In the winter of 2017, CSCS worked to establish a baseline understanding of its various constituents’ beliefs regarding sustainability. climate change, and creation care.This data-driven foundation is designed to help inform the use of resources and assist in measuring progress towards the goals of advancing thinking and action toward climate change mitigation in faith communities. In seeking to describe Mennonite attitudes and behaviors toward environmental issues we find clear segmentation among the study population. These groups within the denomination are polarized along many dimensions but hold some surprising similarities that may be leveraged in the future. We briefly describe the methodology behind the survey and summarize some key findings before concluding with some direction for future discussion.
We emailed the survey to 39,399 individuals from lists shared by Mennonite Central Committee, Goshen College, Eastern Mennonite University. We were pleased to have a response rate of 19 percent (7,294 individuals), considering that response rates are a common challenge with the mailing technique used. About half of those who responded came through the list from MCC. Included in our sampling frame was a list of credentialed leaders from Mennonite Church USA who received a small incentive to participate in the survey. The response rate of the pastors was higher than the general population at around 30 percent.
We weighted the survey data in order to address part of the under-representation of some regional conferences and more conservative communities. We sought to adjust for this sampling bias with the understanding that beliefs about climate change are highly correlated with political orientation. With weighting in place, our survey data was representative of Mennonites along the political spectrum according to previous survey results (Conrad Kanagy, Church Member Profile, 2006). Weighted results showed 19 percent of respondents identifying as liberal, 32 percent as moderate and 49 percent as conservative.
We incorporated the survey instrument developed by Yale and George Mason University to study the six segments of American attitudes toward climate change.(1) Among our respondents 31 percent fell into a category of people who are “alarmed” about climate change. This is in comparison to 18 percent of people in the U.S. who fall into this category. When we look specifically at respondents who identify as Mennonites the percentage is lower, at 20 percent. In comparison, only 16 percent of Mennonite pastors feel alarmed about climate change.
Mennonites are more likely to be alarmed than Baptists, Catholics or other Protestants.(2) Mennonites are also more likely to be “concerned” when compared to the general public (42 percent vs 34 percent). Mennonites who are “doubtful” or “dismissive” of climate change constitute 14 percent of the denomination. Baptists, Catholics, and other Protestants fall into these last categories at high percentages, at 35 percent, 20 percent, and 33 percent respectively. Of those Mennonites who do not believe that climate change is occurring, about one third are very sure or extremely sure that climate change is not happening. The 24 percent of Mennonites who are “cautious” or “disengaged” about climate change are most likely to feel unsure or only somewhat sure that climate change is happening.
Mennonites tend to be aware of environmental problems, whether they are perceived as related to climate change or not. As an example, about one out of every two Mennonites are concerned with the use of chemicals and pesticides as a problem facing the U.S. This concern occurs across segments and does not seem to be connected to a belief about climate change. Approximately one third of Mennonites identify air pollution and/or water pollution as a problem. About 22 percent of Mennonites perceive water shortage as an important issue. While the “alarmed” segment is more likely to be concerned about the depletion of natural resources, this group is less concerned than other segments about genetically modified foods and domestic waste.
Mennonites who are alarmed or concerned about climate change appear to behave in accordance with their beliefs. Of those Mennonites, upwards of 80 percent try to reduce energy use in their homes for environmental reasons. This is not the only reason behind their behavior, however. Of the alarmed, 70 percent report that they reduce energy in order to save money and 40 percent continue the practice as part of their upbringing. Similarly, dismissive Mennonites also reduce energy to save money (88 percent) and/or were raised to make such choices (30 percent). This finding points to the value of frugality often associated with Mennonite consumption patterns.
Additional statistics point to a cultural force affecting environmentally-related behaviors among Mennonites. More than half of Mennonites consider it very important or extremely important to live a simple life. Again, behavior corresponds with belief in the finding that two-thirds of Mennonites have composted kitchen waste in the past year. In a related question, 55 percent of Mennonites indicate that they grow their own food and/or buy food at a farmers market. Food systems are known to be intertwined with environmental issues. Considering the behaviors and beliefs around food, this is potentially one area where Mennonites might find some shared values across the political spectrum.
Mennonites differ in their opinion about whether the mission of the church should include environmental issues. More than 70 percent of Mennonites agree that caring for the earth should be an essential part of the mission of the church. This level of agreement, however, varies according to segment and ranges from 75 percent of the alarmed category to 6 percent of the dismissive. Of the dismissive, the majority disagree that earth care is an essential part of the mission.
When we narrow our questions about earth care and the church, there is less clarity about the way these beliefs are linked. In general, Mennonites are more comfortable with solutions that occur at an individual level. This is apparent in the hesitancy that even the most alarmed Mennonites feel about the role of the church in influencing government. Only 42 percent of this segment strongly agrees with this type of church involvement in secular politics. More than half of alarmed Mennonites (59 percent) agree that the congregation should press to have the issue preached from the pulpit but the most agreeable approach (77 percent) involves congregants studying up on environmental issues themselves.
The finding about preferred approaches has important implications for programming. Mennonites appear to be less receptive to pulpit-based messaging and more receptive to individual or small group education as a mechanism of change. At the same time, Mennonites for the most part are supportive of the Creation Care resolution passed by the delegate assembly at the Mennonite convention in 2013. The resolution references articles from the denomination’s official Confession of Faith. As expected, the less concerned segments tend to be less supportive of this movement by the institutional church and there is notable variation in opinion about particular articles.
We make an important observation when it comes to the openness among Mennonites to new information and more involvement. Among those who are alarmed about climate change, 90 percent indicate an interest in learning more about the environment and conserving resources. The level of interest drops to 22 percent for the dismissive, although that still constitutes a quarter of this segment. In a related question we find that the majority of Mennonites (68 percent) are not familiar with the Mennonite Creation Care Network of green congregations and the resources that it can provide, particularly in terms of curriculum. There appears to be considerable opportunity to connect congregants with structures that have already been established in the denomination.
Outside of the church context, Mennonites indicate a strong willingness to take action on issues, at least at certain levels. Among Mennonites, 78 percent plan to donate money to charitable organizations in the coming year. This expectation holds true no matter the individual’s perspective on climate change. Upwards of 75 percent of Mennonites also report that it is likely they will vote in an election, with the disengaged group indicating the least likelihood at 57 percent. The alarmed category is most willing to consider less conventional social action, with more than half likely to sign a petition, contact an elected official and attend a demonstration.
In summary, Mennonites provide a fascinating case study of environmental attitudes and behaviors. Findings about some of the nuances and complexities involving this religious group is likely to benefit a much larger population that is seeking to understand the differing motivation levels related to climate change behavior. The Center, in the meantime, has some opportunities to grow into. One question involves which of the segments to focus on, considering the divergent perspectives among Mennonites. What strengths do our institutions bring that might engage particular categories of people in the church? Other decisions involve choices about channels of disseminating information, levels of organization and social action tactics, and Mennonite and non-Mennonite stakeholders who can help us live into our mission.
(1) See A. Leiserowitz, E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, and N. Smith. , ‘Global Warming’s Six Americas’, (New Haven, CT: Yale University and George Mason University, May 2011) and E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, and A. Leiserowitz, ‘Global Warming’s Six Americas: An Audience Segmentation’, Yale University and George Mason University, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. (2009).
(2) ‘Faith, Morality & the Environment’ – Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.