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"Rapture" Rapture

Republicans, the environment, and the Second Coming: The origins of a liberal myth.

8:45 AM, Feb 14, 2005 • By JOHN HINDERAKER
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ONE OF LIBERALS' chief motivations these days is fear of the religious right. Ask people on the left to explain their loathing of President Bush or the Republican party, and the answer often comes around to Jerry Falwell, evangelicals, theocracy, and so on. The left's fear of conservative Christians is fed by a steady stream of news stories. Some are accurate: religious conservatives oppose gay marriage. Some are fanciful: Sponge Bob Square Pants has been accused of being a homosexual. And some are simply false.

The left's most recent salvo against the religious right was launched by an obscure online environmentalist journal called Grist. In October of last year, Grist published an article titled "The Godly Must Be Crazy," the thesis of which was that conservative Christians are deliberately bent on despoiling the environment:

Many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future. They believe we are living in the End Time, when the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. They may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed--even hastened--as a sign of the coming Apocalypse.

We are not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. The 231 legislators (all but five of them Republicans) who received an average 80 percent approval rating or higher from the leading religious-right organizations make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. Congress.

Grist's fevered accusation might have languished in the less-traveled corners of the Internet had it not been taken up by a more respectable voice of the left: Bill Moyers. On December 1, 2004, the Center for Health and the Global Environment gave Moyers its "Global Environment Citizen Award." Moyers's speech on the occasion cribbed liberally from, and at times quoted verbatim, his "favorite online environmental journal," Grist. He characterized the Bush administration's environmental policies as "based on theology" and therefore "delusional." He repeated Grist's claim that Republicans, believing that the end of the world is at hand, are deliberately despoiling the environment.

For evidence, Moyers harkened back to the Reagan administration:

Remember James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's first secretary of the interior? [Grist] reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious.

Here, though, it was Moyers, not James Watt, who was trafficking in delusion and fantasy. For Watt said no such thing. The quote that Moyers attributed to Watt is fictitious. It originated in a 1990 book called Setting Free the Captives by an eccentric former circus ringmaster named Austin Miles. Miles didn't claim that Watt made the bogus statement to Congress, however; that embellishment was another layer of fabrication, added by Grist and repeated by Moyers.

As it happens, however, Watt did once mention the Second Coming while testifying before Congress. In February 1981, Watt told the House Interior Committee the precise opposite of what Moyers alleged:

That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.

I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.

Watt's Congressional testimony is consistent with the approach toward environmental policy that he followed throughout his career. In a letter to President Reagan written in October 1983, Watt said:

[B]ecause of our commitment to good conservation practices, we have set a remarkable record of increasing protection for the fragile and ecologically important conservation lands of the Nation. . . . In 1983 alone, we have, through trade, donations and purchase, added more park and wildlife land to the federal estate than any previous Administration added in a single year since Alaska was purchased in 1867.

Our stewardship commitment extends to preserving for future generations those historic sites and structures that pay tribute to America's past and the principles upon which our Nation was founded.