For God So Loved the World
Call them God's Greens. Armed with Scripture and a righteous respect for nature, a host of religious groups have taken up the environmental fight and are waging holy war on behalf of an embattled creation. But, critics ask, is this a truly divine cause—or the devil's work?
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
Yea, my brothers and sisters, let us wander into the den of unbelievers and lay the righteous word down like wall-to-wall shag. Let us take the Good Book as our weapon and smash the skeptics and smite the Wise Users and quiet their chainsaws and backhoes and pavers for ever and ever, amen. Let us gather the clear-cutters and dam builders in their place of worship and take the truth of God’s green message straight at them. Let us follow Brother Peter, the world’s foremost Bible-thumping, chapter- and-versifying, Jesus-praising tree-hugger into battle to save God’s glorious domain.
Also, let us not step in the llama poop. For it is squishy and sticky and doth offend us.
“Nnnnngh!” cries the llama.
“C’mon, Oochoo,” says Peter Illyn. “We’ll go get some water.” The shaggy beast steps out of its trailer and onto the sawdust paths of the Skamania County, Washington, fairgrounds. Oochoo’s ears flick in the direction of a nearby stage where a thrashcore band is fret-noodling for Jesus as part of Tomfest 2000, an annual Christapalooza that draws 5,000 pierced and tattooed evangelical Christians to the banks of the Columbia River for five days of headbanging fellowship. Illyn, a 42-year-old former Foursquare Gospel preacher from the southwestern Washington town of La Center, is here trolling for environmental converts. Oochoo is bait.
“Can I ride him?”
Once Oochoo draws a crowd, Illyn goes to work. “We’re out here talking to people about the environment and how God’s word calls for stewardship of his domain,” he tells the llama-entranced kids. “I work with a group called Target Earth—we’re all about serving the earth and serving the poor. You’ve heard of Earth First? We’re like Earth Third: We were made to love God, love people, and love creation. Environmental stewardship is part of our calling as Christians, but the church has remained silent for so many years that we’ve defaulted to New Age pagans and industrialists.”
The kids nod vaguely. For many of them, this is the first time anyone’s told them that environmentalism mixes with the Lord. Their naïveté is almost touching. “This isn’t like Bill Clinton taking land and giving it to the UN, is it?” asks a pastor’s daughter from a small town in Oregon. They’re not sure what to make of Illyn. A twee pastor he’s not—with his husky frame, unruly shock of dark brown hair, full beard, and fire-eater’s growl, he could pass for an Aerosmith roadie.
Illyn and Oochoo work the crowd, spreading shaggy-coated charisma and the green gospel, with phrases like “creation care” and “serving the earth.” Planting a seed in the mind of a pastor’s daughter is well and good, but Illyn’s real targets today are the true peer influencers: musicians. “A few words from the stage can really set us up,” he confides. He’s got an MBA in marketing, so he knows the dynamics of his selling situation. A guy passing out pamphlets— he’s a freak. Give him a llama, he’s a curiosity. Give him a shout-out from a hot new band, he’s the downest dude at Tomfest.
Illyn comps a sticker—your soul needs the wild—to a dreadlocked holy hip-hopper named Dirt, then greets a bare-chested young man wearing wraparound Oakleys and a cross around his neck. “Didn’t I see you hiking along the river?” Illyn asks.
“That was me. Nearly made myself sick eating blackberries. Is my tongue still purple?” He sticks it out for inspection: purple as Prince. The berry junkie turns out to be John Paul Peters, 24-year-old guitarist for the Winnipeg punk-pop band The Undecided. “I’m definitely concerned about the wild,” he tells Illyn. “We’re driving home tomorrow, and I talked the guys into letting me have a couple hours in Yellowstone.”
Illyn launches his rap: “What my group is trying to do, we’re Christian environmentalists trying to protect the earth. We’re working to save the last bits of wild nature as part of our earthly stewardship. You play guitar, right?”
“So you’re tapping into your faith through your art,” says the preacher. “Look around you—at those hills, at that river. That’s God’s art.”
“Right, right,” says Peters.
“I have people tell me, ‘It’s all about the human soul; Jesus died just for us,'” Illyn continues, anticipating a rebuttal. “Well, I say, make your heart bigger, dude.”
Peters smiles and nods his head. Illyn has found a believer. The two exchange addresses and make tentative plans to go llama hiking at next year’s festival. “God bless, Peter,” says the guitarist as they part.
At the river Illyn slips off his sneakers and cools his feet. The llama, ornery bastard, refuses to drink and aims a load of poop at the preacher’s shoe. The sun refracts off the water into a bushel of stars that tumble across the mile-wide Columbia, forcing Illyn to squint. “You know, God created the world and he called it good,” he muses. “Now we’ve got six different kinds of salmon going extinct right here in this river. You can’t tell me that’s good. You can’t tell me God’s pleased.”
The Greening of American Religion (and the Counterreformation)
PETER ILLYN’S CRUSADE IS BUT one sign of the greening of religious communities across the nation. After a long silence, many of America’s 155 million church and synagogue members are hearing a biblical call to action. As Illyn wages his one-man crusade to bring environmental awareness to America’s evangelical youth, national eco-faith leaders are helping to frame the larger debate, swing votes, and broker agreements on national environmental issues.
