This Means War: Swarthmore Religion Profs Ready to Fight

Ashley Thorne

In an op-ed for the Swarthmore College Daily Gazette this week, five of the faculty members in the Swarthmore religion department expressed their support for Mountain Justice, a student group advocating that the College divest its holdings from large coal, gas, and oil companies.

The religion professors wrote:

To paraphrase William James, and in the face of cataclysmic climate change, today we must wage the moral equivalent of war by becoming more disciplined, more resourceful, and more visionary in fighting the causes of global ecological depredation. Fossil fuels divestment is one such strategy in this effort, and, in concert with Swarthmore Mountain Justice and Religion students, we call on Swarthmore College to divest from extraction industries that are ruthlessly exploiting the environment for economic profit.

William James coined the term “the moral equivalent of war” in his 1910 essay of that title. He was considering how to inspire people to alter their behavior on behalf of a cause during peacetime, when necessity is not as apparent and patriotism is not as animating.

James believed such a stimulus was possible:

So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way. But I have no serious doubt that the ordinary prides and shames of social man, once developed to a certain intensity, are capable of organizing such a moral equivalent as I have sketched, or some other just as effective for preserving manliness of type. It is but a question of time, of skilful propogandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities.

He emphasizes, in addition to making the most of propaganda, the need to develop social senses of pride and shame around a particular cause. The environmentalist movement has certainly achieved this, having established a new morality centered on commitments to the environment and lifestyle choices. Even the various motives for being green can be either virtuous or vulgar (you may be doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons).

James’s phrase has been adopted by many in the environmental movement. One blogger in New Zealand wrote, during the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen:

If, therefore, the battle against Climate Change has to become the moral equivalent of war, with all the sacrifice that war entails, then Climate Change Denial must become the moral equivalent of treason.

Over the top?


The stakes really are that high.

Likewise, sustainability activists employ the rhetoric of war. In “Your Planet: The Case for Rationing,” Dr. Mayer Hillman wrote:

Neville Chamberlain […] did not simply invite the population to eat less owing to the inevitable curtailment of food imports, he imposed food rationing; nor did he issue a call to arms, he imposed military conscription. So it is today. The time for debate is past. We need to confront the emergency.

It’s a familiar message: The debate is over, the emergency is upon us. But if we are at war, it is an unusual kind of war. Whereas most wars are fought between nations or at least tribes, in this war, the “enemy” is all mankind—and yet all mankind is called upon to fight. Whereas historically we have gone to war to defend or win territory or achieve freedom, the goal of this war is to decrease our territory and limit freedom.

But back to the warmongering religion professors at Swarthmore. We are, they say, “in the face of cataclysmic climate change.” This crisis seemingly empowers them to make fossil fuel divestment an urgent moral question, tied to shame and pride. The professors compare divestment to other social movements such as abolition, suffrage, civil rights, and support for LGBTQ people. Indeed, “environmental justice” has been called the civil rights movement of our time. The way they see the battle going down, people should arm themselves by “becoming more disciplined, more resourceful, and more visionary in fighting the causes of global ecological depredation.”

The religion professors’ op-ed followed on the heels of a story—complete with a video—unflattering to the student group they support. At a Board of Managers meeting to hear arguments for and against divestment, the cardboard-sign-wielding pro-divest students took over the meeting and then silenced (by “clapping down”) a student who requested that the assembly be called to order. The student, Danielle Charette (who shares her story in the Wall Street Journal), appealed to the moderator and Swarthmore College president Rebecca Chopp to intervene. Both told her there was nothing they could do.

Stanley Kurtz corresponded with President Chopp and covered the incident on National Review. NAS president Peter Wood wrote about the “performative anger” aspects of the students’ display.

The call for “the moral equivalent of war” is another exhibit, not of overt anger, but of self-righteousness. It is an attempt to manipulate the Swarthmore community’s sense of ethics in order to gain partisan ideological victories. It is, as William James put it, “skilful propogandism.”

As history has taught us, when the fluttering impulse of public opinion concerning right and wrong settles firmly on one side, that’s the side to be found on. These five Swarthmore religion professors have chosen a side, recruited troops, taken up arms, and declared war. Perhaps civil discourse is the first casualty of such a war.


Image: Parrish Hall by Fritz Ward / CC BY (edited)

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