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October 20, 2011

Faithful Following, Part 2: A New Generation of Disciples

The HSUS's Faith Outreach Campaign brings the message of animal advocacy to an audience of believers

All Animals magazine

  • Chad Sisneros/The HSUS.

by Karen E. Lange

In 1955, during the first annual report to the members of what was then The National Humane Society, chairman of the board Robert J. Chenoweth spoke in religious terms. “Our faith is that there is a God who created all things and put us here on earth to live together. Our creed is that love and compassion are due from the strong to the weak. … If we hold this faith, and accept this creed, we are morally bound to be teachers and preachers and evangelists.”

More than a half century later, The HSUS is being welcomed by the people in America best known for changing hearts and minds: the country’s faith communities, particularly of late the country’s large and growing conservative churches. After hosting a summit of religious leaders in late 2010, The HSUS was finally invited to present at the annual Q (“questions”) conference, where some of the most innovative and influential evangelical Christians meet to exchange ideas and set the agenda for megachurches and nonprofits alike. They’re conservative theologically but progressive and pragmatic when it comes to social issues. Gutleben has been nervously awaiting this opportunity, all the more anxious because Pacelle is in the middle of a nationwide book tour and makes it to this year’s conference venue in Portland, Ore., 10 minutes before their scheduled speech. They will have just 18 minutes, the maximum allowed any topic, to make their case. “This is our one chance,” says Gutleben, who rose at 6 to prepare. “So we better get it right.”

The 650 or so people at Q are overwhelmingly young (average age 35) and white, disproportionately male. The dress is casual but deliberately hip: stonewashed jeans, carefully chosen button-down shirts and Ts, hair cut short but fashionable—or shaved off, with a few trendy beards. Everyone is turned to their smartphones and tablets typing. The speeches take place in the Crystal Ballroom, an old dance hall hung with chandeliers and usually filled with fans of indie bands. One floor below, the leading minds and voices of the evangelical movement—religion writer Tom Krattenmaker calls them its “next generation”—gather in booths and lounge at tables, chatting in front of a big screen TV broadcasting the talks. There’s free coffee at a table in the back. Fair trade. Shade grown. The conference program is glossy on thick paper with cutting-edge design. It shouts high production value. There is palpable excitement—that the people gathered here can change the world. Their faith demands it. And even from a worldly perspective (after all, they represent some of the country’s biggest churches and some of the most important new conservative Christian organizations), it’s easy to believe they just might. If you go for parables—and the people gathered here could summon this one up from memory, Bibles shut—these are the followers bestowed with many talents, gifts of intellect and creativity and drive and a high-enough socioeconomic status to afford the $825 conference tickets (plus airfare, lodging, and meals). It’s not like they can just kick back.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. (Luke 12:48)

Gutleben and Pacelle invoke the names of people highly respected in evangelical circles: 19th-century reformer William Wilberforce, who took on animal cruelty along with slavery and a host of other evils; 20th-century scholar and writer C.S. Lewis, who grappled with God’s and humankind’s relationship with animals. It’s essential to show that animal welfare is not some novel or peripheral concern for Christians. There’s no telling how it will go. Q is about big issues—huge ones. Poverty and human trafficking and Muslim-Christian relationships, the future of the church in what the people in this room see as a post-Christian society. For the most part, human issues. And here are Pacelle and Gutleben up on stage talking about animals—the kind a lot of people eat for dinner.

“We can choose to be abusive or exploitative,” says Pacelle, “or we can choose to act with decency and mercy. ... Christians and people of conscience and values are the ones who have to be at the forefront of [the humane] effort.”

It’s an enlightening moment for many audience members—when they think about it, they say, it makes sense. And there are already vegetarians in the audience, stirred by compassion if not what was preached from the pulpit to change their way of eating. Long a proponent of more humane treatment of animals raised for food, The HSUS has spent years documenting the pervasive abuses in factory farms. The images Pacelle and Gutleben share are disturbing: a downed cow pushed around by a forklift, pigs jolted with electric prods, a veal calf tied at the neck in a tiny pen, hens jammed into small cages. One man says he can’t watch. Others turn away or cry. But no one disbelieves. No one says this isn’t the type of thing they should be showing at Q. Quite the opposite.

“I’ve never heard that before in a Christian forum,” Jeremy Jones tells Gutleben afterward. “... [People] don’t want to think about it. ... [But] if you’re going to be willing to eat it, you need to be able to engage this life you’re taking.”

Jones’s wife is from South Dakota. Recently they went back and saw how farming there had changed: In place of rotated crops, there was corn as far as the eye could see, an unnatural and environmentally destructive monoculture made possible by the heavy application of chemicals. “In one generation, [look] how far removed we are from what God gave us,” says Jones. “We as Christians let this go down.”

Part 3: Creed of Compassion »

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