Evangelicals and other faithful preach the green gospel
'C’mon, Oochoo,' says Peter Illyn. 'We’ll go get some water.' The llama steps out of its trailer and onto the sawdust paths of the Skamania County, Washington, fairgrounds. Oochoo’s ears flick in the direction of a nearby stage where a thrashcore band is fret-noodling for Jesus as part of Tomfest 2000, an annual Christapalooza that draws 5,000 pierced and tattooed evangelical Christians to the banks of the Columbia River for five days of headbanging fellowship. Illyn, a 42-year-old former Foursquare Gospel preacher from the southwestern Washington town of La Center, is here trolling for environmental converts. Oochoo is bait.
'Can I ride him?'
Once Oochoo draws a crowd, Illyn goes to work. 'We’re out here talking to people about the environment and how God’s word calls for stewardship of his domain,' he tells the llama-entranced kids. 'I work with a group called Target Earth—we’re all about serving the earth and serving the poor. You’ve heard of Earth First? We’re like Earth Third: We were made to love God, love people, and love creation. Environmental stewardship is part of our calling as Christians, but the church has remained silent for so many years that we’ve defaulted to New Age pagans and industrialists.' The kids nod vaguely. This is the first time many of them have heard that environmentalism mixes with the Lord. Their naïveté is almost touching. They’re not sure what to make of Illyn. With his husky frame, unruly shock of dark brown hair, full beard, and fire-eater’s growl, he could pass for a Neil Young roadie.
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Illyn comps a sticker—YOUR SOUL NEEDS THE WILD—to a dreadlocked holy hip-hopper named Dirt, then greets a bare-chested young man wearing wraparound Oakleys and a cross around his neck. 'Didn’t I see you hiking along the river?' Illyn asks.
'That was me. Nearly made myself sick eating blackberries. Is my tongue still purple?' He sticks it out for inspection: purple as Prince. The berry junkie turns out to be John Paul Peters, 24-year-old guitarist for the Winnipeg punk-pop band The Undecided. 'I’m definitely concerned about the wild,' he tells Illyn. 'We’re driving home tomorrow, and I talked the guys into letting me have a couple hours in Yellowstone.'
Illyn launches his rap: 'What my group is trying to do, we’re Christian environmentalists trying to protect the earth. We’re working to save the last bits of wild nature as part of our earthly stewardship. You play guitar, right?'
'So you’re tapping into your faith through your art,' says the preacher. 'Look around you—at those hills, at that river. That’s God’s art.'
'Right, right,' says Peters.
'I have people tell me, ‘It’s all about the human soul; Jesus died just for us,’ ' Illyn continues, anticipating a rebuttal. 'Well, I say, make your heart bigger, dude.' Peters smiles and nods his head. Illyn has found a believer. The two exchange addresses and make tentative plans to go llama hiking at next year’s festival. 'God bless, Peter,' says the guitarist as they part.
At the river Illyn slips off his sneakers and cools his feet. The llama, ornery bastard, refuses to drink and aims a load of poop at the preacher’s shoe. The sun refracts off the water into a bushel of stars that tumble across the mile-wide Columbia, forcing Illyn to squint. 'You know, God created the world and he called it good,' he muses. 'Now we’ve got six different kinds of salmon going extinct right here in this river. You can’t tell me that’s good. You can’t tell me God’s pleased.'
The Greening of American Religion (and Conservatives’ Counterreformation)
Peter Illyn’s crusade is but one sign of the greening of religious communities across the nation. After a long silence, many of America’s 155 million church and synagogue members are hearing a call to action. As Illyn wages his one-man crusade to bring environmental awareness to America’s evangelical youth, national ecofaith leaders are helping to frame the larger debate, swing votes, and broker agreements on national environmental issues.
