The problem with
global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”
The term turns people
off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex
scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions
conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm
Instead of grim
warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating
atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from
the dirty fuels of the past.” Don't confuse people with cap and trade; use
terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”
EcoAmerica has been
conducting research for the past several years to find new ways to frame
environmental issues and so build public support for climate-change legislation
and other initiatives. A summary of the group's latest findings and
recommendations was accidentally sent by e-mail to a number of news
organizations by someone who sat in on a briefing intended for government
officials and environmental leaders.
When I read that in my Saturday morning Union-Tribune, I
thought… “this ought to be good.” The article continued:
consistently rate near the bottom of public worry, according to many public
opinion polls. A Pew Research Center poll released in January found that global
warming came in last among 20 voter concerns; it trailed issues such as
addressing moral decline and reducing the influence of lobbyists.
“We know why it's
lowest,” said Perkowitz, a marketer of outdoor clothing and home furnishings before
he started ecoAmerica, whose activities are financed by corporations,
foundations and individuals. “When someone thinks of global warming, they think
of a politicized, polarized argument. When you say 'global warming,' a certain
group of Americans think that's a code word for progressive liberals, gay
marriage and other such issues.
“It's the terms we're using that are holding us back with the American
people,” he added.
The answer, Perkowitz
said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using
different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the
dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more
In fact, the group's
surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment”
and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”
“Pollution reduction refund?” This got me thinking about
language and its use in church and world.
Some thoughts—none of which are oriented toward the issue of
climate change whatsoever. These have to do with the power and use of language:
Changing language does not change issues themselves. It can help us
talk about them more constructively, and has the power to illuminate, color, or
darken virtually any given situation. All of these may be appropriate at
different times. However, if the language we use isn’t accurate, misleads, or skews
reality—language can lead people to make decisions and support things they
wouldn’t have if something more objective and clear—even more accurate–were
presented to them.
This is a good word of warning for preachers and church
leaders. Using hopeful language is good. Using rich vocabulary is good.
However, we must always be clear and accurate in what we say so that people
will know and believe that we are telling them the truth to the best of our
ability. It is the truth that sets us free, after all. So does telling the
We shouldn’t be unfair to the aforementioned climate change
spinsters–spinsters exist everywhere, in virtually every field and from every
side of the political spectrum. They even exist in Christianity…gasp. Christian
spin, like other forms, is usually rooted in a “means justify the ends”
mentality. For instance, some say, “if people have a negative view of Christianity
because of this or that, we need to consider changing our positions on those
issues—or speak about them as infrequently as possible.”
I partially agree.
If we’ve been abusive, rude, ungodly or just wrong on certain things, we need
to be courageous enough to admit we’ve been wrong, repent, and teach the truth in love. Furthermore,
it’s always good to have enough humility to be willing to look afresh at what
we believe. It keeps us honest.
However, all of this is different than speaking of the
gospel as some sort of “pollution reduction refund.” It’s different than trying
to address Christianity’s perceived P.R. problems with a new P.R. campaign that
trades in narrow-mindedness and harshness for empty and sometimes misleading verbal roses.
The cross isn’t really a “plus” sign. It’s a cross (Yes, I did hear that said
from a pulpit once). Christianity isn’t true “for us.” We believe it’s true, or
should admit that it’s really merely a story (and a farce at that) that we find
Jesus is truth. He spoke truth, lived truth, and embodied
truth to the full. Gospel grammar uses words like sin, death, grace, abundant
life, Holy Spirit, heaven, hell, baptism, Eucharist, Christ. Of course, we must
pay attention to how and in what context and tone we are speaking such holy
words. But, we should not trade them out or attempt to launder them because we
think we have a P.R. problem. Let’s teach, preach, and live them more
faithfully, humbly and effectively…remembering that it is God's applause we seek, not that of mortals.
Come to think of it… perhaps the answer to the Christian P.R. problem is
in not in speaking more at all…but in listening more. That's another post.