As the world waits for Pope Francis' upcoming encyclical on the environment — which is expected to guide discussion of climate change in Catholic parishes and offer moral arguments for people of faith to live sustainably — a new book is adding perspective to debates over religion's role in the environmental movement.
"Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism" (Oxford University Press, $39.95), published at the end of May, explores how faith and morality were essential to the development of the country's conservation initiatives, the national parks system and the environmental movement over the last two centuries.
Author Mark Stoll, associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at Texas Tech University, traces the development of environmentalism across religious denominations, exploring how New England Congregationalists, then Presbyterians, then Southern Baptists, Catholics and Jews each led the charge at different points in history to protect America's forests and mountains.
Profiling prominent environmentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir and John Denver, Stoll highlights how leaders' faith backgrounds influence what they work toward and the strategies they deploy to make a difference. Although most of the profiled leaders left formal religious practice behind in adulthood, their early exposure to faith deeply informed their work in the environmental movement, equipping them with the moral language required to inspire activism on a national scale, Stoll concludes.
"A religious perspective gives the history and development of environmentalism a trajectory, unity and power," he writes, reflecting on what the decline of religious institutions in contemporary America could mean for the environmental movement.
Stoll spoke to Deseret News National about how moral concerns drive environmentalism in America and why Pope Francis's encyclical is just the latest development in a long relationship between religion and the environment.
Deseret News: Contemporary debates over the environment and climate change are highly politicized. Have we lost a sense of what religion has to say about these issues?
Mark Stoll: Yeah, I think so. There is this sort of divide. Part of it is the decline of the Reformed churches, like the Presbyterian church. They're no longer producing these kinds of (environmental leaders).
And in 1967, there was this famous essay by Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," which blamed Christianity for pollution and abuse of the Earth, saying that it was inherent in theology that Earth was given to us to have dominion over, that it was ours to use. (White) created a sense that there’s a divide between religion and environmentalism, which became pretty dominant.
That caused, I think, the conservative evangelicals to stand back from environmentalism, which they supported in the 1960s and 1970s. As people began to accuse Christianity of being the problem, they divorced themselves from the environmental movement. And then, in the Reagan era, the issue really became politicized, and we saw evangelicals attacking environmentalism.
DN: Was religion's influence on the early environmental movement the result of a few driven individuals, or did everyday believers have a role to play as well?
MS: I think rank-and-file Christians absolutely played a role. But that's where research becomes difficult. It'd be really interesting to know the religious background of members of the Sierra Club (America's largest environmental organization), but those statistics just don't exist.
We do know that current surveys don't show a strong connection between denominational background and environmentalism.
However, we've also concluded that, in order to have an effective movement, you have to have effective leaders. And it seems certain denominations train that kind of leader.
DN: Organized religion is declining in America. Will this affect the environmental movement?
MS: Yes, absolutely. I just looked at a recent survey that showed most of the decline in church-going is in mainline denominations. The evangelical denominations are holding mostly steady. It's the denominations that formerly produced (environmental leaders) that are shrinking and disappearing.
It's not that people are leaving religion entirely, because I think surveys show that people continue to believe. But they don't have a connection to institutional religion.
I think that's a problem in that these people may very well think we have to take care of the earth, but there is a sort of individualism, an "I'm a seeker. We're all seekers" mentality, that lacks the "preacherliness," the moralistic tone, the sense of righteousness, that created leaders.
This probably has implications not only for the environmental movement, but for the progressive liberal movement as a whole. It seems to lack these powerful leaders that it once had.
DN: People predict that Pope Francis's encyclical on the environment will focus on Catholics' moral obligation to care for creation. How has morality informed religious environmental activism over the last century?
MS: Environmentalism is certainly seen as a moral cause. And it should be a moral cause.
Pope Francis is going to come at this topic from Catholic tradition. I'm certain he's going to frame is in the way it's been framed since about the 1970s: as an issue of social justice. It will be couched in terms of how it affects the poor.
The way that the Presbyterians thought of the environment as a moral issue was different. To them, it was a problem of greed, of avarice. Greedy individuals were destroying the things that had been put on the earth for the benefit of all humans, like the forests, and victimizing everybody and hurting the common good. It was still a moral critique, but it pointed out villains much more explicitly than Catholics do.
One of the aspects of the American environmental movement that strikes people from other countries is how moralistic it is. We, on the inside, don't see it as much.
But once you start looking at green movements from Germany or France and look at the American environmental movement from their perspective, you really see how Protestant it is.
DN: What inspired you to write this book?
MS: It's a long story. I’ve been working on this topic since I went back to graduate school in 1987 and got interested in a question about John Muir, the famous nature writer and activist for national parks. He had this very conservative, Christian, Protestant upbringing. And according to received wisdom, that (religious background) was antithetical to environmentalism. I was wondering how he got from point A to point B.
That research led to my first book, "Protestantism, Capitalism and Nature in America," which explored why Protestantism would produce all the people who could be blamed for pollution and, at the same time, all the people who were out there to protect nature.
While I was working on that book, I began to realize that there was more to the story that you could distinguish denominationally. If you were brought up in a certain denomination, you would tend to have certain attitudes toward nature and the environment as an adult, no matter whether you were still a believer or changed religions.
That led to this project, which was originally about trying to analyze different denominations. But then I began to realize there was a sequence to it: certain people from certain denominations were prominent at certain times in the environmental movement.
In my new book, I ask, "Why did that happen, and how did the dominant denominations of each era shape environmentalism?"
DN: How did your research and writing influence the way you think about religion?2 comments on this story
MS: Well, from the very beginning, the John Muir research, it's been clear to me that there are continuities from your childhood to your adulthood. We don't make a complete break from our past religious practices. There's something imprinted upon us as we grow up.
I still have an inner Presbyterian, even if I don't practice anymore. I see a bit of myself, a bit of my values, being passed on to my children without ever having put them in a Presbyterian Church.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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