It’s hard to find a big environmental issue that the 'faith community' hasn’t begun to affect in the past two years. The National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest coalition of Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, is in the midst of a campaign to push for national and international action on global warming. In Southern California, a group called Christians Caring for Creation has taken the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to protect the endangered Alameda whipsnake and arroyo toad. In Northern California, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the nation’s leading organization of Reform Judaism, teamed up with a local group known as the Redwood Rabbis to bring pressure on corporate raider Charles Hurwitz—a prominent member of Houston’s Jewish community and CEO of Maxxam Corporation, the conglomerate that organized a hostile takeover of the Pacific Lumber Company and initiated a massive clear-cutting operation—to find a way to preserve a portion of the redwood Headwaters Forest. And perhaps most startling, after a three-year study, eight Roman Catholic bishops in the Pacific Northwest have published a pastoral letter addressing the Columbia River’s salmon crisis, an extraordinary document that could become the moral cornerstone for a regional recovery plan.
Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), the nation’s largest interfaith coalition—member groups include mainline and African American Protestants, Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox and evangelical Christians—believes the current ecofaith activism reflects a profound shift in religious belief. 'This isn’t just another issue for us,' he says. 'It goes to the heart of what it means to be a faithful Jew, Christian, or Muslim.'
The influence of faith-based environmentalists has become so great, in fact, that it’s inspired something of a counterreformation—and some preemptive defensiveness on behalf of the new Bush administration.
In 1999, more than two dozen theologians, economists, and environmental experts gathered at a conference center in West Cornwall, Connecticut, to discuss what they saw as the alarming direction of religious environmentalism. The result, the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, attacked many of mainstream environmentalism’s most deeply held assumptions. 'Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards,' the Declaration states. 'Consequently, they ignore our potential, as bearers of God’s image, to add to the earth’s abundance.'
The organizer of the Cornwall gathering was Father Robert Sirico, 49, a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Last year, Sirico became the chief spokesman for the newly formed Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES), a group of conservative Christian and Jewish clergy and scholars. Sirico says ICES is a politically centrist effort, but the ICES roster reads like a who’s who of the religious right: Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder William Bright, conservative radio host Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Watergate felon and Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson. What’s more, ICES’s positions tilt unerringly to the right. Global warming? Overblown, says ICES. Population crisis? What population crisis? asks ICES. Rampant species loss? Not our problem. These fashionable causes, the council asserts, sap attention and re-sources from more pressing environmental issues, such as Third World sanitation.
While Sirico repudiates the tendency of right-wing anti-environmentalism to reject the moral necessity of good stewardship, he charges that left-wing groups—'epitomized by the work of some in the leadership of the National Council of Churches'—use environmental rhetoric to forward agendas that have more to do with class warfare and anti-corporatism than with healing the planet. 'Increasingly, sermons are integrating this political worldview, which is hostile to a free economy and human creativity, to the detriment of the natural world, and the sides were clearly drawn by April 2000 and the 30th anniversary human family,' he warns.
Around Earth Day last year, Sirico fired off a mass mailing to religious leaders around the country charging the NRPE with waging an 'audacious, mind-numbing' campaign to promote theologically unorthodox views. Not only was the NRPE wrong on issues like global warming, the letter intimated, but with all of its 'Mother Earth' talk, certain religious groups within the ecoreligious NRPE coalition were flirting with heresy.
Now, with George W. Bush in at the White House, the conservative religious groups are poised to help steer and spin the new administration’s environmental policies. The market-friendly theology of ICES dovetails nicely with Bush’s belief that private enterprise can take the environmental reins. Sirico and his colleagues provide ammunition—the theological and intellectual underpinnings to counter pro-environment arguments from the religious left.
Looking for verses to quote? Robert Royal, ICES member and president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., can provide them. Consider Genesis 1:28: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.' Or the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus asks his followers to consider the birds of the air: 'Are you not of more value than they?' (Matthew 6:26). 'The Bible asserts both a hierarchy with humans at the top among the earthly creatures (though not the heavenly), and the greater value of human beings than other living things,' Royal writes.
Adds ICES member Rabbi Daniel Lapin: 'I don’t care for the pantheistic theme that runs through certain areas of the debate—the tendency to view human beings as scabs on the face of the earth.'
