While some Latter-day Saints view environmentalists among their fellow members as "extremists," there is a growing movement at least in the scholarly community to rethink what it means for men to have "dominion over the Earth."
That was the general consensus among speakers at the annual Mormon Studies Conference at Utah Valley State College on Wednesday, all of whom addressed the theme, "Mormonism and the Environment."
Care for animals as part of God's creation was a large part of the discussion.
Matthew Gowans, a Utah native now working on his Ph.D. in theology at Loyola University, quoted LDS scholar Hugh Nibley, who believed that "Adam was a great friend to the animals" in the Garden of Eden.
But Latter-day Saints believe once Adam was banished from the garden by God, not only did he "fall" from grace but so did the general state of life on earth, including man's relationship with animals.
"Is it possible that God placed him there to orient him as to a correct view of life?" and the sacredness of nature, Gowans said.
Only after his banishment did Adam kill animals as a sacrifice. LDS teaching says when asked by an angel why he was offering such a sacrifice, Adam replied, "I know not, save the Lord commanded me." He was then told that the sacrifice symbolized Christ, whose blood would be shed as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, Gowans said.
Animal sacrifice was a strict component of the Law of Moses, but Latter-day Saints believe Christ's atonement did away with the need to kill animals as religious offerings.
Today, the realities of daily life for ranchers, butchers and others involved in providing meat for human consumption mean "there's often no time or ability to be concerned with sentimentality toward the animals," Gowans said. In such cases, ethics may not be the major consideration.
"We don't necessarily live in ideal conditions," as existed in Eden, he said. "We live with harsh realities and have to make hard decisions."
Bart Welling, Environmental Center Fellow at the University of North Florida, is working on a book about "eco-porn" that draws analogies between what men have done to objectify and abuse women and how that same philosophy is used to treat animals as "objects" for human sport and consumption rather than as God's creation.
He said interpretations of the LDS Word of Wisdom which eschews the use of alcohol, tobacco and "hot drinks" have evolved over time. The mandate includes a sentence about consuming meat "sparingly," yet "if you take a nip of vodka every now and then, you hurt far fewer creatures that you do by eating a hamburger."
He said former church presidents Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith and later, Joseph Fielding Smith, quietly abstained from eating meat and were concerned with "how to treat and live with animals."
LDS children in the late 19th century used to celebrate "Humane Day," he said, and were urged to write poetry about birds or animals as a way to engender kind treatment. "There was even an early debate in Utah history about whether to eat pork," Welling said.
Book of Mormon imagery regularly associates wickedness with "animal-like behavior" and the consumption of raw meat, he said, noting that at times, the righteous were also meat-eaters. Analogies of "sheep" being righteous and "beasts" being wicked maybe have something to do with pervasive attitudes about animals among Latter-day Saints today, he said.
LDS Church founder Joseph Smith taught early followers to avoid killing "serpents, birds or animals of any kind" unless it was necessary to provide food.
Such actions represent a type of "practical millennialism," which is "that we help bring about the millennial state" that Latter-day Saints believe will exist on Earth after the second coming of Christ "by reining in our (debased) actions regarding the treatment of nature," Welling said.
Several sections in the faith's Doctrine and Covenants put forth the notion that "animals are eternal beings and subject to Christ's atonement," he said, adding, "their lives are only to be taken under strictly defined conditions."He urged a return to the "historical dialogue (among church members) about the kinds of life we choose to save and the kinds of life we choose to take."