It’s hard to find a big environmental issue that the “faith community” hasn’t begun to affect in the past two years. The National Council of Churches, the nation’s largest coalition of Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, is in the midst of a campaign to push for national and international action on global warming. In the Bible Belt, rapacious chip mills are destroying the last of the great Southern forests, and local preachers are leading the grassroots fight to save what’s left. In southern California, a group called Christians Caring for Creation has taken the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to court to protect the endangered Alameda whipsnake and arroyo toad. In northern California, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the nation’s leading organization of Reform Judaism, teamed up with a local group known as the Redwood Rabbis to bring pressure on corporate raider Charles Hurwitz, a prominent member of Houston’s Jewish community and CEO of Maxxam Corporation, the conglomerate that organized a hostile takeover of the Pacific Lumber Company and initiated a massive clear-cutting operation, to find a way to preserve a portion of the redwood Headwaters Forest. Letters signed by hundreds of religious leaders helped give the Clinton administration the political cover necessary to push ahead with its policy on roadless areas in national forests, safeguarding nearly 60 million acres of wildlands. And perhaps most startling, after a three-year study, eight Roman Catholic bishops in the Pacific Northwest have just published a pastoral letter addressing the Columbia River’s salmon crisis, an extraordinary document that could become the moral cornerstone for a regional recovery plan.
Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), the nation’s largest interdenominational coalition—member groups include mainline and African-American Protestants, Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox and evangelical Christians—believes the current eco-faith activism reflects a profound shift in religious belief. “This isn’t just another issue for us,” he says. “We’re not interested in being the shock troops for the Green Party. Care for creation has become a central element of religious life. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a faithful Jew, Christian, or Muslim.”
The influence of faith-based environmentalists has become so great, in fact, that it’s inspired something of a counterreformation— and some preemptive defensiveness on behalf of the new Bush administration. Last year, a group of conservative Christian and Jewish clergy and scholars announced the formation of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES). Its chief spokesman, Father Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, avows that it is a politically centrist effort, but the ICES roster reads like a who’s who of the religious right: Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder William Bright, conservative radio host Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Watergate felon and Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson. What’s more, ICES’s positions tilt unerringly to the right. Global warming? Overblown, says ICES. Population crisis? What population crisis? asks ICES. Rampant species loss? Not our problem. These are fashionable causes, the council asserts, which sap attention and resources from more pressing environmental issues, such as Third World sanitation and primitive industrial practices.
While Gorman’s NRPE preachers were busy polishing up their Creation Sunday sermons for the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in April 2000, Father Sirico fired off a mass mailing to religious leaders around the country charging the NRPE with waging an “audacious, mind-numbing” campaign to promote theologically unorthodox views. “The NRPE does not represent us—or you,” wrote Sirico. “Its religious and social doctrines—however well intentioned they may be—are at odds with our traditions. Its agenda will have devastating, unintended consequences for humanity and our world.” Not only was the NRPE wrong on issues like global warming, the letter intimated, but with all of its “Mother Earth” talk, certain religious groups within the coalition were flirting with heresy.
With George W. Bush settling in at the White House, the conservative religious group finds itself poised to help steer and spin the new administration’s environmental policies. Sirico’s market-friendly eco-theology dovetails nicely with Bush’s belief that private enterprise can take the environmental reins. “The free economy,” Sirico wrote in an Acton Institute commentary last year, “helps ensure that good environmental stewards are rewarded for their efforts, without imposing higher taxes on our least fortunate citizens and depriving our weakest neighbors of their most basic needs.” In December, Sirico had the ear of the incoming president at a sit-down in Austin, Texas, with about 20 other religious leaders, including ICES member Daniel Lapin, who also heads Toward Tradition, a conservative Jewish-Christian organization that promotes “traditional, faith-based, American principles.” According to Lapin, faith and environmentalism were addressed “indirectly.” “I said to [President Bush], ‘The epidemic of secularism unleashed on America by the Clinton administration is over. That doesn’t mean a theocracy; it means the same hospitality to faith that the Founding Fathers intended,'” Lapin recalled. “If you are hostile to faith, then people are simply evolved animals, nothing more, nothing less. But with a faith view, human beings occupy a position of responsibility at the apex of the pyramid. I think we’ll see more of that [way of thinking].”
What Sirico and his colleagues provide is ammunition—the theological and intellectual underpinnings to counter religious-left arguments in favor of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming or against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. And, as Sirico brings more religious leaders into ICES, he may provide exactly the sort of political cover to conservative policymakers that progressive eco-religious groups have been giving green politicians for the last few years.
For now, the religious factions are facing off in a fairly rarefied and generally peaceable manner. But with a host of issues coming front and center in the first year of George W. Bush’s presidency— federal land-use policies in the West, opening up ANWR, genetically engineered foods, global warming—faith-based environmentalists and their newly empowered right-wing counterparts may be forced to wage a holy war on the battlefields of Capitol Hill. After a presidential campaign in which groups like the Sierra Club were among the leading Bush-bashers, leaders of the religious environmental movement are hoping that their message might appeal to Republicans predisposed to deflecting the arguments of secular enviros. “I think Bush might be more open to what religious groups, as opposed to environmental groups, have to say,” says Rev. Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). “It’s important that he see the connection between the environment and his faith.”
