Chapter 1: The Basic Landscape of Religion and the Environment in America
These bibliographic studies give some sense of how religion-ecology interests have developed over the last 50 years, but another way to survey that development is to examine a historical timeline of significant events during that same span. One such timeline, centered on the impact of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, is found here (scroll to the end of the article to see a timeline that runs from 1990-2015).
As indicated above, there was already some theological literature focused on the environment in the 1950s and 1960s. Many people date the rise of the modern environmental movement to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), and there is no doubt that religious concerns for the environment were also piqued at that time. Prior to that, however, there are other precedents. One of the most significant examples of religiously influenced conservation success comes from the history of the development of the National Parks in the U.S. I will note some of this background in more detail in chapter 7, pointing to the work of historian Mark Stoll, who has chronicled the ways that progressive era thinking drew significantly on religious themes, specifically employing imagery of the Edenic qualities of wilderness lands to support the formation of national parks. Liberty Hyde Bailey’s The Holy Earth (1915) also had a powerful influence on society and future writers on the topic of religion and the environment. 1923 saw the formation of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), which has a legacy of environmentally relevant work, including contributing to the development of Rural Life Sundays and Soil Stewardship Sundays, which became established just before the Dust Bowl crisis – as a result, Soil Stewardship Sundays has been called the longest-standing faith based conservation program in America. In 1939, the USDA’s Walter Lowdermilk visited the Holy Land and was struck by the scene of soil erosion and environmental degradation he witnessed there. In a radio broadcast and later publication, Lowdermilk proposed that if Moses were to see the Holy Land now, he would have convinced God to add an 11th commandment along the lines of: “thou shalt not despoil the earth.”
Though the various wars of the 20th century would monopolize a lot of the energy, resources, and political and moral attention of America and other nations, moral and religious attention to nature did continue to emerge. A Christian Ministry in the National Parks began in the 1950s, and in 1953, Eric Charles Rust published Nature and Man in Biblical Thought, which described “man” as the guardian of paradise, given responsibility for the natural world. The 1950s and 1960s also saw the emergence of one of the earliest significant eco-theologians, Joseph Sittler, whose 1961 eco-theology “Called to Unity” address to the World Council of Churches has been likened by some to be the shot heard by no one around the world – it seems Sittler was considerably ahead of his time, but a growing range of theological concern for environmental issues was soon to blossom. 1963 saw the creation of the Faith-Man-Nature (FMN) group, which grew out of the National Council of Churches Faculty Christian Fellowship, Research Group on Theology and Conservation. FMN lasted until 1974 and was a significant precursor to much subsequent thought about religion and the environment, hosting conferences of theologians around the country, and publishing a series of articles and books. FMN member H. Paul Santmire was the first to focus a Harvard dissertation on the topic in 1966, the same year that Dr. Richard Baer (FMN Secretary) taught the first known course in environmental ethics in America, a new testament seminar at Earlham College.
Lynn White’s famous speech and article (see chapter 2) would follow in 1966 and 1967, sparking a tidal wave of attention – much of it now negative – toward religion and the environment. But even as environmental thinkers increasingly focused blame on Christianity, a veritable litany of religious environmental organizations and milestones were established: Thomas Berry’s Riverdale Center of Religious Research (1970), Alfred North Whitehead’s process theology legacy and the roots of ecofeminist theory (1970s), Dennis Kuby’s Ministry of Ecology in Berkeley (1973-1981), Eco-Justice Project and Network (EJPN) at Cornell (source of Eco-Justice Themes and Eco-Justice Quarterly newsletters (1974)), Appalachian Bishops Pastoral Letter: This Land is Home to Me (1975), World Council of Churches Nairobi: Just Participatory Sustainable Society (1975), the Au Sable Institute (1979), the 11th Commandment Fellowship (1979), Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis’s Genesis Farm (1980), Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (1981), World Council of Churches Vancouver: Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation (1983), A Rocha (1983), National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Working Group (1983/1986), Alliance of Religions and Conservation (1986), North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology and the journal Firmament (replaced in 1991 by Earthkeeping News; 1986), Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (1987), Environmental Ministries of Southern California (1988), Environmental Justice Office of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (1988), North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology (1989), Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Environment (1990), Religion and Ecology Committee of the American Academy of Religion (1990), Theological Education to Meet the Environmental Challenge (1992), Earth Ministry (1992), The Regeneration Project (1992), The National Religious Partnership for the Environment, including Evangelical Environmental Network, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Eco-Justice Project (1992/1993), Presbyterians for Earth Care (1995), Harvard Series of Conferences on Religion and Ecology (1996-1998), Episcopal Power and Light (1997), Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation (1998), Restoring Eden (2001)…and the list goes on and on. In addition to these organizations and events, religious denominations across the spectrum have generated hundreds of official environmental policy statements dating back to the 1970s.
All of these events and organizations have played a part in shaping the landscape of religion and environmental concerns today. With the publication and reaction to Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical letter, it’s now common for people to have heard of faith-based environmental views, but increasingly in the 2000s and 2010s, examples of faith-based environmental work proliferated. Profiles and success stories are catalogued on many websites.
Suffice it to say that by now, an incredibly diverse array of religious environmental programs and teachings and legacies are woven throughout the American religious and cultural landscape. Despite this legacy, some amount of skepticism lingers about the usefulness of religion for environmental stewardship. The next chapter focuses on the most influential and enduring such skepticism in some detail. But the message is clear from scientific and environmental leaders: religion is now a critical part of the landscape of earth stewardship, and scientists and environmental professionals alike have focused increasing attention on understanding and collaborating effectively with faith communities. Most of the rest of this book tends to that effort.
- Members of the Faith, Man, Nature group, for instance, were influenced by the release of Silent Spring. ↵
- Mark Ellingsen’s book on church social movements documents several hundred such statements: https://www.amazon.com/Cutting-Edge-Churches-Social-Issues/dp/0802807100. ↵
- Some examples include: http://www.nrpe.org/stewardship-stories.html ; http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org/about/success-stories-2/; For a brief tour of some examples I think are illustrative, Ohio State students can look on Canvas for a short powerpoint describing a range of engagements and initiatives across many denominations. ↵