Chapter 1: The Basic Landscape of Religion and the Environment in America
1.1 Newsflash: It’s Not a Fight!
Two things stick out in my mind as I recall my own studies of how religion and environmental concerns relate in America. Given how powerful the media has become in shaping the way people think about issues and that controversial and sensational stories get more attention than “daily life” stories, it might be no surprise that many of us continue to see religion and science or religion and the environment as in potential conflict. There has been a belief among American environmental thinkers – a belief I once shared – that religion is a significantly anti-environmental force, and echoes of that dying belief still reverberate. Even if the truth is that religion is mostly a force for environmental good in America, we are likely to notice a lot more reporting about the few examples of conflict that exist. One example comes from newspaper articles. When I worked for the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) during my masters program at Yale, one project I oversaw was a cataloguing of news articles about religion and the environment. At the time, when paper newspapers were still prominent in the mid-late 1990s, Lexis Nexis and other digital means of retrieving news were just beginning to ascend. Organizations that wanted to keep track of news reports still employed news clipping services. NRPE subscribed to two news clipping services, and every week we received envelopes filled with all of the news clips from around the country that week that had anything to do with religion and the environment. These services covered all of the large market newspapers, but also small market local papers in 50 states. Part of my job was to read all of those articles and enter them into a database of news clips.
By the end of 1998, the database had accumulated over 1,800 articles covering the period of 1992-1998. I had entered over 800 of those articles myself, reading them and categorizing them in the database according to their content – I noted which denominations they talked about, what environmental issues they covered, the basic tone they portrayed (negative, positive, ambiguous, etc.), and I kept track of which organizations, like NRPE, were being mentioned in the news. I would later return to further analyze these data during my doctoral work, but while there were other interesting things that emerged, the most striking fact was how many of the 1,800 articles reported from a negative or antagonistic frame.
Before commenting on this, it’s worth recognizing that something that shows up in newspapers 1,800 times in seven years is not what you would call a popular phenomenon. When electronic/online searching began to be an option for news articles around this time, a search for “religion and environment” for a particular year might yield 300-400 hits, while articles about “Britney Spears” would tally 50,000, so it’s surely safe to say that 1,800 articles during this span suggests that not that many Americans were reading about religion and the environment, even if papers like the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, or other big market papers were running articles (indeed, when I ask my students at Ohio State whether anyone has ever heard of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, usually only one or two raise their hands). What’s more, search terms for this topic are wide ranging: words like earth, spirit, faith, ecology, planet, prayer, and nature might all be used in preference to “religion and environment,” making it tedious to track down all the relevant stories. Regardless of these data management challenges, examining all the articles that could be found in a reasonably wide-sweeping search at least provided a sense of the extent to which religion-environment news was being reported, and gave me a clue about how the topic was being reported.
I predicted that a fair percent of the articles would pick up on the tensions between religion and science and would include comments about the negative impacts religion has on the environment that I had been taught about in my undergraduate ecology studies at Cornell, and that I’d also encountered in my environmental and theology graduate studies at Yale. So the question was, how many of the 1,800 articles would mention or focus on these negative influences? 1500? 300? 1000? 700? Take a moment to make your own guess. If you had access to nearly every article in the country that reported on religion and the environment from 1992-1998, how many – out of 1,800 – would you think had a negative frame? The answer, to my complete surprise, was 12. Only a dozen articles reported any sort of negative perspective. Half of those were articles from a particular storyline in California, where some reporters concerned about nature worship (a not uncommon concern of conservative Christians) wrote about some pagan groups that were practicing in California. The other half dozen negative articles involved a sprinkling of skeptical commentary from authors who thought that religions (and maybe particularly Christians) should not be getting so carried away with “environmentalism.” Other than these 12 (only 0.67% of the total!), all of the rest of the articles were reporting on stories of how local or national faith communities were engaging with environmental concerns, creating environmental curricula, challenging environmental problems, calling for environmental protection, or bringing hope to the environmental movement.
I didn’t imagine that news coverage was a perfect proxy for reality (indeed not!), but I was still amazed that the idea of religion having a negative influence on environmental concerns was almost entirely absent from the news, and the standard story seemed to be essentially the opposite.
Another theme that stuck out to me in my studies was the result of the most comprehensive set of conferences ever organized to address religion and ecology. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim organized a series of 10 conferences at Harvard through the Forum on World Religions that focused on major religious traditions and “ecology”. From 1996 to 1998, these conferences invited and convened many of the main scholars that could be identified who were studying different religious traditions and ecology or environmental concerns around the world. The 10-volume series that resulted from Harvard Press provides the proceedings of those conferences, which sought to answer the question of how the world’s main religious traditions are impacting human-ecosystem interactions. Here too, I thought the proceedings would characterize the dynamics I would expect from my ecological education – that eastern and indigenous religions have an environmentally friendly impact, and that western religions are ambiguous or problematic for environmental ethics. But Tucker and others offered the following summary of the results of the conferences: yes, there are some cases where religion can reinforce negative attitudes toward the environment, but the overwhelming conclusion of this scholarship was that the world’s main religious traditions contain deep and powerful resources to provide a basis for environmental care.
Bit by bit, discoveries like these started to shift my thinking. I had to admit that my own expectations and impressions of religion and the environment might have been somewhat negatively skewed against the facts, and I think that hasn’t been uncommon for many people engaged in religious environmental work. As clear signals began to emerge through the 1990s that religions might be a significant force for environmental good, the notion many of us began to favor was that if religions were starting to take on environmental interests, they were doing so by overturning or changing previously anti-environmental views; but, with each piece of history I uncovered, I began to question whether this notion too was based on evidence or opinion.
- For those who have only ever known “cut” and “paste” as electronic drop-down menu items, when I say news “clips” here, I mean actual articles that were clipped with scissors out of actual, hard copy newspapers, and pasted onto a sheet for photocopying. ↵
- Media attention would later increase: in 2002, when several US faith communities joined together to visit the big-three automakers in Detroit to lobby for more efficient and less polluting auto standards, evangelical Christians involved in the campaign surfaced the catch phrase “What Would Jesus Drive,” and that campaign alone scored over 1,800 media hits in a short period of time, equalling the total number of media reports about religion and environment in the preceding 8-10 years. ↵
- It’s not clear to me that religion has ever, on whole, been particularly anti-environmental, at least not any more than its surrounding culture, and as I’ll detail in chapter 2, increasing evidence shows that, if anything, religion is more likely to be helping than harming the environmental cause. ↵