At least one leader of former President George Herbert Walker Bush’s own Episcopal faith is girding to oppose any new Bush administration move to authorize drilling in ANWR. Last December, Mark MacDonald, the bishop of Alaska’s 48 Episcopal churches, issued a statement supporting continued protection of ANWR. MacDonald’s comments riled Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the powerful Republican who has long supported oil interests in Congress. “The senator is—or maybe was—Episcopalian, and it really pissed him off,” says MacDonald. “But we’re deeply concerned about human rights issues related to the Gwich’in people and the refuge.”
It remains to be seen how much weight the religious-green message will carry with the new president. Bush has described himself as an evangelical Methodist who underwent a reconnection to his faith in the mid-1980s. “I am not all that comfortable describing my faith, because in the political world, there are a lot of people who say, ‘Vote for me, I’m more religious than my opponent,'” Bush said during the campaign last fall. “And those kind of folks make me a little nervous.”
How Noah’s Ark Was Nearly Scuttled
IF ANTIENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATIVES are inclined to underestimate the potential clout of the new wave of religious greens, they would do well to recall what happened during the last attempt to demolish America’s conservation ethic.
In 1995, as Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America troops, many of them freshly recruited in the 1994 midterm elections, flexed their power in Washington, a small cadre of foot soldiers in the so-called Republican Revolution declared the Endangered Species Act one of the nation’s “Top Ten Worst-Case Regulations” and vowed to gut it like a 12-point buck. Alaska’s oil-friendly congressman Don Young was made chairman of the House Committee on Resources; his chief committee allies were California’s property-rights cowboy Richard Pombo and Idaho’s Christian conservative wild-card Helen Chenoweth. After a task force chaired by Pombo conducted six months of hearings on the Endangered Species Act, Young introduced a bill in September 1995 to reauthorize a weakened version in which destruction of endangered species’ habitats would be excluded from the definition of “taking” a species—meaning you could do just about anything to harm an endangered species except shoot it, stuff it, and serve it for dinner.
That autumn, as Young prepared to perform radical surgery on the Endangered Species Act, about 70 evangelical Christian clergy and lay leaders gathered at Bear Trap Ranch, a Christian retreat nestled in a subalpine valley in Colorado’s Pike National Forest. This was one of the first gatherings of the Christian Environmental Council, an offshoot of the Evangelical Environmental Network. The EEN had been formed in 1993 by Evangelicals for Social Action, a national organization of progressive evangelicals that focuses on poverty and family issues. The EEN had dabbled in green issues but hadn’t exactly set the world on fire over those two years. The group issued an underpublicized “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation” and sent out “environmental starter kits” to 1,200 churches. (Each kit contained a suggested Bible-study curriculum, a music cassette, an energy-audit workbook, and a package of peas to start a church garden.) But at Bear Trap Ranch, after three days of discussion, prayer, and long walks amid the flame-yellow aspens, the emboldened Christians decided to mobilize: If God’s species were imperiled, they were duty-bound to mount a rescue. “It was a no-brainer,” recalls Stan LeQuire, a Baptist minister and former director of the EEN. “This was something that resonated wonderfully with our biblical faith.”
LeQuire’s political neophytes—a band of small-town preachers, Sunday-school teachers, and Christian college professors—took a crash course in playing the modern media game. With the help of financial grants from mainstream environmental foundations, they produced slick 30-second public-service spots for TV and took out full-page ads in Roll Call, the twice-weekly newsmagazine that covers Congress. EEN cofounder Calvin DeWitt, a University of Wisconsin professor of environmental studies and the dean of modern Christian environmentalism, proved himself a master of the sound bite by framing the Endangered Species Act as “the Noah’s ark of our day,” and charging that “Congress and special interests are trying to sink it.” At a Washington press conference on January 31, 1996, DeWitt showed up with a live endangered Florida panther in tow. The press ate it up, and Republicans went ballistic.
The day after the panther press conference, Young and Pombo wrote a scathing letter to LeQuire, claiming that the EEN had “mischaracterized” their bill and demanding that “as religious people, you have a high obligation to seek the truth, even in the political arena.” When EEN lobbyists went to House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s office, a Gingrich staff member heaped scorn on their efforts. “We were told we didn’t know what we were talking about,” says LeQuire, who stepped down from the EEN in 1999 and now teaches at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. “The Christian Coalition had just helped some Republicans get elected, and they thought they had everything sewed up. We said, ‘Hold on, some Christians are not of this ilk.'”
Outside the Beltway, the assault on the Endangered Species Act moved faith-based environmentalists to enter the political fray, just as their fundamentalist brethren had on behalf of other social issues. Peter Illyn began writing to local newspapers in Washington, proclaiming himself a conservative Christian who thought wiping out God’s species wasn’t such a bang-up idea. “My Christian peers smugly assumed the environmentalists were wrong,” recalls Illyn. “I went in there and said, ‘Hey! Quit thumping your Bible and start reading it! Look at Psalms 104:24: “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”‘” He confronted Washington’s notoriously antienvironmental Congresswoman Linda Smith at public meetings and formed his own small but vocal organization, Christians for Environmental Stewardship. “We blew the religious right away,” he says. “We could talk all day about caring for God’s domain. They had no verses to quote.”
