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Recruiting in pews to save planet

Citing Scripture, more worshipers join environmentalists.

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1999


Last night, three evenings before his congregation celebrates the birth of Jesus, the Rev. Warren Murphy led parish-ioners outside for a walk beneath the glowing solstice moon.

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Together, they admired the cosmos with a telescope, sipped hot chocolate, and when the time came for a festive holiday carol, they sang "O Tannenbaum" with the enthusiasm of tree huggers.

The wintry stroll is just the latest example of how Mr. Murphy, a popular Episcopalian priest here, is persuading his flock to think "green" by paying regular tribute to the beauty of God's creation.

It is also part of a growing global movement involving spiritual leaders from all faiths asserting a strong connection between a healthy environment, spiritual fulfillment, and fundamental religious teachings.

From the Bible to the Talmud to the Koran, from weekend sermons to Christian rock concerts, Earth stewardship is emerging as a powerful religious force in the modern age. It is a trend, say theologians, that not only holds profound implications for religious and public policy from Capitol Hill to the Vatican, but also offers insight into how Americans view their biblical charge to care for God's creation.

The evolving synergy of the environmental and religious movements was documented in a survey by researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. It showed a threefold increase in the number of people worshiping at environmentally focused churches during the mid-1990s.

This growth can be attributed to the increased interest of two particular demographic groups, says the Rev. Peter Illyan, Northwest regional director of Target Earth, one of several prominent eco-religious organizations. First is young people who are active in the outdoors but raised without any firm religious teachings. The second group is aging baby boomers who left their churches as young adults, feeling they were no longer relevant. Many are now coming back because of their connection to contemporary environmental issues and the outreach of evangelical services.

Pontiff promotes ecology

Like Murphy, men and women of the cloth are drawing worship-ers from all segments of society. Most prominently, Pope John Paul II has quietly cultivated a legacy as the first environmental pope. In 1979 he proclaimed St. Francis the patron saint of ecology, and has implored Roman Catholics to reduce their level of resource consumption. "The seriousness of ecological degradation lays bare the depth of man's moral crisis," the pontiff declared on New Year's Day 10 years ago.

Religion has frequently entered into environmental debates in Washington as well. James Watt, the Interior secretary under President Ronald Reagan and a born-again Christian, characterized environmentalists as practicing pagan idolatry for worshiping nature at the expense of the financial welfare of humans.

Mr. Watt claimed that natural-resource development had a firm rooting in Scripture - that man should have "dominion" over the land. From that assertion sprang a private-property rights movement in the West and South allied with fundamentalist Christians.

Leaders of the "green" religion movement admit they were slow to counter such assertions as they grew during the 1980s and '90s. But a turning point came in 1996, when Republicans in Congress wanted to amend the Endangered Species Act.

Clergy representing a spectrum of mainstream denominations protested, likening the struggle to preserve biological diversity to Noah readying his ark. Speaker Newt Gingrich eventually shelved efforts to weaken the wildlife-conservation law.

Still, the eco-religious movement has its detractors. In the battle for support from evangelical Christians, both sides are armed with Bible passages to reinforce their point of view and both accuse the other of misinterpreting Scripture.

E. Calvin Beisner, who teaches interdisciplinary studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., is one of the nation's foremost critics.

He claims many ecological threats are overblown and that left-leaning environmentalists are trying to co-opt mainstream religion to add legitimacy to their cause. "They infer that nature is best when it is pristine and they say that man has fallen into sin by wishing to develop the landscape," he says. "They seem to suggest that everything man does has been negative."