For now, the religious factions are facing off in a generally peaceable manner. But with a host of issues coming front and center in the first year of Bush’s presidency—federal land-use policies in the West, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, genetically engineered foods, global warming—faith-based environmentalists and their newly empowered right-wing counterparts may be led into a holy war on the battlefields of Capitol Hill.
After a presidential campaign in which secular environmental groups like the Sierra Club were among the leading Bush bashers, leaders of the religious environmental movement are hoping that their message might appeal to Republicans predisposed to deflecting the arguments of secular enviros. 'I think Bush might be more open to what religious groups, as opposed to environmental groups, have to say,' says the Reverend Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). 'It’s important that he see the connection between the environment and his faith.'
How Noah’s Ark Was Nearly Scuttled
If anti-environmental conservatives are inclined to underestimate the potential clout of the new wave of religious greens, they would do well to recall what happened during the last attempt to demolish America’s conservation ethic.
In 1995, Newt Gingrich was flush from his victory in the 1994 midterm elections and ready to flex his power. Meanwhile, a cadre in the so-called Republican Revolution declared the Endangered Species Act one of the nation’s 'Top Ten Worst-Case Regulations' and vowed to gut it like a 12-point buck. That autumn, as House Republicans prepared to perform radical surgery on the act, about 70 evangelical Christian clergy and lay leaders gathered at Bear Trap Ranch, a Christian retreat nestled in a subalpine valley in Colorado’s Pike National Forest. This was one of the early gatherings of the Christian Environmental Council, an offshoot of the Evangelical Environmental Network. After three days of discussion, prayer, and long walks amid the flame-yellow aspens, the emboldened Christians decided to mobilize: If God’s species were imperiled, they were duty-bound to mount a rescue. 'It was a no-brainer,' recalls Stan LeQuire, a Baptist minister and former EEN director. 'This was something that resonated wonderfully with our biblical faith.'
LeQuire’s political neophytes—a band of small-town preachers, Sunday-school teachers, and Christian college professors—took a crash course in modern media techniques. EEN co-founder Calvin DeWitt, a University of Wisconsin professor of environmental studies and the dean of modern Christian environmentalism, quickly proved himself a master of the sound bite by framing the Endangered Species Act as 'the Noah’s ark of our day' and charging that 'Congress and special interests are trying to sink it.' At a 1996 Washington press conference, DeWitt showed up with a live endangered Florida panther in tow. The press ate it up, and Republicans went ballistic.
When EEN lobbyists went to House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s office, a Gingrich staff member heaped scorn on their efforts. 'We were told we didn’t know what we were talking about,' says LeQuire, who now teaches at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. 'The Christian Coalition had just helped some Republicans get elected, and they thought they had everything sewed up. We said, ‘Hold on, some Christians are not of this ilk.’ '
Outside the Beltway, the assault on the Endangered Species Act moved faith-based environmentalists to enter the political fray. Peter Illyn began writing to local newspapers in Washington, proclaiming himself a conservative Christian who thought wiping out God’s species wasn’t such a bang-up idea. 'My Christian peers smugly assumed the environmentalists were wrong,' recalls Illyn. 'I went in there and said, ‘Hey! Quit thumping your Bible and start reading it! Look at Psalms 104:24: 'How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.’ ' The evangelical campaign got its point across loud and clear. The Republicans’ Endangered Species Act reauthorization never made it to the floor of the House, mainly because Republican moderates declined to sign on to a bill that had suddenly become a political loser. 'The EEN came in and showed that people who wanted to protect endangered species weren’t a bunch of total left-wing wacko hippies out there hugging trees,' recalls Karen Steuer, who worked on endangered-species issues for California’s Congressman George Miller, the liberal Democratic environmental leader. 'This was mainstream America.'
