Readers talk back about the Christian-right take on environmentalism
“The Godly Must Be Crazy,” Glenn Scherer’s article on right-wing Christian evangelical politicians and their hostility toward environmental protections, elicited a mighty flood of mail. Here we print a sampling of letters, followed by a response from Scherer.
I am a former Republican, former Christian (go figure that one), and have become a passionate environmentalist in the last few years (all to the chagrin of my 100 percent Republican parents and two brothers). I was just saying last night to my husband that I have never been able to fathom how the Christian right cares so little about the environment — after all, doesn’t God want us to cherish and protect the earth He has given us?
After reading this excellent article, now I understand. And I’m scared to death. These radical evangelical Christians actually believe that the faster we destroy the earth and our environment, the faster the “second coming of Christ” will happen. I no longer believe in a “second coming” (although I do believe in God and an afterlife, just not in the black-and-white way that fundamentalists view it). But with 50 million Americans, according to this article, and 231 U.S. senators and representatives believing in this crazy “End Times” theology, all working to hasten the end of the earth, they just might pull the rest of us along with them down the path of environmental destruction and the end of the ability of the earth to sustain life.
Unbelievable. God help the rest of us.
This is a first — I’ve been offended by Grist. As a Christian and an environmentalist, I found this article ridiculous. I’ve been attending church for most of my life, and I have never, ever, been preached to about not needing to care for the environment because of the second coming of Christ.
The issue of voting is very simple. Many Christians vote on the basic issues of abortion and, now, gay marriage. Unfortunately, voting Republican because of those issues results in further damage to the environment — it’s the Republican agenda, not the Christian agenda, that is to blame.
I share Mr. Scherer’s concern about the opposition to environmental protection by many avowedly Christian politicians, activists, and voters. However, in interpreting the relationship between religious beliefs and environmental attitudes, we need to get our facts straight, even seemingly minor ones.
What is the source for the quote he attributes to James Watt? (“God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”) I have read some careful studies of the supposed relationship between Watt’s religious beliefs and his environmental policies, and nowhere have I seen that quote.
For a generation of environmentalists, Watt has been the paradigm of the anti-environmental conservative evangelical Christian. He is frequently quoted as saying, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” and this is taken as implying that he believed that conservation is therefore unnecessary. In fact, immediately following that very statement he said, “… whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to have the resources needed for future generations.”
Watt’s policies were deplorable. But they were not so clearly the result of his religious beliefs as almost everyone assumes.
As Susan Bratton concluded in an article in Environmental Ethics in 1983, Watt’s theology “appears to play a minor role in his total outlook, rather than serve as a foundation for his entire natural-resource philosophy. A majority of the concepts he presents [in the available written materials] are based on his economic views favoring control of resources by private enterprise instead of the federal government.”
This is not necessarily to say that the religious beliefs of some powerful individuals and groups today aren’t a threat to environmental protections. But to respond effectively we need historical facts, not mistaken assumptions that may obstruct a full understanding of the real roots of the problem. It may be that, by widening the rift between environmentalists and evangelicals, the misrepresentation of Watt’s views helped to create the cultural climate that has allowed such extreme anti-environmental religious views to flourish.
Research Fellow and Coordinator of Outreach
Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies
I am not one to write to the editor very often, particularly to complain about an article. However, I see something in Glenn Scherer’s article that really puts the fire to my soapbox.
While Scherer — and the rest of the savvy electorate — has a significant bone to pick with the social and environmental policies of the religious right, I feel that this article declares war against Christianity as a whole. He has succumbed to the same divisive, bellicose verbiage typical of the current administration.
I myself am a Christian. As such, I believe it is my God-given duty to be not only environmentally conscious, but also open to the needs of the socially downtrodden the world over. The biblical record makes it quite clear that stewardship of our natural resources is in order, that women are to have an equal role in things as sacred as religious teaching, and that the poor and underprivileged are to be cared for and protected. Not only are these things my duty, they are also my privilege: it is more blessed to give than to receive.
