WASHINGTON, April 29, 2015 – Without much fanfare, the Humane Society of the U.S. in January announced the creation of a “Faith Advisory Council” of academics and leaders of several religious denominations, tasked with “reminding people to be responsible stewards and caretakers of God's creation.” Last month, the effort was expanded by recruiting “faith outreach volunteers” who will, HSUS says, “help bring to light the moral issues of how our society treats animals.”
The campaign is not new for the animal rights activist lobby but appears to represent a formalization of long-standing HSUS attempts to push its message in the religious sphere. “We noticed this about five years ago,” says Kay Johnson Smith, CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a food industry ally. With a staff member assigned specifically to animals and religion, Johnson Smith sees “a huge push by HSUS to get the conversation on animal care into Sunday morning sermons.”
Although most of the effort has been focused on “mainline” Protestant denominations perceived to be liberal, HSUS appears to be making inroads in more conservative evangelical areas. The Washington Post reported this month that several evangelical leaders plan to release a statement on animal ethics in October, “seeking to change attitudes about issues like factory farms.”
HSUS “has worked with Christian leaders in crafting a statement that evangelicals from differing theological perspectives could sign onto,” the Post reported. One participant, Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior, is a member of the HSUS Faith Advisory Council. She is quoted as telling a recent meeting of evangelical women, “We have to prick the conscience on factory farming, so we have to say the economy of the country be damned, this has to stop.”
The faith outreach also offers HSUS “a big fundraising opportunity,” Johnson Smith says “People of faith tend to be compassionate and empathetic to pain and suffering. People of faith tend to be the biggest donors. They give more money than people not affiliated with formal religion.” HSUS excels at raising money; its annual report discloses revenue of $186,145,633 last year, the bulk of it from “contributions and grants,” and expenses of $182,996,902.
Another instance of HSUS influence on a religious organization was uncovered last year by Prairie Farmer magazine. An Illinois conference of the United Methodist Church adopted a resolution stating, in part, that “factory farms have reduced animals to commodities with cruel practices of animal husbandry.”
Wes Jamison, a professor of public relations at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida who has studied animal rights movement tactics, told the magazine that HSUS has had its eye on churches for a long time. “Their desire to shift religious views is a long-term commitment,” he says. “It’s a slow, steady slog of trying to pick off churches and denominations that have taken a non-literal view of the scriptures, or a more liberal interpretation of the scripture.”
Outreach to the religious community is similar to HSUS programs that seek to influence agricultural policy and education. After hiring former Missouri lieutenant governor Joe Maxwell as vice president for outreach and engagement in 2011, HSUS has created 10 state-level “agriculture councils” to work with state Humane Society directors. Members of the HSUS state groups are small-scale or organic farmers or their advocates, Johnson Smith points out.
The Animal Agriculture Alliance has identified “another big picture item” HSUS is pushing. “You don’t hear a lot in the public or media, but conversations are taking place with departments of education, trying to get humane care of animals part of the curriculum in school systems, much like environmental issues became part of mainstream education,” Johnson Smith said.
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