Of course, religious environmentalists didn’t single-handedly save the Endangered Species Act (which still awaits formal reauthorization). But their activism reinvigorated an argument that ecoactivists had let fall into disuse: the moral right. Rabbi Daniel Swartz, former associate director of the NRPE, who spent a good part of 1995 and 1996 lobbying Capitol Hill on behalf of protections for endangered species, says the religious community 'could tell a congressman, ‘Look, this is part of the grand scheme of creation, it has value, and we must care for it.’ '
Looking Out for the Devil in Disguise
In the past few years, the forces that came together to thwart the Republican attack on the Endangered Species Act have continued the fight, albeit to less dramatic effect. The U.S. Catholic Conference focuses on issues of environmental justice, such as children’s health and agricultural policy. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life covers global warming, energy policy, envirionmental health, and biodiversity issues. The EEN puts its energy into helping people see the relationship between having healthy families and a healthy environment. The environmental-policy arm of the National Council of Churches focuses on global warming. Of course, it’s one thing to raise the voice of the nation’s congregations to defend the law that saved the bald eagle; getting the faithful fired up about auto emissions standards has proven to be a tougher sell.
'My text this evening is an apology,' Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope told the audience at the 1997 Symposium on Religion, Science, and the Environment, sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church in Santa Barbara, California. 'The environmental movement for the past quarter-century has made no more profound error than to misunderstand the mission of religion and the churches in preserving the creation.'
Pope’s extraordinary confession, delivered to a gathering packed with everyone from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Orthodox Church, enraged some Sierra Club members, but it didn’t come as a surprise to other environmental leaders. Frustrated by years of fighting piecemeal battles to save this or that watershed, they’d been searching for ways to energize not just laws, but also the public’s deep yet largely passive convictions about the environment. What they discovered was the power of churches and synagogues.
The flourishing God-and-greens coalition may cloak itself in upbeat rhetoric, but few church or environmental leaders labor under the illusion that the reconciliation of nature and religion will happen over the course of a few weekend retreats. 'I know a lot of environmentalists who don’t see anything good in being a Christian,' admits Peter Illyn. 'And I know a lot of Christians who don’t see much good in environmentalism.'
As a pioneer ecoproselytizer, Illyn must keep his biblical bona fides on constant display, lest his listeners dismiss him as the devil in disguise. In evangelical circles, environmentalism still carries the taint of loose-moral liberalism. There’s a suspicion that Illyn’s message could be the thin end of the wedge: tree-hugging today, gay marriage tomorrow. Lions may one day lie down with lambs, but can the beef-eating, pro-life, Jesus-is-Lord soul savers lie down with the tofu-frying, pro-choice, proudly pagan flower children long enough to save the earth?
Illyn believes that evangelical Christians will accept environmentalism as they’ve come to accept racial equality. 'Thirty years ago people were openly justifying their bigotry,' he says. 'Fifteen years ago there was silent bigotry. Now, these younger Christians find tremendous value in racial diversity. Ten years from now we’ll look back on the issue of environmental stewardship and go, ‘Why was there even a question?’ '
Environmental Destruction Is a Way to Beat Paganism
'During the 1980s,' says the NRPE’s Paul Gorman, 'the environmental movement didn’t show a lot of concern for issues of racism, economic justice, inadequate health care, stuff that our people [in the faith community] know about, because we run hospitals, we have people in poor neighborhoods. It was more about wetlands, wilderness, life, and less about poor children and the distribution of resources. And information about the issue came from the scientific community, with which we hadn’t been engaged.'
Yet perhaps for good reason. Christianity and Judaism have had serious problems with the natural world. In his classic 1967 environmental work Wilderness and the American Mind, historian Roderick Nash points out how the Bible often depicts wilderness as an accursed, arid wasteland, an anguished place of banishment. The Judeo-Christian cosmology became the dominant worldview in the West by replacing pagan nature deities with a single He who dwelt above—not in—the things of earth. 'Do not love the world or anything in the world,' commanded the apostle John. 'For the love of the Father cannot be in any man who loves the world.' As Christianity spread across the Western world, wild lands were cast as unholy lands. The forests of medieval Europe harbored the last strongholds of pagans, a.k.a. witches. 'Christians judged their work to be successful when they cleared away the wild forests,' writes Nash, 'and cut down the sacred groves where the pagans held their rites.'
'By destroying pagan animism,' Lynn White Jr. wrote in a famous 1967 essay, 'Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.' The faith of our fathers, White argued, which set man above the beasts and the flowers of the field, also set in motion two millennia of environmental degradation. 'Christianity,' he concluded, 'bears a huge burden of guilt.'