In truth, the religious right did not come out in force against the Endangered Species Act. “It’s been a second-tier issue for most evangelicals,” says Michael Cromartie, an expert on evangelical politics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a neoconservative think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s not that they don’t like their surroundings. It’s just that there are so many more pressing issues: abortion, sexuality, the breakdown of the family.”
When pressed, though, conservative politicians proved they did have a few verses to quote. At a Resources Committee hearing in late 1995, Helen Chenoweth went chapter-and-verse with Rev. John Paarlberg, a minister of the Reformed Church in America and a member of both the EEN and the NRPE. Paarlberg quoted Psalm 104; Chenoweth countered with Psalm 8. God, she said, “made man to have dominion and to care for all the works of the earth, including all the sheep and the ox and the beasts and the fowl and the fish and everything.”
Still, the evangelical campaign got its point across loud and clear. Young’s Endangered Species Act reauthorization never made it to the floor of the House, mainly because Republican moderates declined to sign on to a bill that had suddenly become a political loser. “The EEN came in and showed that people who wanted to protect endangered species weren’t a bunch of total left-wing wacko hippies out there hugging trees,” recalls Karen Steuer, who worked on endangered-species issues for California Congressman George Miller, the left-wing Democratic environmental leader. “This was mainstream America.”
Of course, religious environmentalists didn’t single-handedly save the Endangered Species Act (which still awaits formal reauthorization). But their activism reinvigorated an argument that eco-activists had let fall into disuse: the moral right. “The religious community could swing the argument back to the notion of intrinsic value,” says Rabbi Daniel Swartz, former associate director of the NRPE, who spent a good part of 1995 and 1996 lobbying Capitol Hill on behalf of protections for endangered species. “They could tell a congressman, ‘Look, this is part of the grand scheme of creation, it has value, and we must care for it.'”
Looking Out for the Devil in Disguise
IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, the forces that came together to thwart the Republican attack on the Endangered Species Act have continued the fight, albeit to less dramatic effect. The U.S. Catholic Conference focuses on issues of environmental justice, such as children’s health issues and agricultural policy. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life covers global warming, genetic engineering, and biodiversity issues. The EEN puts its energy into protecting endangered species and old-growth forests, and lobbying on behalf of clean-air issues. The environmental-policy arm of the National Council of Churches focuses on global warming. Of course, it’s one thing to raise the voice of the nation’s congregations to defend the law that saved the bald eagle; getting the faithful fired up about auto-emissions standards has proven to be a tougher sell.
After the battle over the Endangered Species Act, though, at least one major segment of the green faithful heard the word, and it was good. “My text this evening is an apology,” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope told the audience at the 1997 Symposium on Religion, Science, and the Environment, sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church in Santa Barbara, California. “The environmental movement for the past quarter-century has made no more profound error than to misunderstand the mission of religion and the churches in preserving the creation.”
Pope’s extraordinary confession, delivered to a gathering packed with everyone from Bruce Babbitt to Bartholomew I, patriarch of the Orthodox church, enraged some Sierra Club members (“For the Sierra Club to go crawling on its knees to these forces of darkness is obscene,” went one letter published in Sierra magazine), but it didn’t come as a surprise to other environmental leaders. Frustrated by years of fighting piecemeal battles to save this or that watershed, they’d been searching for ways to energize not just laws, but the general public’s deep yet largely somnolent convictions about the environment. What they discovered was the power of churches and synagogues.
“Unless we change the way people view their responsibility to the land and to others, we’re never going to win these issues,” says Wilderness Society president William Meadows. “We’ve got to find ways to integrate ethics and moral values into our behavior. I happen to have grown up in the Christian church”—Meadows’s family attended a Methodist church in Memphis, Tennessee—”and I think there is a value system there that is powerful, persuasive, and understandable to many, many people.”
The flourishing God-and-greens coalition may cloak itself in upbeat rhetoric, but few church or environmental leaders labor under the illusion that the reconciliation of nature and religion will happen over the course of a few weekend retreats. “I know a lot of environmentalists who don’t see anything good in being a Christian,” admits Peter Illyn. “And I know a lot of Christians who don’t see much good in environmentalism.”
It’s a tough gap to bridge. “In the church, there’s something we call the prophetic voice,” Illyn tells me. “It’s a principle of ‘come in love, but don’t compromise the truth.'” Within evangelical culture, he’s a voice of righteous dissent, a loving critic. The Foursquare Gospel Church, a branch of Pentecostalism founded in Los Angeles by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1918, counts 238,000 members in the United States. In sheer numbers, it pales next to Protestant institutions like the United Methodist Church (8.5 million) and the Southern Baptist Convention (15.9 million). But the Foursquare Gospel Church is particularly strong on the West Coast (four of its seven largest congregations are in Oregon), and Foursquarers often define the cutting edge of evangelical culture.
Even so, as a lone-wolf eco-proselytizer, Illyn must keep his biblical bona fides on constant display, lest his listeners dismiss him as the devil in disguise. In evangelical circles, environmentalism still carries the taint of loose-moral liberalism. There’s a suspicion that Illyn’s message could be the thin end of the wedge: tree-hugging today, gay marriage tomorrow. Lions may one day lie down with lambs, but can the beef-eating, pro-life, Jesus-is-Lord soul savers lie down with the tofu-frying, pro-choice, proudly pagan flower children long enough to save the earth?
