She spent years as an outspoken antiabortion activist, and that cause remains dear to her. But these days, Karen Swallow Prior has a new passion: animal welfare.
She wasn't sure, at first, that advocating for God's four-legged creatures would go over well on the campus of Liberty University, a fundamentalist Baptist institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Among the Liberty faculty -- and conservative evangelicals in general -- the animal-rights movement is often disdained as a secular, liberal cause.
But activists have been working with increasing intensity to shed that image. They're lecturing in Quaker meetinghouses and Episcopal churches, setting up websites that post Scripture alongside recipes for vegan soup -- and using biblical language to promote political initiatives, such as laws mandating bigger cages for pregnant pigs.
On Wednesday, clergy from 20 faith traditions -- including Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic -- will sign a statement declaring a moral duty to treat animals with respect. At a ceremony in Washington, they will call on all people of faith to stop wearing fur, reduce meat consumption, and buy only from farms with humane practices. The Best Friends Animal Society, which brought the group together, plans to recruit volunteers to bring that message into at least 2,000 congregations nationwide.
At Liberty University, meanwhile, Prior took a risk: She wrote an editorial for this month's university journal declaring animal welfare an evangelical concern. She pointed out that the abolitionist William Wilberforce, an evangelical hero of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, pushed for laws to protect animals from human cruelty. And she said there was "ample biblical support" for continuing such activism today.
To Prior's surprise, she's gotten plenty of praise on and around Liberty's campus in Lynchburg, Va. Her pastor has even asked her to lecture on the topic at Bible study.
"A lot of these ideas get dismissed out of a view that they fit into a conservative-versus-liberal [split]. But there are some issues that transcend that," said Prior, an English professor.
To be sure, Liberty University isn't about to turn its dining halls vegan. (Even Prior has not embraced every aspect of the animal-welfare cause: She admits to indulging in the fresh venison her husband brings back from his hunts.)
But activists say they're encouraged by even modest efforts to raise awareness.
The evangelical community "is expanding its definition of values to include work on poverty and the environment. We hope to insert concern for animal welfare as well," said Christine Gutleben, who directs the new "animals and religion" program at the Humane Society of the United States.
That program, funded at $400,000 a year, aims to persuade faith communities to take a series of small steps: offering a vegetarian entree at a fellowship meal, or insisting that the coffee cake set out on Sundays is made with free-range eggs.
The Humane Society is also seeking to enlist religious leaders in its political campaigns. In California, for instance, the group has been pushing a ballot measure to ban certain confinement systems for farm animals. Promotional ads show photos of hens in crowded cages and ask: "Is This Faithful Stewardship of God's Creatures?"
Some religious traditions already have taken aggressive stances in support of animal welfare. The Episcopal Church encourages members to work against "puppy mills and factory farms." The United Methodist Church advocates supporting farms where animals live as much as possible in their natural environments.
Before he became pope, Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) spoke against force-feeding geese to produce foie gras and packing hens so closely "that they become just caricatures of birds."
The challenge for animal-rights activists has been in translating those sentiments into concrete codes of behavior for congregations. They must also overcome a lingering distrust, especially on the religious right, where some argue that the very phrase "animal rights" subverts God's plan for man to exert dominion over the rest of creation.
In his radio broadcast planned for this week, evangelical commentator Charles Colson suggests that animal-rights activism implies that "humans are . . . just one of many living accidents roaming the planet."
Christians must treat animals humanely, Colson says. But that doesn't mean granting them the legal right to live in bigger cages. Such initiatives blur the distinction between humans and animals, he says: "Christians need to beware."
Despite such cautionary voices, animal-rights activists say they expect religious communities to become a major force in their movement within the next decade.
"God designed other animals with needs, desires and the full range of emotions," said Bruce Friedrich, a Catholic whose faith brought him to a career in activism with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.