Union of sanctuary and steak

steaks1Let's start with the classic Martin Marty quote, which is always good when talking about religion and the news. Marty has been known to say that, for many people, the word "ecumenical" seems to boil down to someone saying, "I don't believe very much and you don't believe very much, so we must have a lot in common." The same attitude often shapes the world of interfaith dialogues.

The New York Times ran a story this week that isn't like that at all. This is one of those cases where very different religious believers follow doctrines and traditions so specific that they were pulled together. Instead of having no beef with one another, they are ... Well, read the story. This is also a story that puts the crunch (if well done) back in "Crunchy Cons," so thanks to Rod Dreher for spotting this one.

The headline on reporter Joan Nathan's piece is wonderful: "Of Church and Steak: Farming for the Soul." Synagogue and steak didn't work as well, I guess. Here's the lede from the wilds of Howard, S.D.

Near a prairie dotted with cattle and green with soy beans, barley, corn and oats, two bearded Hasidic men dressed in black pray outside a slaughterhouse here that is managed by an evangelical Christian.

What brought these men together could easily have kept them apart: religion.

The two Hasidim oversee shehitah, the Jewish ritual slaughtering of meat according to the Book of Leviticus. The meat is then shipped to Wise Organic Pastures, a kosher food company in Brooklyn owned by Issac Wiesenfeld and his family. When Mr. Wiesenfeld sought an organic processor that used humane methods five years ago, he found Scott Lively, who was just beginning Dakota Beef, now one of the largest organic meat processors in the country.

There is a news story down in the body of this tasty story (the old headline writer in me will now stop the puns). The bottom line is that food is important in traditional forms of religion, starting with the Hebrew scriptures and moving right on into churches that stress fasting and feasting.

Throw in a dose of environmental concerns, fair trade practices, labor conditions and humane treatment of animals and you have a niche audience -- people who have a motivation to pay more than the local discount club -- out there for good meat. Thus:

Christians, Jews and Muslims who see food through a moral lens are increasingly organized and focused on showing their strength. The Religious Working Group on the Farm Bill, a national coalition of more than a dozen religious organizations, is lobbying Congress for legislation to help small farms. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference is helping congregations and universities in the Midwest buy local produce from family farmers. ...

"This is the first time I have seen such a deep and growing involvement of the faith community," said Brother David Andrews, who is on sabbatical from his job as executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and has followed these kinds of issues for 30 years.

If this nascent cause was taken up by large numbers of churches and synagogues, the economic effect alone could be profound. "The religious movement is a huge force," said Arlin S. Wasserman, the founder of Changing Tastes, a consulting firm in St. Paul that advises food companies and philanthropic organizations on trends in food and agriculture. "Already, religious institutions oversee the production of $250 billion per year in food if you bundle together halal, kosher and institutional buying."

And you have to love the ending. Read this story, folks.

As it turns out, some of these people are even intensely red zip code folks (even if some of them live near blue-people zones). Here's a quip from closer to the Beltway:

Joel Salatin, who is considered a guru of organic agriculture, said he has seen a change in the people who visit his Polyface farm in Virginia.

"Ten years ago most of my farm visitors were earth muffin tree-hugger nirvana cosmic worshipers," Mr. Salatin said. "And now 80 percent of them are Christian home schoolers."

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