The Right Kind of Change

As a professional wildlife biologist and academic for the past 25 years, I have observed numerous changes in wildlife, plants, and the environment. We have achieved much with the restoration of some wildlife species during the past few decades. White-tailed deer are more abundant now than when Europeans settled this country. Wild turkeys, black bear, wood ducks, elk, and a whole host of other animals have increased their numbers from almost nothing to becoming abundant. We have embarked on a course of environmental education since the first Earth Day in 1970 that has attempted to reach young and old alike with great successes in cleaning up our rivers, atmosphere, restoring endangered species, creating outdoor classrooms, and cleaning up toxic waste dumps. But with all these environmental success stories, the state of the earth is not good (global climate change, increased invasive species, decreases in global biodiversity, etc.) and during the last several decades little has been done to keep the environmental movement alive and kicking in light of political shifts in policy and regulation away from environmental concerns.

This shift has occurred concurrent with shifts among religious organizations away from little political involvement to active political involvement and participation. This began about the time Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition became active and coincided with the “Reagan Revolution.”  To me, this was a pivotal changing point in how faith-based organizations (often closely linked to political affiliations) and high level government authorities viewed the environment. Perhaps the best example of this thinking was Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. His philosophy outlined in his article, “Ours Is the Earth,” and numerous articles since 1981, made clear that he viewed earth as “merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life…The earth was put here by the Lord for His people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on their way to the hereafter.” Christian ethicist Susan Bratton, herself an evangelical, countered Watt’s article, pointing to the Bible’s proclamation, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” Bratton concluded that “his philosophy of management stems largely from economic and political considerations” and that “his economic and political views also greatly influence his ecotheology.”

This brings us to Lynn White Jr.’s thesis 1 that “We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim … Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution can be expected from them alone.” Ian MacHarg didn’t mince words in his book, Design With Nature, and stated that Christianity and the phrase “have dominion” over all living things 2 “as one text of compounded horror which will guarantee the relationship of man to nature can only be destruction, which will atrophy any creative skill … which will explain all of the despoliation accomplished by western man for at least these 2,000 years … The Genesis story in its insistence upon dominion and subjugation of nature, encourages the most exploitative and destructive instincts in man, rather than those that are deferential and creative … God’s affirmation about man’s dominion was a declaration of war on nature.”

While there are numerous scriptural writings and musing about “dominion” these individuals presented a hypothesis that Christianity was largely responsible for the environmental crisis we have experienced.  As with most hypotheses, this spurred a new area of academic research. One of the first and best large scale studies on human attitudes toward wildlife and the environment by Steve Kellert and Joyce Berry 3 observed that those individuals who had the highest attendance at religious services had the lowest knowledge of environmental concerns and that furthermore, those that attended religious services more frequently had more dominionistic and utilitarian attitudes about the environment which provides some evidence to the argument about Christianity and the environment.  However, in the next three decades a substantive amount of research data were collected and there are nuances to the hypothesis but in general, the studies 4 show that in almost all cases, people with no religious affiliation always have higher concerns about the environment than do people of faith.  Furthermore, those of a religious nature have a varying response to the environment with faith traditions that see scripture as “inspired” rather than the actual words of Christ have higher environmental concerns.  Of course this also has nuances by region and sex as one study 5 found that southern, white males have the worst attitudes about caring for creation.

Fortunately this has been changing as a wide variety of faith-based organizations are now accepting of the fact that we are to be good stewards of God’s Creation and should not abuse it. They have come to recognize that Creation belongs to God and has been entrusted to us and that we will be held accountable for the environment and the abuse of it and of its owner, God.

During this same period, I have noticed a shift in our attitudes and opinions about politics and faith. A former friend, now deceased, who was a direct descendant of President Polk, told me one day in conversation that he did not recognize the Southern Baptist Church any longer because it had gotten so involved with politics and has shied away from preaching about our relationship to God and other more appropriate spiritual issues.  I have also seen a shift in student attitudes against organized religion because many of them have grown up where politics has become so intertwined with religion that they see no difference between the two and they don’t much care for the politics of the day.

Finally, I have noticed that Americans have become more unfriendly, more un-neighborly, less kind natured it seems in our attempt to find, I guess I don’t know.  Many don’t know their neighbors, many are not active in local charities and view the poor as lazy, unwilling to work, just looking for a handout.  A perfect example is representatives in Congress like Stephen Fincher and Michelle Bachman on getting rid of food stamps: “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”  And of course this extreme reverence for capitalism goes back to the environment and what James Watt stated earlier. It appears that bigger is better because our homes have gotten larger, our commutes longer, and we are stressed to the point of “keeping up with the Joneses” or Smiths or whomever.

As I ponder from my Christian roots I think about all of this, how greed has replaced compassion; how many no longer care about the world we are entrusting to our children and grandchildren; how there are the haves and the have nots; how politicians cannot even have a reasonable discussion about many things important to Christians like immigration, fair wages, and health care for all. My conclusion is this: somewhere we lost the complete idea that we are creatures of God, that God made us in his image, and that we are called to love one another.  We fail to think of others first and we fail to live simply. We have become so judgmental of anyone that is different from ourselves. In short, we have lost the meaning of what it is to be a creature of God. Until we can regain that emphasis in our lives, we will continue down this path and leave a legacy in which parts of this earth are uninhabitable because of a changing climate, or where we have lost the bank vault of native organisms that can be used for medicine, or we can’t see God’s handiwork in a wildflower or butterfly or a child’s innocent faith.  The book of Revelation is clear: we have a choice between the healing tree and river of life, of a tabernacling God who dwells in and with Creation and a recreation of the Garden of Eden; or a continuation of the path we are on of causing Creation to suffer and die.  I choose a vision of hope and healing with a river of life bright as crystal and a healing tree with twelve kinds of fruit.

Notes:

  1. from “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”
  2. Genesis 1:26,28
  3. Stephen R. Kellert and Joyce K. Berry. US Dept. of Interior. “Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes Toward Animals in American Society,” Phase III.
  4. James L. Guth, John C. Green, Lyman A. Kellstedt and Corwin E. Smidt. “Faith and the Environment: Religious Beliefs and Attitudes on Environmental Policy.” American Journal of Political Science 39.2 (1995): 364-382
  5. Pew Trust Public Poll Climate Change and Pew Trust Public Poll Religion
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