Environmentalism can be an odd fit for churches

By George Bullard / The Detroit News
Copyright 1998 Detroit News
September 26, 1998

A prayer group in Flint approached the federal government to stop a proposed steel mill on environmental grounds.

In Israel, a Greenpeace ship pulled into ports this week with events aimed at the "religious public."

Environmentalists elsewhere praise the world Orthodox leader for declaring it a sin to mess with the Earth.

Tom Hayden, an old-line radical on the losing side of the 1960s, sees environmentalism as sacred.

And next month, the United Nations sponsors a national conference on religion and ecology.

If you haven't noticed, religion has gone green.

And green is getting religion, in a slippery slope for both sides.

Clergy have long made reputations by divining immutable unearthly truths. But those who hitch themselves to science du jour -- like global warming -- risk squandering credibility on temporal matters that change as data change.

A pope, after all, once said to a moral certainty that Earth is the center of the cosmos. And not long ago anthropologists swore that the size of a human skull indicates intelligence.

As for environmentalists, they've built much of their cases on public health issues and esthetics. Nobody wants mercury in drinking water or Mountain Dew cans in the yard.

Even causes like saving the California condor seem innately satisfying, even though the bird is not known as good eating.

But making environmentalism a religious issue raises the questions: whose religion?

Plenty of people use biblical passages to justify lording over ecology without preserving any. If we can't find a civic impulse to drive environmentalism, maybe we should just write it off.

In Flint, a prayer group is enmeshed in a scheme by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to make pollution a civil rights issue, an effort opposed by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and others.

The EPA donated tax money to a local group now complaining about a proposed steel mill that'll provide 200 needed jobs in Genesee County, according to detailed stories by David Mastio of The Detroit News.

But there's the prayer group, looking political, if not pawnlike.

To be fair, there is a case for bolstering environmentalism with religion, made by many who have long developed the scholarship of it all.

World religions remain the principal resources for symbolic ideas, spiritual inspiration and ethical principles, says Mary Evelyn Tucker, a force behind a recent national conferences on religion and ecology.

Judaism and Christianity have a utilitarian view of the environment in that humans are said to have dominion over the Earth, but also are its stewards, according to Tucker, a professor of religion at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell fears heat waves that will bring on more disease.

She's head of the National Council of Churches, which is working with other groups to sound an alarm.

The core of religion-environmentalists has been around for years but is growing, with NCC citing polls that Americans now want something done.

As for Tom Hayden, he's an early believer, having written a book, The Lost Gospel of the Earth.

In some ways, his and other efforts to combine religion and environment point the country back to the future.

The first religious people to urge us to live sanely were Native Americans.

George Bullard is religion writer at The Detroit News. His email address is bullard@detnews.com. Write to him at 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226.

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