An Epiphany in Big Crow Basin
“WELCOME,” SAYS THE PREACHER, “to the kegger for Christ!”
Peter Illyn passes a cold one to Drew Grow, guitarist for the Portland folk-rock band Five O’Clock People, and breathes in the glory around him. On the floor of an ancient volcanic crater hidden deep within Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, blue lupines and yellow mountain daisies poke through an open meadow padded with beargrass and moss. Illyn is taking a break from Tomfest to lead Grow and Five O’Clock People bassist Kris Doty, drummer Andy Uppendahl, and Doug Van Pelt, editor of the Christian rock magazine HM, on a day hike to experience God’s good work in the almighty flesh. And here it is! God’s rocks, God’s moss, God’s trees, God’s (slap!) mosquitoes. “This,” Illyn tells the gathered musicians, “is what I like to call one of my quiet places.”
It was in a spot like this that Illyn experienced the epiphany that led him to become God’s padre of wild places. “I was a Foursquare pastor for nine years,” he says, launching into his stump speech. “And then about ten years ago I took a sabbatical. I got two llamas, Frank and Jesse, and we went on a hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. We walked for four months, a thousand miles from the California state line to the Canadian border. I read my Bible and prayed every night. I was looking for guidance. I was the associate pastor at a church in Portland, but the work just didn’t seem to fit me.
“And then one night I stopped in a place called Big Crow Basin. It’s up in the Norse Peak Wilderness in central Washington. Incredible place, thousands of crows flying up at us, squawking—it’s called Big Crow Basin for a reason, you know?—and this fog, knee-high, just creeping over the valley, all white in the moonlight. A little after midnight, a herd of elk came into camp. I unzipped my tent and stood there, shaking because it was so cold, looking at all these elk around me. And then this one big old bull, had a full rack of horns, he lifted his head and just bellowed at the sky. At that moment, I fell in love with the wild.
“I spent the rest of my hike reading scripture, trying to figure out how God thought about the wild. What I discovered is that the wild is part of God’s household. In the story of Noah, God made a covenant with mankind and every living thing—all the domestic animals, the wild animals, the birds in the air. The earth is not just for us. John 3:16 says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’—God so loved the world, all of creation.
“I went in as a preacher on a sabbatical,” he says. “I came out a Christian environmentalist.”
And so began Illyn’s peripatetic crusade. He resigned his associate pastorship in 1989 and, with the help of an inheritance and some investments, earned an MBA in marketing at Portland State University. He kept his wife, son, and daughter fed by running llama-packing trips into the mountains and crafted his eco-evangelist message by speaking to any church group that would have him. In 1996 he merged Christians for Environmental Stewardship with the international environmental organization Green Cross and became Green Cross’s West Coast director. When Green Cross folded in 1998, Illyn approached Target Earth, a 10,000-member Christian nonprofit organization based in Pleasanton, California, that combats poverty and environmental destruction, about taking on his mission. For the past two and a half years he’s served as Target Earth’s regional director in the Pacific Northwest. His job is fluid. One week he’s barnstorming through evangelical prayer breakfasts in Montana; the next he’s preaching to a student group at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma or holding a phone session with the leader of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Illyn hopes some of that wilderness magic will rub off on the band members chilling in the afternoon sun. “I came up here one time with a friend of mine who was fighting leukemia,” he tells them, opening his arms to the splendor around him. “We spent the afternoon just being quiet. Listening.” The rockers nod behind their sunglasses. Dude.
If he can move these musicians, Illyn is convinced he can green up the future of the entire evangelical movement. “This generation is struggling to choose its values right now,” says Illyn. “And bands are becoming their opinion leaders…. Where we’re making progress isn’t with the 65-year-olds—it’s the 25- and 30-year-olds. In ten years they’re going to be the agents of change. It’s easy to ignore an outside voice, but it’s more difficult to resist the call for environmental stewardship when it’s coming from within.”
Illyn believes that evangelical Christians will accept environmentalism as they’ve come to accept racial equality. “Thirty years ago people were openly justifying their bigotry,” he says. “Fifteen years ago there was silent bigotry. Now, these younger Christians find tremendous value in racial diversity. Ten years from now we’ll look back on the issue of environmental stewardship and go, ‘Why was there even a question?'”
“To Commit a Crime Against the Natural World Is a Sin”
THE BURDEN OF CHANGE IS, in fact, entirely too heavy for one man to bear. The estrangement of faith and reason stretches back centuries, from the Vatican’s censure of Galileo to evangelical Christianity’s battles against Charles Darwin’s “atheistic” theories and beyond. The details of the modern disagreement are specific to our age, but the grand themes remain the same: The worship of false gods versus a true God, the hubris of man, and man’s relationship to nature (itself a reflection of divine glory or a fallen world defined by sin, depending on your point of view).
“During the 1980s,” says the NRPE’s Paul Gorman, “the environmental movement didn’t show a lot of concern for issues of racism, economic justice, inadequate health care—stuff that our people [in the faith community] know about, because we run hospitals, we have people in poor neighborhoods. It was more about wetlands, wilderness, wildlife, and less about poor children and the distribution of resources. And information about the issue came from the scientific community, with which we hadn’t been engaged.”
