The Greening of American Faith

Robert A. Sirico
National Review
August 29, 1994

Many religious Americans encountered a strange beast during the octave of Earth Day this year. At weekend services, in place of some traditional prayers, they were asked to pay homage to the earth, sky, and animals.

One prayer resolved that “we must say, do, and be everything possible to realize the goal of the environmental Sabbath: an ecological society.... We cannot let our mother die. We must love and replenish her.”

Another prayer, this one from the Iroquois, begins, “We return thanks to our mother, the earth which sustains us. We return thanks to all the herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases. We return thanks to the corn, and to her sisters, the beans and the squashes.”

These prayers came courtesy of the National Religious Partnerships for the Environment, which, as part of a $4.5-million interfaith effort, distributed environmental-awareness kits to 53,000 evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic congregations (the Jewish version apparently wasn't ready in time for Earth Day). Included in the kits were liturgy suggestions from the National Council of Churches, including litanies, Scripture passages, and hymn titles for a complete worship service.

Even the U.S. Catholic Conference took part, issuing its own monograph for Earth Day, entitled “Renewing the Face of the Earth.” (It can at least be said that the bishops' package was better than some; for example, it revived St. Francis's theocentric prayer, “Canticle of the Sun.”)

There was a time when secular liberalism was partially defined by its desire to separate religion from politics, a separation that has been largely accomplished. Now we are in the midst of an interesting new trend. Secular liberalism seems to be trying to recapture religion for its own uses, and the environment seems to be the main focus of attention.

Astronomer Carl Sagan, a declared atheist, has issued an urgent plea for an “uncommon marriage between science and religion” to help solve environmental problems. Matthew Fox, author of The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, describes the Earth as a kind of Christ figure and dismisses as “Christofascism” any theology that views Jesus' personhood as a unique revelation. He urges Christians to move beyond a theology based on sin and redemption and develop a Creation spirituality with nature as our primary revelation.

Meanwhile, the ecological movement has spawned a revival of pagan Earth worship in the form of Gaia, a concept first advanced by atmospheric scientist James Lovelock more than twenty years ago. The basic premise of Gaian theory is that the Earth itself is a superorganism that is both living and divine.

There are disagreements about whether Gaia is a religion or a scientific theory (though the Gaia Institute even commissioned a complete choral Mass entitled “Missa Gaia”). Certainly its religious aspect has found followers in spiritual feminist circles attracted to the idea of Mother Earth or an Earth goddess. For example, Rowena Pattee Kryder, of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, explains how Gaia communicates with us, her children. If we are addicted and confused, Gaia sends us earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes to force us to reassess our values.

Man Shall Have No Dominion

The current trend began some three decades ago with historians and scientists claiming that Christianity itself was dangerous to the environment.

In Genesis, after God created man and woman in His image, he blessed them with the words: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on this Earth” (Gen. 1:28). This is the first charge, long before the Fall, and it was given to human beings directly by God.

After God had created the Earth for man's sake, that is, He created man to till the soil. It was an explicit command to mix labor with God's Creation so as to improve upon what appears in a pure state of nature. God's covenant with Adam required him to exercise dominion over the Earth.

In 1967, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, historian Lynn White presented a paper entitled “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis.” In it he said that this teaching in Genesis is the root cause of environmental degradation.

Vice President Al Gore devoted an entire chapter of his book, Earth in the Balance, to “Environmentalism of the Spirit,” in which he poses a sobering question, and answers it himself. “When giving us dominion over the Earth, did God choose an appropriate technology? ... The jury is still out.” The jury is out on Whom?

The UN-sponsored Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was a high point in this trend toward the fusion of environmentalism and religion. Indeed, Brazilian evangelicals were largely responsible for the environmentalist summit's taking place. At one point during the meeting, a sizable contingent from the United Church of Christ held a demonstration with members of other denominations and opened with the traditional hymn, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”—substituting “Earth” for “Lord”.

Mortal Sin?

The evangelical environmental writer Loren Wilkinson provides a good starting point for an analysis of the Green religion. He argues that Christians need to develop a more thorough doctrine of Creation, one that would lead us to “restore our proper relationship to the Earth, and make it one of mutual blessing.” He says our present ecological troubles are “due rather to our sinful use of and relationship to the Earth than to any malfunction of the created order as such.”

