The Gospel of the Trees
The strange rise of eco-faith

David Klinghoffer
Editorial Director, Toward Tradition
Author of The Lord Will Gather Me In

Are the environmental policies of G.W. Bush foolish? Reckless? Or positively sinful? All three, with an emphasis on "sinful," according to religious environmentalists, devotees of something called "eco-faith."

An Associated Press story, following one in the Los Angeles Times, hails the view of certain "religious scholars" that failing to conserve natural resources is no less than an offense against God. That's the case whether you are drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, withdrawing from the Kyoto climate-change treaty, or just gassing up your SUV. Organizations from the National Council of Churches to the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life want to rally the nation's "green congregations." After all, says Professor Matti Karkkainen of the Fuller Theological Seminary, "Sin in the Bible is anything that is against God's holy will. And God's holy will is?to nurture and to enhance life."

Now you know that if Professor Karkkainen were advocating the view that, oh, going to bed with another man is "a sin against God's holy will," it's unlikely that he would be heralded as a religious "scholar" but rather dismissed as a fanatical crank. In fact in the company of the sensitive and the thoughtful, at least till very recently, describing anything as a "sin" was something you simply did not do. So when clergymen start batting around that awkward term, and getting praised for it, it's worth understanding what is going on.

Let's get a couple of things clear. First, the leaders of the "eco-faith" movement aren't the kind of clergymen you first think of when you imagine clergymen calling people "sinners." We're not talking about Pat Robertson types, with the puffed up helmet of white hair and the aviator glasses. An Internet search for articles on the "eco-faith" phenomenon recovers a piece from the Hartford Courant recently profiling a guy here in Seattle, Mike Schut of Earth Ministry, which operates out of a Methodist church. Schut looks like he just got back from a day hike up Mt. Rainier: sensitive bowl-cut blond hair, beard, environmentally friendly open-necked shirt.

At least in the Pacific Northwest, Methodists are the most radically progressive church around. Out here a gay Methodist clergyman comes out of the closet every couple of weeks, to be applauded by the local newspapers. And indeed a quick look at the affiliations of the eco-faithful clergy reveals that they are mainly from the Left-leaning denominations: pastors of the Methodist and Episcopal churches, United Church of Christ, Reform rabbis, and so on.

A second point to bear in mind is that, whatever the Scriptural verses these folks cast about to impress reporters, there's nothing particularly environmental about actual Biblical religion. All the Bible bits they cite, though poetically interpreted, in fact have to do with other topics. So a rabbi is quoted by the AP, quoting Leviticus: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field" (19:9). Actually this has to do with leaving food for the poor, not with having pity on your field. More to the point, perhaps, is God's directive to Adam that his descendants should "replenish the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:2).

The truth is you can construct a sound, Scriptural argument to the effect that it is wrong to wantonly destroy nature ? as Maimonides suggests in his concise listing of the Biblical commandments, the Sefer haMitzvot. But "wanton" means without good reason. An authentic view of the matter would balance human needs (for realistic sources of energy, for instance) with the needs of critters, flowers, and trees. The eco-faithful recognize no such balance.

What they do appear to have recognized is a massive hole in the architecture of the liberal faiths they represent. Over the past 50 years or so, those faiths gave up on the idea of sin. Tolerance, their ultimate value, rules that the one true crime is to express disapproval of somebody else.

But people are funny. It seems to be hard-wired into us to think in terms of "right" and "wrong." A church that does away with such concepts tends to go, well, the way of the liberal churches, which are increasingly depopulated, or populated by senior citizens who never made the jump to more rigorous faiths. Today's crowded, youthful churches and synagogues are the conservative ones that never dropped their conception of "sin" and "virtue" and, incidentally, take a relaxed view of the environment.

In a bid for relevance, the progressive churches have now rediscovered "sin." They've got the reporters calling out Amen! and Hallelujah! Whether this will translate into actual human bodies filling their pews is doubtful.

Copyright (c) David Klinghoffer. Used by permission.