I think the real problem with the political branch of the so-called “religious right” is that its god is not the biblical God of love and compassion, willing to sacrifice so much to give hope to so many. No, the god of the political right is really money. The right needs to be called to account for its attempt to follow two masters. In the words of Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
The next time Scherer and the heretofore well-informed folks at Grist decide to harp about the religious lexicon of the political right, perhaps a little research into the real meaning of Christianity would give them better ammunition.
Thanks for listening, and God bless America!
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I want to thank Mr. Scherer for his article. I am left rather shaken by it. I live in the Southeast where End Times thinking is pretty prevalent. However, I wasn’t aware of all the dimensions of such thinking, nor of the prevalence of it in our government. I am appalled, especially because I am a Christian minister, working hard to create theologically, scripturally sound programming that teaches adults and youth that environmental flourishing is a sign of the shalom — the peace and well-being — God intended for all of us, human and non-human alike. The End Times stuff is bad scripture reading, bad theology, and bad doctrine.
I am not the only Christian out here working for ecological faithfulness. I would love to see you do an article on some of the Christian organizations and activists who are working for the thriving of the environment. Lots of us think Jesus is green!
Rev. Betsy Flory
I believe the radical Christian right is much more dangerous to our world than radical Islam — the main reason being that they have the world’s most powerful nation doing their bidding. The basic philosophy of both radical groups results in their near-complete abdication of personal and societal responsibility. The only useful philosophy for humankind is one which says we control our own destiny.
Beverly Hills, Mich.
I just finished your article “The Godly Must Be Crazy.” Certainly some fascinating and strange stories that make for great news copy. However, there is a continuum of beliefs regarding environmentalism among Christians, as there is among most people. Generally Christians believe that God charged humankind with caring for the earth and its creatures and don’t believe that exploiting and trashing the earth is something we are entitled to. Indeed, there are some quite environmentally active Christians who are motivated to care for the earth and its creatures through a deep faith in God and a desire to care for His creation. I’m not saying that many Christians in America aren’t in “environmental denial” like the rest of Americans are. A lot of folks just don’t want to believe that the earth is headed toward environmental disaster.
Also, Christians see reports of “eco-terrorists” and think environmentalists are just as crazy as some of the folks reading your article probably think Christians are. Unfortunately, they associate environmentalism with paganism, New Age, etc., and throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not saying there aren’t some right-wing folks in government claiming to represent the will of “God” who are pretty scary to me. I’m saying these folks might not represent the majority of those calling themselves Christians.
Some of the world’s most outspoken environmentalists have been Christians: Albert Schweitzer, Leo Tolstoy, St. Francis of Assisi. Current Christian environmental movements include the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign (part of the Evangelical Environmental Network), Green Cross International, Christian Environmental Council, Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, Target Earth, and many more.
Glenn Scherer’s article was legitimate, if a little cynical of religion. The problem is that he painted with too broad a brush, insinuating that almost all who believe in a God-inspired Bible will fall into this category. He did not sufficiently differentiate between those with a particular (un-environmental) interpretation of certain biblical passages and the much larger number of people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.
This sets up a false dilemma for those of us who both believe in the truth of the Bible and consider ourselves environmentalists. Nor is there necessarily a divide between liberal and conservative Christians on this issue. The Evangelical Environmental Network, referenced in the article, is composed of mostly conservative groups who take a fairly literal approach to biblical interpretation. This and other groups of Christian environmentalists form a potentially powerful ally for the environmental movement.
In fact, conservative Christian environmentalists are perhaps the only group of environmentalists to whom the Bush administration is likely to pay any attention at all. Rather than alienating them, as this article may have done by insulting their faith, the environmental movement needs to reach out and work together with them to achieve our common goals.
