. Those are
profoundly immoral and sinful enterprises – meaning that they are about
inflicting suffering and death upon God’s creatures in pursuit of
nothing more than human vanity, profit and entertainment.
But there’s not nearly enough discussion in church on
these issues, and certainly not enough encouragement to go out into
society and campaign against such injustices.
People want to have those meaningful conversations.
But in the follow-up to our national survey last year, we learned that
most people of faith who are practicing compassion for animals are doing
it in spite of the message they get from their religious institutions.
Reclaiming the agenda
In the last few years, many advances for animals have
made in the political arena. And much of that progress has been driven
by the animal rights movement. As a result, Congress and local
politicians are increasingly sensitive to the concerns of people who
care about animals.
But meanwhile, the churches continue to treat concern
for animals as a non-issue. Worse yet, the world of animal “rights” is
often shunned by the evangelical movement as being “liberal” – even
It may be true that some of the early adopters of the
animal rights movement were non-religious – in some cases, even
anti-religious. But much of that has to be seen in the light of the
shocking lack of interest from the churches.
The truth is that the modern animal rights movement
takes its inspiration from a great tradition of social reform that
encompasses the history of this nation, from the Puritans to Martin
Luther King, Jr. In 1641, for example, section 92 of the Body of
Liberties adopted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony stated, “No man shall
exercise any Tyrranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are
usuallie kept for man’s use.”
And in 1776, when the founding fathers of our country
engaged in declaring that “all men are … endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness,” the Anglican minister Rev. Humphrey Primatt
published his Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty
to Brute Animals, in which he wrote:
“Pain is pain, whether it is inflicted on man or on
beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being
sensible of the misery of it whilst it lasts, suffers Evil …
“We may pretend to what religion we please, but
cruelty is atheism.
“We may boast of Christianity, but cruelty is
“We may trust our orthodoxy, but cruelty is the
worst of heresies.”
Certainly, in our own time, there are voices in a
wilderness, speaking out for kindness to animals from a faith-based
perspective. One who captured the public attention in 2002 was Matthew
Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, who left the
White House to write Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of
Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A practicing Catholic, Scully says that
“It is usually best in any moral inquiry to start with the original
motivation, which in the case of animals we may without embarrassment
More than ever, it’s time for people of faith to take
ownership of the animal cause – if not necessarily as an issue of
“rights,” then certainly as one of core spiritual values: kindness,
compassion, mercy, nonviolence and love.
For many of us, it is easier to promote rational
animal justice. But, in the final analysis, our motivation is about
something entirely irrational: love. We love them as our family, and
they love us back unconditionally.
Is there any cause more noble for the Christian than
to honor the blessing of love in this life?
You can join the continuing discussion at