GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has brought religion back into the thick of American politics. But his message in the process got garbled.

Campaigning several weeks ago in Ohio, prior to “Super Tuesday,” the former Pennsylvania senator offered the opinion that President Obama’s political agenda is grounded in a theology that is false, “phony” and misleading.

Pressed to explain, Santorum the next day narrowed his focus to President Obama’s environmental religion, claiming the President promoted the notion that “man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth.” Santorum further explained that “the earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think a lot of radical environmentalists”—such as the president, he seemed to suggest—“have it upside-down,” thinking that “the earth [is] above man.”

In his critique of the president’s beliefs, Santorum was both half right and half wrong. He was correct to say that environmentalism now has the status of religion. He was less accurate, however, in his specific characterization of the environmental faith.

While many political commentators were quick to criticize Santorum, few understood the biblical allusions in the former Pennsylvania senator’s remarks.

In Genesis 1, for example, God says: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

As Santorum implied, President Obama misguidedly seems to place fish, birds and other creatures above human beings, ignoring God’s wishes.

Not much later, in Genesis 6, however, the Bible tells us that “the Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth.” To punish his wayward followers, God caused a great flood to cover the earth, destroying all living things. But He made an exception. God commanded Noah to build a large, seaworthy ark, “. . .enter the ark. . . .[and] bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.”

Had President Obama chosen to respond to Santorum’s attack in biblical terms, he might have noted that the Endangered Species Act is a modern version of Noah’s Ark. Creation belongs to God, its preservation to human beings.

In environmentalism, the largest religious debts are owed to Protestant Calvinism, perhaps one reason the devoutly Catholic Santorum finds environmental religion so difficult to fathom.

The rituals of environmentalism celebrate reduced consumption—lower the heat, drive fewer miles, use less water, live in smaller houses, have fewer children, etc., etc. Limiting human appetites, rather than satisfying ever growing demands (as economics seeks to do), is the environmental command.

In his eighteenth century Massachusetts sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” America’s greatest Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards, preached to his congregation that “your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell.”

As prominent an environmentalist as David Brower, who served as executive director of the Sierra Club for 18 years, described the state of human existence here on earth as a terrible “cancer” that was destroying God’s good Creation. Being environmentally “born again” was for Brower—and many other environmentalists—the only good answer to modern man’s environmental corruption and sinfulness.

The late Michael Crichton, known for his criticism of “environmental theology,” declared that environmentalism is the “religion of choice for urban atheists.” The eminent historian William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin, current president of the American Historical Association, notes that environmentalism “grapples with ultimate questions at every scale of human existence.”

“More than most other human endeavors, this is precisely what religions aspire to do,” Cronon observes.

A leading historian of environmentalism, Mark Stoll, explains that environmentalism’s most prominent figures historically—such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson—came overwhelmingly from Protestant, and especially Calvinist, family origins. So does Brower.

The residual Protestantism of environmentalism—while now taking a mostly secular form—has deep roots in America’s Puritan heritage. Rejecting the Christianity of their childhood, Muir, Leopold, Carson and Brower turned as adults to a secularized form of Calvinism in which reverence for “the Earth” became a disguised substitute for worship of “God.” The Christian right and the environmental left have more in common than they realize.

If Santorum had focused more directly on the rise of environmentalism to the status of religion, and not tried to explain the precise theology of environmentalism, he might have had a political winner. He might have asked: Why is it possible to teach one religion—environmental religion—in public elementary schools, while it is impossible to teach another religion—Christianity—in those same schools?