The first question to ask of this philosophy is: What constitutes a sinful use of the Earth? Mr. Wilkinson says the problem is that the United States is over-developed: “The tragedy is that the standard of 'development' to which those billions [of people in the Third World] aspire is set by us in the 'developed' world.” He says Christians should be committed to limiting population growth and slowing down development or, in the jargon of the day, establishing sustainable development, which seems to mean no development at all. “Crucial as the population issue is, in the wealthy world it is often used as a way of avoiding an even more serious and immediate problem: the high consumption rates of North Americans,” Mr. Wilkinson writes. “A child born into an average American family will use up to fifty times as many of the Earth's goods—and leave at least that much more in waste—as a child born into a poor family in the developing world.”

This is not necessarily a case for Americans to renounce materialism. Let us not mistake this view for a reiteration of Pope John Paul II's point in Centesimus Annus that a person's material desires must be subordinated to his intellectual and spiritual dimensions. Instead, Mr. Wilkinson seems to view human beings—or at any rate human beings engaged in any activity but subsistence farming or herding—as despoilers.

The puzzle is that Jews and Christians, whose Scriptures teach a very different view of man's place in the world, would sign on to such a movement. Back in 1991, the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote that the Church “continues to oppose coercive methods of population control and programs that bias decisions through incentives or disincentives.... Respect for nature ought to encourage policies that promote natural family planning and true responsible parenthood rather than coercive population control programs or incentives for birth control that violate cultural norms and Catholic teaching.” However, by accepting the package put out by the National Religious Partnerships for the Environment (even with modifications for the better), they implicitly accept the opposite view.

Thou Shalt Not Mix Trash

Where does nature fit into the primary obligations of a theologically informed civic life? The goal of life is to attain salvation through faith and the avoidance of sin. To avoid sin, we must obey God's law. His Ten Commandments, and Jesus' summary of them into two, are the basis of our understanding of what this requires. There is no commandment against polluting or mixing trash— that is taken care of by the civil law—but there is a very straightforward one about worshipping false gods.

As for the role of faith in public life and politics, in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions the goal has been to improve life— not primarily for plants and animals, but for human beings. Economic growth is not merely a matter of material goods. It also fosters a more humane existence. Furthermore, as an empirical matter, the environment is far cleaner where economies are free. One need only think of the terrible ecological problems that Russia and most of its former satellites endure as a result of their years under collectivist ownership of the means of production, including the land.

In the contest between famine and productivity, productivity is winning. World agricultural productivity has tripled in the last thirty years, according to Dennis Avery, director of the center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute. Human ingenuity has invented several ways to increase crop yield dramatically and at the same time protect farmland. Agricultural researchers have made tremendous strides in high-yield farming and the breeding of better crop varieties, which allows farmers to raise more food on less acreage. New methods of tillage, meanwhile, have drastically reduced soil erosion.

Surely there are good and bad ways to till and keep. There are ways that are more pleasing to God, and that have a regard for the essential telos or end for which the material world was made. The land should not be permanently injured so that it cannot produce for future generations, and one must be careful not to inflict unnecessary pain on any of God's creatures. The well-informed conscience can discern the differences.

Still, the Biblical account is clear on the central point that environmentalists find so scandalous: The Earth was a gift from God for our use. We cannot separate man from his surroundings, from nature, from the environment. It is just not part of the Judaeo-Christian understanding to say that nature in itself has an independent and metaphysical right to be left alone, to be preserved and even adored for reasons other than its usefulness to man.

Capturing the Low Ground

Christians and Jews should indeed be involved in the ecological movement. We should strive to preserve the beauty of the Earth for future generations of men and women—but not for the sake of an ethic that mistakenly places a higher value on material things than on people. The authentic Judaeo-Christian viewpoint is sadly missing from today's public-policy debates. Religious environmentalists are too willing to bend their faith in order to please those who place the Earth, as opposed to man, at the center of God's Creation.

The Earth liturgies of the National Religious Partnerships have done little to clarify this issue and much to confuse it. Unless orthodox believers are willing to confront the religious Greens openly, our defenses will be down when Earth Day is proposed and accepted as a holy day of obligation.

Fr. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.