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Commentary

Bruce Babbitt, Pipeline to the Almighty


     
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For ten points, identify the secretary of the interior who once said that his political enemies were out to destroy him because they were “so deeply disturbed by the prospect of religious values entering the national debate” and that they should follow his policies because said policies are commanded in the Bible and reflect a “plan of God.” The choices are (a) Cecil Andrus of the Carter administration; (b) James Watt of the Reagan administration; and (c) Bruce Babbitt of the Clinton administration. Most people would assume James Watt is the answer. Wrong. The correct answer is Bruce Babbitt.

Since last fall, Babbitt has been giving speeches to groups like the League of Conservation Voters in which he says that, through his environmental policies, he is carrying out God’s instructions.

In a December 1995 speech, Babbitt put it this way: “In Genesis, Noah was commanded to take into the ark two by two and seven by seven every living thing in creation, the clean and unclean. He did not specify that Noah should limit the ark to two charismatic species, two good for hunting, two species that might provide some cure down the road, and, say, two that draw crowds to the city zoo. No, He specified the whole of Creation.” And therefore, as Babbitt concludes, the Endangered Species Act must not be altered to take costs into consideration or to set priorities among species, as hostile Republican critics in the Congress have been advocating.

Babbitt also speaks of his disillusionment with the Catholic church of his youth and his discovery in the Sari Francisco Peaks near his Arizona home that “the vast landscape was somehow sacred and holy, and connected to me in a sense that my catechism ignored.” He “came to believe, deeply and irrevocably, that the land, and that blue mountain, and all the plants and animals in the natural world are together a direct reflection of divinity.”

Although it may be startling to hear such talk from a liberal Democrat, Babbitt’s injection of overt religious themes into the language of daily policy debate is actually the logical culmination of a long process. The environmental movement began by arguing its case primarily in secular, scientific terms. Yet the language of the movement always had powerful religious overtones. For years, activists have been speaking of native forests as “ancient cathedrals,” of the “desecration” of nature, of an “apocalypse” that will result from human “transgressions” against the earth, of a “calling” to “save” the natural world.

The philosophical writings of environmentalism contain frequent declarations that, in the long run, saving the environment requires a change in the human heart—a leap of faith. In The Voice of the Earth (1992), Theodore Roszak wrote that “the emerging worldview of our day will have to address questions of a frankly religious character.” The goal must be “ethical conduct, moral purpose, and the meaning of life,” as humanity seeks “to heal the soul of its wounds” and thereby guide it “to salvation.”

In a famous 1967 article in Science, Lynn White argued that environmentalism would only succeed when it had a religious foundation. However, White said this would probably require a turn away from Christianity. Judeo-Christian teachings, such as the message of human dominion over the earth in Genesis, encouraged human beings to stand apart from the natural world and to do what they wanted to the earth for their own convenience. Instead, to develop a proper reverence for nature, it would be necessary to turn toward Asian, Native American, and other faiths that saw man and nature: in much greater intrinsic unity.

Taken for many years as the definitive statement, White’s analysis did not augur well for the future of environmentalism in a nation where 90 percent of the people consider themselves Christian. However, White had fundamentally misread the religious origins of modern environmentalism. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club in 1892 and the leading preservationist of his time, commonly referred to primitive forests as “temples” and to the sound of trees as “psalm singing.” He sought to preserve the wilderness because there it was possible to find “terrestrial manifestations of God,” providing a “window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator”—much the same language that Babbitt is now using.

Muir was raised according to the dictates of a strict Protestant sect called the Campbellites. But, like many others in the modern age, by his twenties he had left many of the doctrines of his youth behind. “I take more intense delight from reading the power and goodness of God from ‘the things which are made’ than from the Bible,” Muir said. According to environmental historian Donald Worster, Muir “invented a new kind of frontier religion; one based on going to the wilderness to experience the loving presence of God.”

Muir obtained his philosophy of nature from New England transcendentalism. For the transcendentalists as well, nature was the best link between God and humanity. Emerson, Thoreau, and other transcendentalists in turn drew much of their inspiration from their Puritan Boston forebears. The Puritans also, as the great historian Perry Miller said, were “obsessed” with the “theology of nature.” In the Puritan theology of the colonial era, the plants and animals of the natural world were “ministers and apostles of God, the vehicles and the way by which we are carried to God.”

Other Puritan themes are also in evidence today. David Brower, perhaps the leading environmental figure of our time, described the human presence in the world as a “cancer.” Or as Paul Watson, a founder of Greenpeace, once put it, “We, the human species, have become a viral epidemic to the earth”—in truth, the “AIDS of the earth.” Such dark visions hark back to the Calvinist and Puritan conception of a depraved world of human beings infected with sin, tempted to their own destruction at every step by the devil and his devious tricks.

That may be why the movement today resonates so powerfully with so many Americans. As Worster explains, “Surely it cannot be surprising that in a culture deeply rooted in Protestantism, we should find ourselves speaking its language, expressing its temperament, even when we thought we were free of all that.” The environmental movement today is strongest in Germany, Sweden, and Holland—all countries with strong Protestant heritages.

Babbitt’s recent decision to appeal to the Bible to justify his environmental policies thus is making explicit what has long been implicit in the environmental movement. Indeed, before becoming secretary of the interior, he had given voice to similar ideas. In a 1992 speech to the Humane Society, he described a “pilgrimage” that had led him to reject “mankind’s expansion at the expense of Creation.”

