How has religion influenced the rise of American Environmentalism?
According to some contemporary voices, religion is largely detrimental to hope for humanity, whether that is related to peace, economics, or environment. The answer, according to some, is to get religion out of the public square. The sooner that is done, some argue, the better for all aspects of humanity and nature.
Mark Stoll, Associate Professor of History and Directory of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University, presents a different understanding of the relationship between religion and environmentalism. Instead, what he shows is a deep connection between Christianity, particularly Protestant versions, and American Environmentalism.
To be fair, mostly Stoll finds examples of lapsed Christians who have become advocates for the environment. However, he is careful to show how the theological understandings, many of which linger long after Christ is rejected, point toward value of nature apart from humans. Beneath his argument is the subtle but important reality that materialism––the rejection of anything supernatural––tends to undermine environmentalism as much as the worst caricature of a Christian Fundamentalist who is anticipating annihilation of the earth and subsequent recreation.
Summary and Analysis
Stoll begins with the early Calvinists who settled in the colonies, even before they were Christian. He points toward their desire for order, realization of the effects of sin on the created order, and value of creation as something given by God as necessary contributors to an environmental ethics. Creation was to be used by humans, but always with respect to the God who designed it and provided it.
When excessive logging took place in the early days of America, the Puritans and others set up rules to limit those activities in order to reduce erosion and improve environmental conditions for everyone. The early Americans, with their desire for law and order worked to establish parks for the good of all, common spaces, and farming communities built around small communities and small churches.
John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, and Gifford Pinchot, a major proponent of the conservation movement, both grew up in the church. Though one favored preservation and the other conservation, both found value in nature because they had a sense of religious awe toward it. In other words, there was a connection in their minds between awe engendered in their youths toward God to the sense of awe they felt when they were surrounded by the sweeping grandeur of nature.
Most of the environmentalists through American history have been connected to some form of Calvinism, particularly Presbyterianism. However, Stoll shows that many other thinkers with a religious bent, such as Thoreau and some from Baptist tradition, contributed to individual appreciation and action toward environmentalism. According to Stoll, it has been African Americans, Catholics, and Jews who have recently emerged to become leading voices for environmentalist in recent years. It seems some of these traditions have a stronger interest in communitarian efforts.
Throughout the book Stoll uses discussions of artists, their methods, and the subjects they represented. Sometimes this seems to narrow the focus a bit, since I would prefer a more theological and sociological analysis, but Stoll is probably on to something with his analysis of art from a given era. It is the artists that apply their worldview to the scenes around them to interpret and explain what they are seeing to their audience. In many cases, due to their visual representation, their messages are conveyed more clearly than the ideas that are freighted by words, which tend to change meanings more significantly over time.
This book is a pleasure to read. It has explanatory power. There are still some loose ends that I have questions about, such as where the Fundamentalists are in all this and why Stoll thinks they went wrong. However, Stoll has combed through a large number of sources from a significant sweep of history to write a book that ties a lot of key concepts together. This is a book well worth the time and money to read.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.