Chautauqua denomination leaders weigh in on divestment movement

RUBY WALLAU | Staff Photographer
Ron Cole-Turner is chaplain-administrator for the United Church of Christ at Chautauqua.

Politicians, religious leaders and environmentalists are buzzing about Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, in which he addresses the “ecological crisis” and anthropogenic climate change.

But the pope is not the first religious figure to bring ecological issues, specifically climate change, into the religious realm.

Dozens of local and national religious organizations have committed to divesting their funds from fossil fuel companies in protest of the fossil-fuel industry, which they believe is responsible for climate change. Three national religious institutions with denominations at Chautauqua Institution — the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Episcopal Church, which just voted to divest on June 28 — are among those that have cut financial ties with fossil-fuels.

Divestment is the word given to the growing movement to remove assets from particular companies or industries for a political cause. In July 2013, the United Church of Christ became the first major religious body in the country to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Ron Cole-Turner is the chaplain-administrator for the United Church of Christ at Chautauqua and teaches theology and ethics at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He believes divestment is significant not because of the financial impact it has on the fossil-fuel industry, but because it is a symbolic statement against the consumption of fossil fuels as the climate continues to warm.

“I think what’s being said here is two things: One, we don’t want to be complicit in the promotion, marketing and increased dependence of fossil fuels, and two, we think there’s going to be a market shift, and we want to be out there leading that shift in the culture,” he said.

Most of the UCC’s money  is held in pension funds, Cole-Turner said, which concerns him as he is nearing retirement.

“It makes me feel better to be able to count on a retirement funded by alternatives, even if it means a little less money,” he said. “If it turns out to be very stupid economically to divest, I’ll take the hit. I’d rather not have that complicit feeling, should I live another 30 years and watch the world in which my grandchildren grow up change in climate. God forbid at that moment I sit there and say, ‘Well, at least I have my pension.’ ”

He believes shifting our economy away from fossil- fuels requires political will, much of which is beyond the power of churches alone.

“Churches are not the conscience of the nation the way we once were,” he said.

Cole-Turner praised Pope Francis’ statements on climate change, adding that the UCC has been trying to bring global concerns to the religious realm for some time. Continuing to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, he said, is immoral.

“It’s like saying to the creator, ‘We don’t care about your purpose for Earth. We want our fossil fuels, and we don’t care if the seas rise over the world’s poor who live in low-lying areas,’ ” he said. “To me, that gets right at the heart of sin.”

While the UCC and other religious institutions have divested from fossil fuels at the national level, this does not mean every local congregation has followed suit. But James Hubbard, a priest at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Clifford, Virginia, and a regular attendee of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at Chautauqua, said the Episcopal Church’s recent commitment to divestment will eventually impact local congregations.

“The decision was made in the Episcopal Church two weeks ago, and they got home on July 4. So all these things take a long time,” he said. “Part of the resolution was to encourage all diocese to engage in the topic of divestment and reinvestment [at the local level]. I would think a high percentage of them will take it very seriously.”

He feels the board at the Episcopal Cottage of Chautauqua should consider the mandate, as they have their own investment funds, even though they are small.

“Whether these fossil fuel companies pay attention to the total amount of money that’s diverted elsewhere is hard to say,” Hubbard said. “But the Episcopal Church pension fund is one of the largest pension funds in the country.”

The Rev. Alison Wohler is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst, Massachusetts, as well as a lifelong, fifth-generation Chautauquan. Before the Unitarian Universalist Association divested from fossil fuels in June 2014, Wohler’s congregation in Amherst divested its local fund.

Unitarian Universalists are guided by seven principles, according to Wohler.

“One of those is to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence,” she said. “Along those lines, especially given the threats of global warming, [divestment] is a statement, if not a financial nudge, to invest more of our money in renewable energy.”

Roger Doebke, the president of the UU Fellowship at Chautauqua, voiced concerns and counterarguments against the tactic of divestment.

“I’ve been involved with the financial world for a long time, and I think as a general rule the literature shows that selecting investments based on moral and ethics questions is not a very good investment strategy,” he said. “You should make the best investments you can to get the greatest returns for your organization.”

He also wondered whether divestment creates more antagonism than it is worth.

“The term divestiture means, ‘I’m getting rid of you,’ so that distances the parties. Is that what we want to do?” he asked. “The economic harm [to the industry] it will do is none — church organizations, in general, are not mega-investors. I think it’s problematic as to whether or not it actually helps the conversation.”

The divestment movement has spread to colleges, cities and even countries, as Norway divested its pension fund from coal companies in June. Wohler, who preached about divestment and environmental issues last summer at Chautauqua, believes the movement has gained popularity because it has been used to further social movements in the past, notably in the 1980s with the South African apartheid divestment movement.

She said the topic of divestment could be perceived as offensive because it involves personal finances, but she feels the issue is not only financial, but also moral.

“Personally, I would say your financial decisions should be led by your moral perspectives,” she said. “In many aspects of our lives, we can take a moral stand. Will it make a difference? Maybe not, but it counts to me in my conscience.”