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12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By VINCENT CARROLL
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In retrospect, it was merely a matter of time before Tom Hayden would finally proclaim himself an Indian. For a quarter century or more, Indians have been Hayden's favorite people -- equaled in his affections for only a few years by the Communist Vietnamese. But whereas Communist imperfections belatedly caught Hayden's eye, long after the last blood of American troops had stained Indochinese soil, the romance of Indians still retains its hold on the California state senator, delegate to last week's Democratic convention, and onetime leader of the New Left.

Best of all, Hayden is now one of them. His transformation is recounted in his new book, The Lost Gospel of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 267 pages, $ 22), a work of environmental theology that will solidify Hayden's reputation as his generation's most nimble spokesman for whatever leftist enthusiasm dominates the day.

Hayden clears the ground for his new identity with a necessary stipulation: "The search for the lost gospel," he announces, involves "a deeper exploration of our common identity in a native past. No one is purely settler, or purely native. We are all indigenous somewhere." Although born and raised mainly in Michigan, Hayden seems to believe he is "indigenous" to Ireland and that his Irish ancestors "could be called the Indians of Europe." For one thing, the Irish once lived in "kinship-based clans similar to tribes in America." For another, not only had these Irish once "communicated with spirits in the land and sea," but they would later develop "the 'greenest' church in Europe."

Hayden first tried to enter Ireland in the late 60s, but his reputation preceded him and he was summarily expelled. "I wonder today," he muses, "if the experience of expulsion from our own ethnic gardens doesn't reverberate as an unhealed pain in our own memories." By way of answering he notes that in 1973, he and Jane Fonda named their son Garity, his mother's maiden name, as "a step in the recovery of memory and healing of loss."

"It also was then," he now reveals, "that I began to understand how an Indian in America must feel."

Such dreadful sanctimony and self-absorption have been the hallmarks of Hayden's long public career, along with an unchecked sentimentality. Thirty years ago Hayden fell head over heels for a Third World police state; today his knees go weak at the mere mention of any people that supposedly worships trees. Hayden must feel like an Indian because Indians, above all others, embody for him the lost nature mysticism that he believes is necessary to save the world. Once upon a time, it was American imperialism that threatened human existence. Now the danger is every major organized religion on earth. They all, every one, fail to put nature on the pedestal it deserves.

The Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, has a lot of explaining to do. For openers, "the Ten Commandments prohibit adultery but not pollution, demand that we honor our parents but not the earth." And was there ever a more disturbing call to human dominion over nature ("a license to plunder the natural world") than the traditional interpretation of Genesis?

Much of this has been said before, of course, most notably by Lynn White, who in a 1967 article for Science magazine blamed "our ecological crisis" on "the victory of Christianity over paganism." Yet Hayden has no illusions about the resilience of the biblical tradition, and a fundamentalist interpretation at that. As recently as 1991, he recounts, a Gallup poll found that nearly half of all Americans adhere to the view that man was created "pretty much in his present form at one time in the last 10, 000 years." If Genesis cannot be cast aside, Hayden reasons, it must "be reinterpreted in a greener way," along with the whole of Judeo-Christian theology -- which task, in a nutshell, Hayden sets out to do, while helpfully throwing in a chapter on how to improve Buddhism, too.

Yet the endeavor is hopeless, and one senses the author knows it as well as anyone. Strip Christianity of monotheism, hierarchy, and the immortality of the individual human soul, put human beings on the same moral plane as a grasshopper or a porcupine, and what you have left may be agreeable to a nature mystic, but it doesn't remotely resemble Christianity. If "nature mysticism is the de facto religion of native people everywhere," as Hayden argues, what would distinguish its Christian variant, other than a few apparently expendable biblical stories? Hayden never really bothers to explain.