Letter to Reader

Theotokos in the Apothecary. Photo credit: Jacob Taylor

“Religion and the Environment” is an emerging field that has evolved significantly over the past 50 years. Today, evidence of environmental concern can be found across most religious denominations, and the roots of faith-based creation care draw from both ancient and contemporary traditions and teachings.  Whether in Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, or thousands of other denominational environmental statements and programs, or a growing appreciation for the spiritual value of nature and the importance of environmental justice, religious engagement in environmental sustainability continues to grow.

While the roots for this flowering of religious environmental attention were developing, however, the modern environmental movement has had a sometimes antagonistic relationship with religion, particularly in the United States.  Though theologians had been responding to environmental concerns by the mid-1960s,[1] the environmental movement and the counter-cultural flavor of the late 60s and 1970s gave rise to persuasive suspicions about the environmental fitness of religion, particularly biblical religions (and of traditional moralities in general), in the United States.  Many in the environmental movement would likely have blamed Christianity and the biblical notion of “dominion” as underlying what they perceived as a Western culture of environmental disregard, and while Eastern religions were often deemed environmentally friendly, environmentalists through the 1980s and into the 1990s rarely found common cause with the most socially influential religious communities in American life.

But the 1980s was also the time when American faith communities started to effectively network and connect their environmental concerns across denominational boundaries.  In the early 1990s the National Religious Partnership for the Environment joined and helped link a growing body of religious environmental organizations, and the American Academy of Religion formed a Religion and Ecology group that catalyzed a growing literature of religious-environmental scholarship.  By the late 90s and early 2000s, environmental organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club were waking up to the importance of faith communities as allies, and by the 2010s, several environmentally-focused scientific and professional societies (such as Ecological Society of America and the Society for Conservation Biology) had begun to develop initiatives to engage with faith communities and religious environmental thinking.

So it was little surprise that scientific and environmental leaders alike lauded the environmental encyclical of Pope Francis in 2015; here at The Ohio State University, we hosted Cardinal Peter Turkson, then president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace and a primary drafter of portions of the encyclical; Turkson joined university President Michael Drake and soon-to-be Provost Bruce McPheron in front of a full audience in OSUs largest auditorium to discuss important values related to caring for our common home, the Earth. As of 2017, the UN Environment program has launched a sustainable development outreach program called the Faith for Earth Initiative.  Including religion as part of environmental dialogue has become much more mainstream in the 2010’s than ever before.

So religion, which once often raised environmental suspicions in America, has now developed into a complexly engaged player in environmental conversations, and this online book seeks to characterize and chronicle some of those developments. The book is organized into three main sections: the first four chapters are designed to provide background and a framework for fruitfully examining questions related to religion and the environment in America; chapters 5-7 look at theological and spiritual anthropologies as a way of understanding how different religions view the role of the human being in relation to the rest of life; the remaining chapters provide a range of case studies that explore how faith communities are grappling with contemporary environmental and sustainability issues.  By examining both the challenges and the potential of religious and spiritual influences on sustainability, these examples suggest how religion is playing a role in determining the sustainability of life on Earth, and point toward promising directions for those who seek to connect science, policy, communities, and values in the common goal of enhancing human well-being, peace, and planetary flourishing.

  1. See chapter 1 for more details about the historical timeline of religious-environmental thinking in America.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.