A third of a century after White’s fundamental essay, Christian environmentalists are still dealing with the fallout. 'In deep green environmental cultures, White’s thesis has been widely accepted,' says Bron Taylor, a professor of religion and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. 'It’s only recently come under question, precisely because of the emergence of this new Christian-environmental activism.'
Pope John Paul II, who had seen firsthand the environmental ruination of Eastern Europe, broke the Roman Catholic Church’s long silence on environmentalism with a resounding call to heal the earth in his 1990 World Day of Peace message, 'The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.'
'Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment,' the pontiff declared, 'people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.' Look at what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he said: They destroyed the existing harmony by choosing to sin.
The next few years saw a flurry of activity among Christians of all stripes. Tony Campolo, a leading progressive evangelical who would later work on Bill Clinton’s post-Monica atonement team, chastened his fellow Christians in a controversial book whose title addressed evangelical envirophobia: How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshipping Nature. 'We ‘Bible-believing, born-again, Spirit-filled Christians’ more than any others seem to have turned deaf ears to the pleas to save God’s creation,' he wrote.
Nobody better embodied the new envirofriendly Christianity than Bartholomew I, who became spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians in 1991. Bartholomew has established so many environmental programs that he’s known as 'the green patriarch.' At the conference at which Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope apologized for ignoring the religious world, Bartholomew made a public statement that might have been unimaginable a decade earlier. 'To commit a crime against the natural world,' he declared, 'is a sin.'
Of God and Man and the Columbia River
Looming over the political debate is one simple question: What is humanity’s place in the universe, anyway? Deep ecology, a concept that first took hold among radical environmentalists in the 1970s and has since been adopted by many mainstream greens, holds that humans are merely one among millions of species sharing the earth—and to some, a particularly toxic one. But according to Genesis, God fashioned our species alone in his image.
Bishop William Skylstad of the Roman Catholic diocese of Spokane, who chaired the steering committee that prepared a pastoral letter on the state of the Columbia River, recognizes the conflict. 'That all has to be balanced out,' he says. 'God gives us creation to support ourselves, but we also need to be wise stewards and look at the sustainability of the creation about us.'
The bishops’ letter is remarkably sweeping and specific. The authors advocate selective, sustainable timber harvests; support of family farms and industrial co-ops through reform of banking policies and government regulations; energy conservation and the use of wind and solar power to supplement the maxed-out grid; restriction of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles to established roads; decent wages, health care, and education for workers; and honoring treaties with local tribes. Saving the watershed’s salmon is at the top of their list of priorities, but even they can’t decide whether to breach the four lower Snake River dams.
'People’s concern for salmon as creatures of God should be linked to their concern for fishers, who are also children of God,' the letter reads. Lest they give the impression of decreeing from on high, the bishops vow to get their own houses in order, too. Parish gardeners, for example, have been encouraged to limit their use of fertilizers, pesticides, and lawn sprinklers.
The letter sounds downright utopian at times; would that we all lived in a world with ecofriendly mining, plentiful salmon, bountiful harvests, high wages, and responsible lawn care. But because of the church’s long record of serving human needs, the letter may prove to be one of the more influential documents in the history of the American West. 'We aren’t the parts-per-million people, but we can point people in a new direction,' says Walt Grazer, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Environmental Justice Program and co-editor of And God Saw That It Was Good: Catholic Theology and the Environment. 'The bishops are saying there’s a link between social and natural ecology. People are a part of their environment; it’s not something separate from them.'
Grazer’s statement reflects the unique ability of the Catholic Church to speak to both parties: making one side aware of the precarious ecological state they’re living in; telling the other that the environment is not a hallowed realm off-limits to humans. Indeed, the bishops’ statement seems to say that Jesus is coming, but until then, humankind and the earth are inextricably linked; if one fails, so will the other.
Bruce Barcott is the author of The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier (Sasquatch Books, 1997). From Outside (March 2001). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (12 issues) from Box 7785, Red Oak, IA 51591.
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