Thank you for publishing this — it gave me my first real answer to why the election went the way it did. I didn’t really understand the evangelical Christian view of the environment and its pervasiveness in our government. I have been wondering for the last four years what the heck was going on, and why people were so blind to the issues that seem so obvious to me, and now it is clear … and scary as hell. (OK, actually, as a nonbeliever, I don’t really find hell that scary, so it’s as scary as … missing nuclear weapons?)
As a writer, I spend most of my time locked up in solitary confinement, staring all day into a large plastic box and wiggling my fingers. So when one of my stories strikes a chord with readers it is gratifying. “The Godly Must Be Crazy” struck such a chord: It inspired an eruption of applause and invective, even attracting the attention of journalist Bill Moyers (who used it as a point of departure for a speech at the Harvard Medical School) and of Robert Kennedy Jr. (who interviewed me about it for Air America radio).
Most letters to Grist expressed thanks for the research I had done (bringing to light, for example, the dark world of End-Time websites — a grim landscape that out doom-and-glooms the most iconoclastic Grist reporter). I was pleased that readers appreciated my offering up of an alternative explanation to corporate exploitation for the rabid anti-environmentalism of the far right.
A few letters were critical, and to these I want to respond. First, my piece was clearly not an attack on Christians or Christianity. Nor did it “declare war against Christianity as a whole.” It was an exploration of one portion of Christendom: those evangelicals who hold End-Time beliefs (especially dispensationalists and reconstructionists). That is a point that I made clear in the following paragraph:
“Those 50 million believers [with some sort of End-Time worldview] make up only a subset of the estimated 100 million born-again evangelicals in the United States, who are by no means uniformly right-wing anti-environmentalists. In fact, the political stances of evangelicals on the environment and other issues range widely; the Evangelical Environmental Network, for example, has melded its biblical interpretation with good environmental science to justify and promote stewardship of the earth. But the political and cultural impact of the extreme Christian right is difficult to overestimate.”
Perhaps this paragraph occurred too far into the article to be prominent. In hindsight, I think I would have better served, and less offended, some devout Christian readers if this qualifying statement had stood near the head of the piece. I definitely understand, as one reader writes, that “there is a continuum of beliefs regarding environmentalism among Christians.” Like Islam, Hinduism, and every other great world religion, Christianity contains people of every stripe.
Several readers asked where I got the James Watt quote: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” It is found on page 229 of the book Setting the Captives Free by Austin Miles. [Editor’s note, 04 Feb 2005: While Miles’ book does cite this Watt quote, it does not state that the quote was made in congressional testimony, as Scherer originally wrote in his article. We have corrected the original article to reflect this fact, and we continue to look into the accuracy of the quote.]
In a letter to Grist, Peter Bakken pointed me to research that reveals the deeper complexity of Watt’s fundamentalist views. While the “last tree is felled” quote takes a dominionist position (that God gave nature to humanity for us to use and abuse as we please until the rapture), Bakken notes that other Watt statements support a stewardship approach: “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” Watt said, but, “… whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to have the resources needed for future generations.” These contradictory quotes illustrate just how hard it is to pin down the religious beliefs of officials like Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), or George W. Bush. Personally, I think the struggle between Christian dominionist and Christian stewardship theologies will help determine the ultimate success (or failure) of the U.S. environmental movement.
What is also apparent to me is that, as our president embarks on his second term and the Congress continues its swing to the right, journalists need to investigate, and the public needs to more openly discuss, religious fundamentalism and its influence on policy. Such an examination and debate is urgent and long overdue.
Exit polls found that President Bush won 79 percent of the 26.5 million evangelical votes in 2004, according to The Washington Post. That proves religion matters. And it matters on nearly every issue. End-Time beliefs, or other extreme Christian theologies, may play a role in influencing policy decisions on the environment, education, the deficit, nuclear proliferation, and even the war on terror. My article has gone a little way toward opening this discussion. But much more needs to be said.
As a final note, I emphatically agree with Rev. Betsy Flory of Conyers, Ga. Raised Catholic, I believe just as she declared: “Jesus is green!”