The Magazine


Jun 24, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 40 • By ROBERT H. NELSON
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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 San 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.