Does it make sense to promote vegetarianism through Christianity? With some possible exceptions, the answer to this question is “no.” There are key reasons why promoting vegetarianism through Christianity might be a good idea. One might either promote vegetarianism within Christianity as a Christian virtue, or promote vegetarianism to the public at large through the appeal to Christian ideals.
Most obviously, Christianity is the dominant religion in American culture. In the beginning, Christianity itself was vegetarian, a tradition continued for centuries after Jesus by the Ebionites. The modern vegetarian movement was started by Christians, via the Bible Christian Church (now defunct) in England and in the United States. Key Christian symbols and events in the New Testament imply vegetarianism, specifically, Jesus’ baptism (an alternative to animal sacrifice), Jesus’ confrontation in the temple with the dealers in animals sold for animal sacrifice, and the apostolic decree forbidding blood. The basic ideas of peace and generosity in the gospels — such as love your enemies and give to the poor — do not necessarily imply vegetarianism, but they certainly tend in that general direction.
On the other hand, there are also some problems with promoting vegetarianism within Christianity as well.
1. Rachel MacNair’s survey indicates that Christianity is not a popular religion among vegetarians. In this survey, only 26% of vegetarians identified themselves as Christians, putting Christianity a close second behind “undefined spirituality,” and not far ahead of the third group, atheists and agnostics. Indeed, Christianity is declining in popularity in the general public; adults in the United States self-identifying as Christian have declined from 86% to 76% of the population between 1990 and 2008.
2. Related to this, both Protestant and Catholic traditions pose significant doctrinal difficulties for the acceptance of vegetarianism. It is widely believed that the gospels describe Jesus as serving fish (the various accounts of the feeding of the five thousand), or actually eating fish after his resurrection (Luke 24:42-43). If Jesus ate fish, it seems impossible to say that it is wrong to eat meat, as this would condemn the founder of Christianity as acting unethically; so ethical vegetarianism would become a heresy.
Counter-arguments are possible here. You could argue for vegetarianism because of health reasons rather than ethics. You could argue that while Jesus might think meat-eating was all right, he would disapprove of the cruelties of factory farming. You could dispute biblical inerrancy or interpret these passages symbolically. You could rely on other heterodox traditions (such as the Ebionites) to convey true Christianity, as I did in The Lost Religion of Jesus. (“Heterodox” Christianity designates a viewpoint recognizably Christian but markedly deviating from the Christian consensus.) However, this is a significant problem.
3. I honestly do not see how a conventional Christian congregation, even a liberal one, could become a vegetarian congregation until much of the rest of the society has already made the change to vegetarianism. In other words, they will probably lag the rest of society rather than lead it, in terms of vegetarianism. Even vegetarian members of such churches will likely feel (correctly) that for their entire church to become vegetarian would create a lot of controversy within their church and alienate many people there, resulting in loss of membership at a time when churches are almost universally struggling to stay financially afloat. To make vegetarianism an ethical principle is just too divisive.
4. All of these contribute to a pivotal and fundamental fact. While there is a Christian Vegetarian Association and some individual vegetarian Christians, there are (virtually) no vegetarian Christian congregations. You might be a solitary Buddhist, but it is much more difficult to be a solitary Christian.
Actually, there may be a few isolated exceptions to the rule that there are no vegetarian Christian congregations. There is the German group Universal Life, the (evidently unrelated) German followers of Carl Skriver (the Order of the Nazoraeans), which may be defunct, and the Buddhist-Christian teacher, the Supreme Master Ching Hai. These groups, though, are relatively small and isolated. They do not seem to be movements so much as followers of a specific teacher. They are the exceptions which prove the rule.
Even when the leaders of a new group of Christians (like Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in the Unity movement in the early 20th century) were vegetarian, their later followers scuttled and belittled their founders’ vegetarian influence. Vegetarianism is also slowly disappearing among the Seventh-day Adventists, as new converts (especially overseas) are unlikely to be vegetarian and there is no guiding ethical principle to keep vegetarianism alive. The same dynamic is operating in both cases. In the absence of an ethical principle giving preference to vegetarianism, accommodation to the corrupting influences of the larger society is easy, while resisting these influences is difficult.