Babbitt is not the only leading politician turning to religious themes. Vice President Al Gore said recently that “we need a new reverence for the environment as a whole” and that we must learn to stop “heaping contempt on God’s Creation.” Roger Kennedy, the director of the National Park Service, declared in a 1994 speech to the National Wilderness Conference that “wilderness is a religious concept” that should be a “part of our religious life.” Encountering the wilderness puts us in the presence of “the unknowable and the uncontrollable before which all humans stand in awe”—that is to say, in the presence of God.

What explains this recent outbreak of public piety in the Clinton administration? It is in part a recognition of a political problem. Until recently, leaders of the environmental movement argued mainly that environmental protection was justified because it was good for us humans. Protecting the plant and animal species of the rain forests of the world is necessary, some say, because they may provide the chemical basis to discover future drugs that will protect human health. In his book A Moment on the Earth, Gregg Easterbrook makes the claim that environmentalism has been an economic benefit to the United States.

But economists studying the Clean Water Act have consistently found that the added swimming, fishing, and other direct economic benefits are only a fraction of the $50 billion per year in cleanup costs to the nation. The Environmental Protection Agency reached this conclusion itself in a 1993 analysis of President Clinton’s plans to rewrite the act. Mark Sagoff of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland says that the marginal economic value to society of protecting one more endangered species “may be nothing.”

As a result, the moderate environmentalist argument is giving way in some circles to what might be called the messianist argument, as in Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature: Environmentalism must alter the modern value system to give a much greater weight to preserving nature from human alteration. That will also mean that new allies will be needed, prepared to fight explicitly on values grounds. The leading candidates perhaps are to be found in the churches of America. This may be particularly promising in light of the essentially Judeo-Christian themes that run throughout environmental causes and values.

Several years ago, Carl Sagan and others called for new efforts to forge an alliance between the organized environmental movement and the churches of America. The scientists themselves, as they acknowledged, were often not particularly devout—indeed, Sagan is something of a village atheist. Rather, they had simply concluded that the environmental movement would never really succeed until the average American felt a greater reverence for the environment. A good precedent was the civil rights movement, which was religiously motivated and depended heavily on political backing from organized churches.

Suffering falling membership and waning interest in their traditional messages, the mainline Protestant churches have responded enthusiastically to such environmental overtures. The journal of the Natural Resources Defense Council reported enthusiastically in the fall of 1995 that presently “ecoactivism is blooming in the religious community.” Babbitt, Gore, and other Clinton administration spokesmen are now elevating this new environmental tack to the level of national political debate.

This is a high-risk strategy. Many fellow environmentalists, grounded in secular culture, are distinctly uncomfortable with appeals to biblical passages as a basis for protecting the environment. The suggestion that perhaps they need a new introspection to explore the real religious roots of their own thinking also may not sit well.

Babbitt threatens to open a Pandora’s Box with respect to issues of separation of church and state. In the framework of existing constitutional exegesis, no satisfactory answers will be found to questions such as the following: (1) If environmentalism does literally teach a religious message, how can the active teaching of this message in the public schools be justified, when traditional Christian beliefs—from which the environmental message is in major part originally derived—are not allowed similar proselytizing? (2) If a wilderness is literally a church of environmental religion, which many people today visit to experience a spiritual awakening, why is it permissible for the government to maintain this type of place of worship but not an ordinary Christian church?

Babbitt is also venturing into theological quicksand. Human beings, he and other environmentalists are telling us, must protect nature because God made it that way and intended that it should remain that way as one direct manifestation available in this world of divine workmanship. This argument really makes sense only if the world still literally exists as God once created it. Babbitt thus seems to be putting himself in the same camp with old-style Christian creationists.

The two are hardly likely to become political allies, however. The Christian Right has for some time been attacking environmentalism as a new pagan heresy afoot in the land. Babbitt lent some credence to this view when in his recent speech he said that the Catholic priesthood had failed him in his youth and “it was a young Hopi friend who taught me that the blue mountain was, truly, a sacred place.” This remark has already prompted the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to denounce Babbitt for maligning Catholicism and following instead the teachings of “Native American ‘priests of the snake clan.’”

For most of its history, environmentalism has been more a substitute for, than a complement to, religious institutions. Environmentalism appropriated a Judeo-Christian message, already deeply ingrained in the national psyche, to a new and largely secular vocabulary. This combination proved immensely attractive to large numbers of people hungry for spiritual values but seemingly unable to find them from more traditional outlets.

One can sympathize with the need to search for new religious answers at a time when the forces of modernity often seem to have undercut the moral foundations of American society. Yet, when government can barely get the potholes filled in the streets, it is still startling to think that the secretary of the interior regards his position as a suitable pulpit for spreading the word of God.


Robert H. Nelson is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the latest book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America. He is also of Environmental Policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University, and he has been Staff Economist for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs; Visiting Senior Fellow, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Member of Economics Staff, Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior; Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Chairman of Interior Department Task Force on Indian Economic Development; and Staff Economist, Twentieth Century Fund.


  New from Robert H. Nelson!
THE NEW HOLY WARS: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America
“Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions.” So says this analysis of the roots of economics and environmentalism and their mutually antagonistic relations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Questions about the proper relationship between human beings and nature have led to the growth of these public theologies, or secular religions, even while both avoid mentioning their derivation from Western Judeo-Christian sources. So while environmentalists regard human actions to warm the climate, expand human populations, and increase economic growth as immoral challenges to the natural order, economists seek to put all of nature to maximum use for the production of more goods and services and other human benefits.






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