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Animal Welfare and The Church by Christine Gutleben

Recently, at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission office of the Southern Baptist Convention in Washington, D.C., Christian leaders met with The Humane Society of the United States to discuss how to enlist Southern Baptists in the campaign against cockfighting.

Cockfighting pits roosters against each other in fights to the death while spectators bet. Several states have weak laws against cockfighting and are magnets for the bloodsport, which can attract thousands of people and have purses in the tens of thousands of dollars. Creating stricter penalties is an obvious answer, of course, but anti-cockfighting bills are repeatedly bottled up by legislators who give in to the pressure of this network of cockfighting profiteers. This year, a lobbyist hired to represent a cockfighting front group in Alabama was none other than Ken Guin, former Alabama House Majority leader.

Facing such political challenges, my colleague, John Goodwin, and I were pleased to attend the meeting in Washington with Barrett Duke, Ph.D., vice president of public policy for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council in South Carolina. PFC is an affiliate of Focus on the Family and publisher of the booklet, Dominion and Stewardship: A Biblical View of Animals. Both Duke and Smith see cockfighting as cruel and morally wrong, and both want to end the practice.

Christians Care about Animals

Cockfighting is just one of the many issues The HSUS addresses in order to reduce suffering and improve the lives of all animals, from wildlife to companion animals to farm animals. But our meeting with Duke and Smith illustrates what we find over and over again: Christians—including conservatives, evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics—overwhelmingly care about animals.

In two separate studies commissioned by The HSUS, Barna Group—a leading research organization focused on the intersection of faith and culture—found that 77 percent of Christians believe that animals deserve humane treatment; nearly 80 percent believe that confining animals in cages and crates on factory farms is cruel; and 80 percent of evangelical parishioners are interested in what the Bible says about animals.

What is more, we find that religious leaders and communities across the United States are developing ministries and programs to help animals and the people who love them. Two years ago, I came upon Church of the King in Mandeville, La. The non-denominational mega-church was offering free pet exams and vaccines along with medical and dental services for low-income community members. The longest lines were those to see the volunteer veterinarian, John Mauterer, D.V.M. People waited several hours in the summer heat to get their pets vaccinated.

Executive Pastor Randy Craighead commented, “For some people, their pets are all they have, and seeing the animals receive treatment means everything to them…Indeed, when we care for animals, we care for people. When we dismiss or ignore animals, we miss a significant aspect of what it means to be human.”

McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., the largest church in the Washington, D.C. metro area, has an animal therapy program, Paws4Hearts, which brings animals to visit the sick and elderly. The church’s description of the program emphasizes a core belief: “People and animals matter to God.”

The Rock Church in San Diego, Calif. has a Dog Lovers Ministry “to help dogs in need.” Dorchester Presbyterian Church in Summerville, S.C., has a 42-acre wildlife sanctuary and Pastor Dorothy Taylor Blackwelder believes that the outdoor space allows people “… to be reminded of God’s awesome power and creativity in creation.”

The list of animal ministries across the country goes on, including Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, Pa., which encourages humane food choices at all congregational meals and collects pet food during traditional food drives to donate to local shelters.

Animal Protection Ministries

In response to this growing area of ministry, The HSUS recently published Animal Protection Ministries: A Guide for Churches and is developing an online database of churches that include animals in their ministry efforts.

While animal ministries are spreading, the subject is yet to be universally addressed from the pulpit. We learned from Barna Group that in the last two years 31 percent of evangelical pastors and 37 percent of all pastors have preached on the subject of creation, including animals.

Still, there is a growing awareness that how we treat animals is a measure of our own humanity—that violence inflicted on animals is inexorably linked to human-against-human violence, that compassion is a big enough idea to encompass animals as well as humans.

“That animals have worth and dignity,” writes Ted Olson, managing editor of news and online journalism for Christianity Today, is “something plainly assumed in Biblical passages like Exodus 21-22:14 and Deuteronomy 25, which outline upright ways to handle livestock, and Proverbs 12:10, which praises the righteous man who ‘cares for the needs of his animal.’”

It seems the growing prevalence of animal ministries is also a sign that the issue is acknowledged by church communities and that pastors support ways their congregation can reduce animal suffering and involve animals in the life of the church.

Partnerships for the Future

In the months ahead, The HSUS will host a second annual summit meeting of religious leaders. This year religious authors and scholars, mega-church pastors, CEOs of faith-based companies and executives of national faith-based organizations will join us in Washington, D.C. We will discuss numerous issues, from factory farming to species extinction to cockfighting, and will reflect on our call to proper dominion and care for God’s creation.

This gathering of major faith leaders and animal advocates is the kind of coming-together that is necessary to combat animal abuse on a national scale. It is also a reflection of mainstream religious values and the kind of partnership initiative we will certainly see more of in the future.