Perhaps for good reason. Christianity and Judaism have had serious problems with the natural world. In his classic 1967 environmental work Wilderness and the American Mind, historian Roderick Nash points out how the Bible often depicts wilderness as an accursed, arid wasteland, an anguished place of banishment. The Judeo-Christian cosmology became the dominant worldview in the West by replacing pagan nature deities with a single He who dwelt above—not in—the things of the earth. “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” commanded the apostle John. “For the love of the Father cannot be in any man who loves the world.” As Christianity spread across the Western world, wild lands were cast as unholy lands. The forests of medieval Europe harbored the last strongholds of pagans, aka witches. “Christians judged their work to be successful when they cleared away the wild forests,” writes Nash, “and cut down the sacred groves where the pagans held their rites.”
Early environmentalists like John Muir, Bob Marshall, and Aldo Leopold found spiritual nourishment in wild places, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that movement leaders openly questioned Judeo-Christian assumptions and began embracing a more pantheistic spirituality. In 1967, in the journal Science, historian Lynn White Jr. published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” a brief (in length) and sweeping (in scope and condemnation) essay that gave voice to the private dissent some environmentalists had been murmuring among themselves. “By destroying pagan animism,” he wrote, “Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”The faith of our fathers, White argued, which set man above the beasts and the flowers of the field, also set in motion two millennia of environmental degradation. “Christianity,” he concluded, “bears a huge burden of guilt.”
A third of a century after White’s seminal essay, Christian environmentalists are still dealing with the fallout. “In deep green environmental cultures, White’s thesis has been widely accepted,” says Bron Taylor, a professor of environmental studies at the University of WisconsinOshkosh and coeditor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. “It’s only recently come under question, precisely because of the emergence of this new Christian-environmental activism.” As radical groups like Earth First! emerged in the 1980s, they brought with them an exuberant quasi-pagan secularism that rejected the anthropocentrism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, embraced the biocentrism of Deep Ecology, and reveled in the “sacred nature” of the earth. At the time, the most outspoken Christian on the conservation scene happened to be James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s notoriously anti-green Interior Secretary. Watt, who served from 1981 to 1983, reinforced environmentalists’ worst fears about Christians—namely, that they didn’t give a damn about the earth because, when the rapture comes, they’ll be in heaven looking down on a ball of burnt carbon. “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” Watt told the House Interior Committee in 1981. “Whatever it is, we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.”
The green-Christian rift didn’t begin to heal until January 1, 1990, when Pope John Paul II, who had seen firsthand the environmental ruination of Eastern Europe, broke the Roman Catholic church’s long silence on environmentalism with a resounding call to heal the earth in his World Day of Peace message, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.”
“Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment,” the pontiff declared, “people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past.” Look at what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he said: They destroyed the existing harmony by choosing to sin. Moreover, the pope didn’t merely recognize the problem; he called for action. And he got it.
The next few years saw a flurry of activity among both Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. In the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a call for reflection and action to the nation’s 61 million Catholics. Evangelical Christians began to stir as well. Tony Campolo, a leading progressive evangelical who would later head Bill Clinton’s post-Monica atonement team, chastened his fellow Christians in a controversial book whose title addressed evangelical enviro-phobia: How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshipping Nature. “We ‘Bible-believing, born-again, Spirit-filled Christians’ more than any others seem to have turned deaf ears to the pleas to save God’s creation,” he wrote.
Nobody better embodied the new enviro-friendly Christianity than Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians. Since ascending the Ecumenical Throne in 1992, Bartholomew has established so many environmental programs he’s known as “the green patriarch.” Three years ago, during the same conference at which Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope apologized for ignoring the religious world, Bartholomew made a public statement that might have been unimaginable a decade earlier. “To commit a crime against the natural world,” he declared, “is a sin.”
Get Thee Behind Me, Clear-Cutter!
“ENVIRONMENTALISM got a bad name because it was led by eggheads from cities,” says Gary Phillips, a Methodist minister and ecological hell-raiser in Chatham County, North Carolina. “I’m serious! It was often led by the wrong people, who didn’t believe in the same things the country religious community did.”
Phillips was a conservationist before he even knew the word. His grandfather used to wake him in the middle of the night to go coon hunting in Pisgah National Forest or just to tromp through the Blue Ridge foothills. “I was eight years old when they came through and clear-cut a forest in my neighborhood,” he recalls. “Oaks, poplars, beeches, hickories, pine trees—they took ’em all. Broke my heart.” A strapping 47-year-old preacher with a handlebar mustache and severe crew cut, Phillips comes from a long line of hunters and handshakers. “My grandfather practiced retail politics,” he says, his voice warm as a June breeze. “That meant walkin’ up one holler, talking to every single family, then coming back down and walkin’ the next one.”