If there were to be a vegetarian Christian congregation which had a chance of spreading, it would almost certainly be heterodox. For a vegetarian church to survive, ethical vegetarianism is a practical necessity; but Christian orthodoxy makes ethical vegetarianism a heresy.
Go to any gathering of vegetarians, and you will immediately see that the people who are most likely to be there are ethical vegetarians. This is what gives a vegetarian group meaning and purpose. While it is not a logical necessity, in practice vegetarians are likely to reject both Christian orthodoxy and conventional morality. Why shouldn’t they, since both conventional morality and Christian orthodoxy accept meat-eating?
At a vegetarian potluck about six months ago, I found myself — completely by chance — in a conversation with two other vegetarians who were attending churches. One attended a Center for Spiritual Living church (a New Thought denomination formerly called “Religious Science”). The other was a (very liberal) Catholic. I’ve recently been attending St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Denver and their Buddhist-Christian Interspiritual Community. If you averaged these points of view, you’d get a good representation of what a likely vegetarian Christian congregation would look like: a heterodox, liberal, vegetarian point of view emphasizing the harmony of vegetarianism and early Christian practice, and agreeing that Jesus was a vegetarian.
Much to my annoyance, the Christian Vegetarian Association has pursued exactly the strategy designed to prevent such congregations from emerging. They emphasize the harmony of vegetarianism with orthodox Christianity, so as to maximize its appeal to conventional Christians. But this approach implicitly rejects ethical vegetarianism as a congregational standard. I made efforts early on to have the CVA represent or at least include more liberal elements, but to no avail.
Anyone who is (or becomes) vegetarian while in a conventional Christian congregation is most likely to experience frustration. Sometimes, because of friends, family, or other connections, they will remain in the church. Those who feel vegetarianism deeply may leave the congregation in frustration. Many church functions revolve around food, so they will be constantly reminded that they don’t fit in. Most churches, even quite liberal ones, raise money for Heifer International, which is deeply offensive to vegetarians. Heifer International is actively engaged in the spread of livestock agriculture around the world.
Vegetarians will often resist their congregation furiously, because Christianity still means something to them. They will talk to their family, to their minister, and their co-religionists. But the best that any vegetarian Christian can hope for from a church, in practice, is toleration for their viewpoint. The consequence of this dynamic is that vegetarianism within the churches will be continually weakened; the most committed vegetarians will be the ones most likely to leave.
Vegetarians in churches could, I suppose, swallow their frustration, saint-like, and continue their membership in their church while still maintaining their vegetarianism. It is hard to see how this benefits the vegetarian individual and this is honestly not something I could counsel anyone to do. It is questionable ethically, because it diverts energy and funds from work that might actually help people and the animals. For a vegetarian to remain in the church might conceivably benefit the church, in which such a vegetarian would pose a constant thorn in the side. But even saints have limits.
Modern Christianity is like the barren ground on which the gospel seed has been thrown — or the ground which is fertile, but the plants are choked out with weeds (Matthew 13:3-9). The gospel message further counsels us not to throw pearls before swine or give what is holy to the dogs (Matthew 7:6). Trying to give vegetarianism to mainstream or evangelical churches goes against this precept, and the parable of the sower explains why. The churches have rejected vegetarianism; let them struggle with this problem on their own. If they ask for help, or if individuals in their congregations ask for help, then help them. But until then, while time spent on the churches is not exactly wasted, there are likely more productive ways in which to work.
So, I give up. I cannot see how it can be effective to promote vegetarianism either within Christianity, or by invoking Christian symbols or specifically Christian values. I still think of myself as a follower of the religion of Jesus, and I will certainly keep my eyes open for new developments within Christianity. But today, at least, I cannot connect this religion with Christianity in any of its modern forms.
(slightly revised March 18)