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Sirico Parables book

Earth Day, celebrated today, has taken on a distinctly religious tone. It is a sign of a growing strain of modern political theology that attempts to link religion, statist politics and extreme environmentalism. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, for example, is spending $4.5 million to distribute tens of thousands of “Environmental Awareness Kits” with an overtly political agenda to the nation's religious congregations for use this weekend.

Among the suggestions for worship in mainline Protestant churches, for example, is a confession of environmental sins, according to an April 16 Washington Post report. The celebrant says: “We use more than our share of the Earth's resources. We are responsible for massive pollution of earth, water and sky. ... We thoughtlessly drop garbage around our homes, schools, churches, places of work, and places of play. ... We squander resources on technologies of destruction. Bombs come before bread.” The congregation responds: “We are killing the earth.... We are killing the waters.... We are killing the skies.”

For many people, environmentalism has become a religion in itself, and environmentalists have tried to superimpose an exalted view of nature onto traditional teachings. Representative is Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest and author of “The Coming of the Cosmic Christ.” Mr. Fox describes the Earth as a kind of Christ figure and deems as “Christofascism” any theology that views Jesus's personhood as a unique revelation. He urges Christians to move beyond a theology based on sin and redemption toward a creation spirituality with nature as the primary revelation.

Environmentalism has even spawned a revival of pagan earth worship in the form of Gaia, a concept first advanced by atmospheric scientist James Lovelock more than 20 years ago. The premise of Gaian theory is that the Earth itself is a superorganism both living and divine. The movement has found followers among feminists attracted to the idea of Mother Earth or an Earth goddess.

While some might write off these examples as coming from a lunatic fringe, they cannot be so easily dismissed. Vice President Gore devotes an entire chapter to “Environmentalism of the Spirit” in his wide-selling “Earth in the Balance”. And, at the U.N.-sponsored Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a contingent from the mainline United Church of Christ held a demonstration that opened with the traditional hymn “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”—substituting Earth for Lord. Such beliefs pose a threat to orthodox faiths.

For Western religious traditions, the role of faith in public life has been to strive for justice and to improve life, not primarily for plants and animals, but for human beings. A generalized attack on “development” and “consumption,” common among the environmentalist faithful, undermines the role that economic growth has played in allowing a more humane existence for people. As an empirical matter, the environment is far cleaner where economies are free from the statism advocated by many environmentalists.

Moreover, the attempt to make Earth Day a religious holiday forgets the primary purpose of traditional faith: to avoid personal sin and to attain salvation. To do this, man must obey God's law, as found in the 10 Commandments. There is no Commandment against littering, but there is a very straightforward one about worshiping false Gods. This commandment should cause the Earth Day religionists to resist the temptation to replace God with the earth as the center of adoration.

The Genesis account of creation is clear in the central point that environmentalists find so scandalous: the Earth was a gift from God for our use. 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 seas, the birds of the air, and the living things that move on this earth” (Genesis 1:28). This is the first charge, long before the Fall, that was given to human beings directly by God.

In the second chapter of Genesis, after God had created the Earth for man's sake, he created man to till the soil. It was an explicit command to mix labor with God's creation to make more of that which appears in a pure state of nature. God's covenant with Adam required him to exercise dominion over the Earth.

No doubt there are right and wrong ways to till and keep, ways that are more or less pleasing to God and that show a greater or lesser regard for the essential end for which the material world was made. The capacity of the land to continue to produce should not be permanently injured, and one must be careful not to inflict unnecessary pain on any of God's creatures. But the well-formed conscience knows the difference.

It is not part of the Jewish and Christian understanding of faith that nature in itself has an independent and metaphysical right to be untouched, preserved and adored. It is God, not Gaia, whom we will face on Judgement Day.

Father Sirico is a president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.