Two years ago Phillips was elected to the Chatham County Commission as an unabashedly environmental candidate deep in the heart of Jesse Helms country. Although he stepped down from the pulpit upon taking office, he still brings his faith into local environmental problems, often acting as the peacemaker between the hippies and the haircuts. Last year he was elevated to chairman. “I always bring a radical environmental biblical piece to environmental meetings,” he says. He’s particularly fond of Leviticus 25:23, in which God tells Moses, “The land belongs to me, for you are only strangers and guests.” “I try to get them to look at the full breadth of spirit as part of their work and overcome their resentments against the right-wing Christian church,’ de adds. “Environmental people are scared to death of religious people. It’s foolish.”
It may be more than foolish. If the greens don’t overcome their fear of the Bible-thumpers, it could prove catastrophic to Southern forests. When the federal government cracked down on logging in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990, forest-product companies quietly moved many operations to the South, where 90 percent of the region’s 214 million acres of forest are privately owned. There they built chip mills, highly efficient processing plants that grind immature timber into wood chips that ultimately become pulp, the main ingredient in particle board, toilet paper, and cardboard. Unhindered by state or federal conservation laws, timber companies are cutting down Dixie softwood faster than it can be replaced. Last year the region’s 150 chip mills ground up more than 1.2 million acres of Southern forest—an area twice the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The South lacks the eco-activist infrastructures of New England and the Pacific Northwest, so forest advocates have turned to the recreation industry and religious groups to help stop the chip-milling of their land. The paddlers talk economics—companies like Dagger, a Tennessee-based manufacturer of kayaks and canoes, are worried about the health of the region’s $5 billion recreation industry—and the ministers talk morality. “We’re in the Bible Belt,” says Trevor Fitzgibbon, director of public relations for the Dogwood Alliance, a conservation group spearheading the chip-mill opposition. “When it comes to religion and the environment, this is where it makes a difference.”
To see what the religious greens bring to the table, sit in on a meeting of the Chatham County Commission with Gary Phillips. He’s seen it time and again: A handful of eco-activists stand up and rail against whatever new project the commission is considering. The glazed eyes of the commissioners, many of whom do no share Phillip’s ecological concerns, betray their response: Same old same-old. “But,” Phillips says, “if you get a large-membership church to come in and say, ‘You can’t clear-cut the last stand of native hardwood in the country,” well, that’s a very powerful thing.”
“Scabs on the Face of the Earth”
ON THE OTHER HAND, as the economic worldview of Father Robert Sirico’s Acton Institute goes to show, the crew doesn’t always get along on Noah’s ark. Founded in 1990, the institute champions the belief that God supports free-market capitalism. Two years ago Sirico gathered more than two dozen theologians, economists, and environmental experts at a conference center in West Cornwall, Connecticut, to discuss what they saw as the alarming direction of religious environmentalism. Out of that meeting came the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, a statement of principles that attacks many of mainstream environmentalism’s most deeply held assumptions. “Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards,” according to the Cornwall Declaration. “Consequently, they ignore our potential, as bearers of God’s image, to add to the earth’s abundance.” Overpopulation and rampant species loss are “unfounded or undue concerns.” On global warming, they point out that some scientists believe the worldwide rise in temperatures may be connected more to solar activity than to the human release of greenhouse gases.
“We’ve witnessed the rise of ‘green spirituality,’ which is supposed to blend nicely with traditional faith,” says Sirico, a 49-year-old diocesan priest who heads up a religious community called the St. Philip Neri House in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While he repudiates the tendency of right-wing antienvironmentalism to reject the moral necessity of good stewardship, Sirico charges that left-wing groups—”epitomized by the work of some in the leadership of the National Council of Churches”—use environmental rhetoric to forward agendas having more to do with class warfare and anticorporatism than with healing the planet.
“Increasingly, sermons are integrating this political worldview, which is hostile to a free economy and human creativity, to the detriment of the natural world and the human family,” Sirico warns. “I saw the need to chart a balanced course between these two extremes [of left and right], one that is grounded in sound theological reflection and recognizes the scientific method and the free economy as essential to achieving sound environmental stewardship and furthering the health and welfare of man.”
Looking for verses to quote? ICES member Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, can supply them. Consider Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Or the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus asks his followers to consider the birds of the air: “Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). “The Bible asserts both a hierarchy with humans at the top among the earthly creatures (though not the heavenly), and the greater value of human beings than other living things,” writes Royal.
What galls some ICES members is the holy aura that has settled upon issues like global warming. “I oppose the elevation of environmentalism to an unchallenged spot on a sacred hierarchy,” says Rabbi Daniel Lapin. “It’s as if open-mindedness and a willingness to explore all areas of a problem are virtues except when someone intones ‘environment’ in a prayerlike posture. All of a sudden all bets are off? I don’t think that’s intellectually honest.
“I also don’t care for the pantheistic theme that runs through certain areas of the debate—the tendency to view human beings as scabs on the face of the earth,” Lapin continues. “As one who comes from a tradition that’s had experience with being identified as undesirable, I don’t think it’s healthy to assert that people are of questionable moral legitimacy.”
Of God and Man and the Columbia River
LOOMING OVER THE political debate is one simple question: What is humanity’s place in the universe, anyway? Deep Ecology, a concept that first took hold among radical environmentalists in the 1970s and has since been adopted by many mainstream greens, holds that humans are merely one among millions of species sharing the earth—and to some, a particularly toxic one. But according to Genesis, God fashioned our species alone in his image.
