The plight of animals might not seem like a pressing issue during a time of terrorism, war, and famine. And it's not typically an issue that's on the radar screen of many Christians. But author Matthew Scully thinks it should be. In his recent Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (St. Martin's Press), Scully explores several forms of animal cruelty from a Christian perspective: factory farming, canned hunting, whaling, and animal experimentation. He not only exposes these practices for what they are, but also offers solid arguments for showing mercy toward animals.
Scully, a vegetarian, Christian, and conservative, serves as senior speechwriter for President Bush. When freelance writer Karen Beattie spoke to Scully on the eve of war with Iraq, world events had not distracted him from animal suffering.
Why do you think the issue of animal cruelty has been overlooked by many Christians?
Christians tend to think of it as a modern, secular cause that's antithetical to their own, more traditional beliefs. But it's not. In my book, I try to remind readers of the very venerable and beautiful tradition in Christianity that calls upon us to respect animals as fellow creatures, and to view them as a part of creation, bearing the mark of their maker.
Another reason is the belief that people who care about animals tend to do so at the expense of their concern for human beings. I think that's an entirely false choice. For instance, you can avoid eating meat, or you can give your business to small, more humane farms without affecting your treatment of other people.
Do you think most people are unaware of what goes on in factory farms or science labs?
I think the average adult is vaguely aware of the horrors of the modern factory farms, but they don't want to concern themselves with it because it's inconvenient to do so.
There are people who are leading very good and upstanding lives who just don't think very much about animal welfare. But at a certain point, people have to answer for their failure to think seriously about these matters.
What is the meaning of dominion?
There is one strain of thought that seems to view dominion as power and license—as a pretext for doing pretty much whatever we please, with a complete disregard for animals as living creatures. This view bears more resemblance to economic theory than it does to Christian thought.
And then you have another view, which is more in the spirit of Francis of Assisi and other saints known for their solicitude for animals. I try to appeal to this other sensibility in Christianity that cares about animals, and learns to love them as a part of creation.
Many of the problems we face today concerning animals are quite new. Technology has suddenly given us this tremendous power over animals. And we have to be all the more mindful of how we use this power.
Where do you differ with Peter Singer, who implies animals and humans are morally equivalent?
The most crucial difference is that Peter Singer has written in defense of abortion and infanticide, which is a bad enough thing all by itself, but is also deeply inconsistent with a compassionate and merciful ethic toward animals. By the terms of Singer's utilitarian theories, no creature, human or animal, has any intrinsic value or moral claim, and so you end up with all the familiar problems of moral relativism.
At the same time, I ask my readers to consider a few of their own inconsistencies. Many people shower attention upon their pets, and yet have no compassion for animals of comparable intelligence and sensitivity consigned to the miseries of the factory farm or laboratory. Others speak grandly about the unique moral dignity of human beings, but then use that to justify the low and amoral things done at the expense of animals.
Throughout Dominion, I try to move the debate away from the world of academic theory, where "liberation" thinkers have taken it, and back to the language of duty, love, mercy, and compassion for the weak.
What is the difference between having mercy and respect for animals, and believing animals should have the same rights as humans?
The whole logic of Christianity is one of the higher serving the lower and the strong protecting the weak. Rights and entitlements don't have much to do with it. And so the Christian attitude toward animals is to grant them our compassion and mercy exactly because they are so helpless and vulnerable before human power.
Cruelty to animals is best understood not as a violation of rights, but as an abuse of human power and a betrayal of trust. Corporate hog farmers are a perfect example of people who have lost all regard for animals. They treat these creatures like machines instead of as living creatures made by God.
Do you believe Christians should become vegetarians?
Some people will feel called to become vegetarians. I think that's a very good moral choice. But most people will likely make a compromise by going out of their way and paying the extra money for organic meat from small farms. If you're going to buy meat, you want to make sure it comes from animals raised with some modicum of kindness and mercy. And that's what I hope most people will do.
Do you ever struggle with despair when you think about the enormity of these issues?
There's a certain understandable instinct to insulate yourself from it. But Christians especially are called to open their hearts and to confront these things, and to do what they can. When you do that, in a sense you have succeeded.
Even though the problem still remains, you're becoming the kind of person you aspire to be, and you're making good of your own life through your compassion.
What I try to do in Dominion is to offer a more hopeful message. People have to remember, it's not just a moral problem, it's also a moral opportunity. When people are kind to animals, and not complicit in cruelty, their own lives are better and more full.
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Dominion is available at Amazon.com and other retailers.
CT columnist Charles Colson referenced Scully's book in his April article, "Taming Beasts | Raising the moral status of dogs has created a breed of snarling, dangerous humans."
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture in 1999 looked at what the church should say to the growing animal-rights movement in "Do All Good Dogs Go to Heaven?"
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