I was struck by a powerful exposition from Barrett Duke, Ph.D., vice president of public policy for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In his recently posted paper, titled " 10 Biblical Truths About Animals," Dr. Duke tells us "God created each and every life" and describes animals as "co-inheritors with us of the new creation."
"Animals are much more complex than they at first appear to be," he wrote. "We should do all we can to better understand them and their place in God's creation. It will not only be good for them, but us as well."
Voices like Dr. Duke's are extremely important to our movement: the ERLC engages in public policy on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant religion in the United States, with over 16 million members in over 46,000 churches. Recently, the ERLC, which is headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., issued an endorsement for a Tennessee bill that raises penalties for spectators at an animal fight and for bringing a minor to an animal fighting spectacle.
I spoke to Dr. Duke about the long-standing Christian tradition of concerns about the humane treatment of animals, and the ways in which people of faith can embrace an awareness of animals in their day to day lives. It's part of my commitment, and that of The HSUS, to integrate – or to reintegrate –other voices and perspectives within the humane movement.
Q: Dr. Duke, we first connected on the issue of fighting dogfighting and cockfighting. What was notable about that issue that prompted you to get involved in advocating for animals?
As I consider issues to address, I start by asking how the Bible would guide me to think about them. In these particular instances, it was quite obvious that the Bible's teachings about God's ownership of all creation included a responsibility to be a good steward of animals. Animals belong to God. He has allowed humans to subjugate and even to consume them, but that does not include wanton abuse. They are not here for us to treat them any way we desire. They deserve respect and humane treatment. Dogfighting and cockfighting are the polar opposite of that biblical vision.
Q: Even though major conservative thought leaders have consistently weighed in on animal protection for the last 180 years – from the evangelical British leader William Wilberforce to the writer C.S. Lewis to the columnist George Will – there has been a view on the right that animal welfare is a liberal cause. What is the sort of approach on animal welfare that puts conservatives more at ease?
My commitment to allow the Bible to dictate my positions on policy is what leads me to be a conservative. My answer to this question may be different from one given by a conservative without that pre-disposition. But, I would start by saying that conservatives take a hierarchical view of creation. I believe that all of creation is deserving of care and ethical treatment, but that does not mean that everything has equal value. I believe people are more valuable than animals. This doesn't mean animals have no value, but it does mean that I do not believe that we sacrifice human needs to protect animals. There is no moral equivalence between care for animals and care for humans. So, that means I can support the ethical use of animals to advance legitimate human needs, but it doesn't mean that I am free to use animals for anything. To engage conservatives in animal care, you must maintain this distinction. Another important factor for me, and I believe for most conservatives, is the importance of justice. I am appalled by bullies. Anyone who preys on the weak for their own personal gratification, whether they are abusing people or animals, has taken privileges with the lives of others that offend me. I believe justice requires that those who have the ability to stop predatory behavior on others have the responsibility to do so.
Q: Some philosophers who are animal protection adherents have argued that religion – by placing humans in a special category and animals below humans – was the cause of problems for animals, and enabled practices from animal fighting to bullfighting to more modern practices such as factory farming to gain acceptance. I don't think this helped much in our outreach to faith-based people. At The HSUS, we've long argued that Christian traditions require benevolence to animals, and that we were not inventing a faith-based concern, but just highlighting it, and that faith-based values should never lead someone to accept inhumane treatment of any animal. In your piece, you note that God created the animals and declared them "good." I'd like to get your reaction.
I don't believe it's possible to take the entire biblical revelation into consideration and argue that God condones the harming of animals for human pleasure or some of the more abusive practices employed today in factory farming. As you note, Christianity has a long history of care for animals. People who cite Bible passages in their abuse of animals are looking for justification for their actions. They are not being guided by the full biblical teaching. People have been mistreating animals for millennia, and they haven't always been Christians. The abuse of animals is not a religiously driven practice. It is a heart driven practice. It seems more appropriate to say that religious faith has led to a greater appreciation for and respect for animals, rather than abuse. Most, if not all, religious traditions, have official statements calling for the ethical treatment of animals. I don't know of any official religious statements that declare the abuse of animals is acceptable.
Q: What can faith-based people do in their daily lives to reflect a conscious awareness of animals?
As with all human activity, relationships change attitudes. I would encourage people of faith to spend some time around animals, either by sharing their home with an animal, volunteering to help at a local animal shelter, or some other activity that brings them face-to-face with animals. Once they do that, they will never think of them in the abstract again. Further, I would encourage them to ask God to help them see the animals that are all around them every day. We can't function in this world without our animal co-inhabitants, yet we so often are oblivious to their presence. Also, I would encourage them to consider afresh the marvelous gift of life, not only theirs, but of all living creatures. They should remember that God created each and every life. We may not understand its purpose, but it's not always for us to know. It should be no small thing to us that any living creature would cease to exist. No matter how simple its life or how unaware it is of the world around it, there is a vast chasm between life and death for every living thing. People of faith should seek to see that gift of life in all living things as they go about their busy lives.