In the May 1999 draft of “The Columbia River Watershed: Realities and Possibilities,” the Northwest Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on the state of the Columbia River, the tension between those two ideas becomes striking. The bishops listed “speciesism,” a bias that one’s own species is superior to and has the right to dominate another species, as one of the “evils present periodically in the watershed.” They went on to confirm, however, that “humans have a unique place among creatures…. Humans alone, with the abilities granted to them, can understand creatures soaring in the heights or swimming in the depths, and can come to know the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics which influence all creation.” The early draft was released by the bishops, in part, to gauge the public and political reaction to principles they were still hashing out themselves; it is perhaps a sign of the issue’s conundrums that this passage on speciesism has been left out of the final draft.
Bishop William Skylstad of the diocese of Spokane, who chaired the steering committee that prepared the letter, recognizes the conflict. “That all has to be balanced out,” he says. “God gives us creation to support ourselves, but we also need to be wise stewards and look at the sustainability of the creation about us.”
Don’t be misled by the word “letter.” This is no interoffice memo. Three years in the making, the final 18-page document, which came out in early February, is a faith-based assessment of an entire watershed’s spiritual, economic, and environmental health. “We began with the idea that it was time for us to take responsibility, to sustain the river and provide for future generations,” says Skylstad, who grew up on an apple orchard near the Methow River, a tributary of the Columbia in central Washington. “We are in the business of not only taking care of our own faith community, but of supporting and strengthening the common good.”
The bishops’ letter is remarkably sweeping and specific. The authors advocate selective, sustainable timber harvests; the support of family farms and industrial co-ops through the reform of banking policies and government regulations; energy conservation and the use of wind and solar power to supplement the maxed-out grid; the restriction of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles to established roads; decent wages, health care, and education for workers; and the honoring of treaties with local tribes. Saving the watershed’s salmon is at the top of their list of priorities, but even they can’t decide whether to breach the four lower Snake River dams. An echo of the speciesism problem can be heard in the bishops’ choice of words: “People’s concern for salmon as creatures of God should be linked to their concern for fishers, who are also children of God.” Lest they give the impression of decreeing from on high, the bishops vow to get their own houses in order, too. Parish gardeners, for example, have been encouraged to limit the use of fertilizers and pesticides and will be asked to show restraint with the lawn sprinklers.
The letter sounds downright utopian at times; would that we all lived in a world with eco-friendly mining, plentiful salmon, bountiful harvests, high wages, and responsible lawn care. But because of the church’s long record of serving human needs, the letter may prove to be one of the more influential documents in the history of the American West. “We aren’t the parts-per-million people, but we can point people in a new direction,” says Walt Grazer, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Environmental Justice Program and coeditor of And God Saw That It Was Good: Catholic Theology and the Environment. “The bishops are saying there’s a link between social and natural ecology. People are a part of their environment; it’s not something separate from them.”
Grazer’s statement reflects the unique ability of the Catholic church to speak to both parties, making one side aware of the precarious ecological state they’re living in; the other, that the environment is not a hallowed realm off-limits to man. Indeed, the bishops’ statement seems to say: Jesus is coming, but until then, mankind and the earth are inextricably linked; if one fails, so will the other.
Your Soul Needs the Wild
THE CENTRAL IRONY of the religious green movement is that there is no single movement. There are hundreds. Yes, in moments of crisis they might join together to defend the Endangered Species Act or proclaim common cause against global warming, but an uncoordinated amalgam of far-flung, regional, grassroots activism does not a movement make.
Over the next two years, however, that may change. With the Bush administration threatening to roll back some of the past decade’s environmental advances, local religious greens may once again have to step into the national spotlight. Leaders of the national religious environmental coalitions—the progressive NRPE and the conservative upstart ICES—are already prowling the halls of Capitol Hill, looking to convince senators and representatives that theirs is the better interpretation of “stewardship.” And with their traditional Democratic allies reduced to the spoiler role in Congress, secular environmental groups will be forced to deal with the realities of access to power in Washington. Right now, that means lobbying conservatives with an environmental conscience.
Meanwhile, Peter Illyn is still out there with his llamas, trying to save the earth one soul at a time. “Some days are tough,” he says. “It’s like having the same conversation 50 times.” God’s word calls for stewardship of his domain. God’s word calls for stewardship. God’s word calls. God’s word. Illyn’s main opponent is evangelical Christianity’s environmental apathy, which can be more wearying than trading barbs with an actual antienvironmentalist. His battle is rarely joined; often, it’s just ignored.
“There’s a guy we run into sometimes at these music festivals,” Illyn says. “I like to call him Conspiracy Guy. He’s a young-earth creationist, which means he believes God created the earth something like 7,000 years ago. He’s always getting in our face, accusing my volunteers of being vegans and pagans, and praying for their souls.” Conspiracy Guy may be bothersome, but he also embodies the unspoken assumptions and fears that evangelical Christians have about Illyn’s crusade. If his cause is to succeed, Conspiracy Guy must be won over.
The preacher once had it out with Conspiracy Guy. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, Illyn hit on a way to bring the argument to a close.
“Dude, let’s say you’re right,” Illyn said. “Let’s say the earth is 7,000 years old. We still gotta take care of it!” Conspiracy Guy couldn’t argue with that.