Within the past 25 years, a new type of social movement has emerged in American culture: religious environmental groups. Their members apply religious texts and beliefs to environmental causes, raising environmental concern and benefiting sustainable practices. However, despite how diverse and numerous these groups have become, sociologists have yet to study them in detail.

William Rusche ’13, Andrea Wrobel ’13 and Associate Professor of Sociology Stephen Ellingson will pioneer research on this topic for their project, “The Making of Green Religion: Embeddedness, Strategic Choice and the Development of a News Social Movement Field.” The project is funded by a Summer 2011 Levitt Research Group Grant.

Religious environmental groups are a relatively new development in American culture, and these groups are largely unexplored in sociology. Wrobel and Rusche will aim to explain how these groups function and why they emerged at all. They rely on both primary and secondary sources to build some groundwork for this type of research, and each will write an individual paper on his or her findings at the end of the summer.

While secular environmental groups such as Sierra Club and Greenpeace have been active since the 1950s and 1960s, religious environmental groups didn’t emerge until the late 1980s and 1990s. Wrobel and Rusche explain that this sequence is unusual because churches and other religious institutions have always played an integral role in other social movements. For example, during the civil rights movement, churches provided resources, networking and support for members of the movement.

Rusche, Wrobel and Ellingson are investigating why religious environmentalism is an anomaly. They are relying heavily on research conducted by Ellingson in the early 2000s, which consists of interviews from members of religious environmental groups across the country. These interviews come from members of many different religions and provide a foundation of primary sources with which the group can work.

While they are working on the same topic, Wrobel and Rusche are taking different angles on their study of religious environmental groups. Rusche, a government and sociology double major, is looking at political trends, both in government and in religious organizations. For instance, changes in church organizations may have created an atmosphere that is more receptive to environmentalism.

Wrobel, a sociology major, is looking at the cultural side of religious environmental movements. Specifically, she devotes a lot of time to studying how members of this movement use religious texts to support environmental efforts. For example, there is rising concern in the Jewish community about ethical food, and whether strictly keeping kosher should take priority over food’s environmental and ethical implications.

Wrobel and Rusche explain that religious affiliations have strengthened many other social movements, and so the current religious environmental movements could play a vital role in raising awareness for the environment. They look forward to exploring a topic that holds high potential for social change but has yet to be studied in detail.

Outside their study room in Kirner-Johnson, Wrobel loves music and is part of the Hamilton choir, the a-capella group Duelly Noted, and she sings in her free time. Rusche stays up to date on current events, is president of Hamilton College Democrats, plays IM sports and participates in WHCL.

Religion plays an important role in the lives of many Americans, and religious environmentalism has the power to inspire significant change in environmental awareness. Wrobel and Rusche hope their research opens new doors for exploring this important cultural movement.

William Rusche is a graduate of Osseo High School in Osseo, Minn.  Andrea Wrobel is a graduate of Mount Markham High School in West Winfield, N.Y.

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