Recruiting in pews to save planet

Citing Scripture, more worshipers join environmentalists.

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.

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."

A devout promoter of the free market, Mr. Beisner and others say that natural-resource development - including logging, mining, livestock grazing, and commercial fishing - help accomplish a universal religious imperative, which is aiding the poor by elevating their quality of life.

"The Bible does specify that we have to be good stewards," adds Michael Barkey, a policy analyst with the Acton Institute, a pro-business religious think tank. "While it seems like a very simple principle, it has broad economic ramifications."

Mr. Barkey says efforts by religious groups to bring an end to logging, for example, violate the separation of church and state. And he accuses certain religious groups of blasphemy by promoting Deep Ecology, which places humans not above nature to exercise dominion, but as merely a part of the ecosystem.

A lawsuit over logging in Minnesota, for instance, is exploring whether the US Forest Service views trees as "sacred."

But supporters of the new church activism in conservation say they're just responding to the wishes of congregations, which are both liberal and conservative. "Our adversaries try to diminish our standing by labeling us part of the fringe," says Ann Alexander, chairwoman of the Christian Environmental Council. "Even if that were true - and it's not - it still wouldn't matter because millions of people are responding to our message because it is relevant."

Thousands of scientists, religious academics, ministers, and worshipers see no contradiction between evolution and creationism, but rather a conduit between the two that closely parallels the objectives of environmentalism.

Movement's broad base

This movement manifests itself on a number of fronts:

*A five-year-old program called Rescue God's Creation annually brings 50 Christian college students to Washington to learn about environmental issues. When they return home, they use their new political insight to educate communities and fellow students about pending legislation.

*The Pennsylvania Council of Churches launched an unprecedented interfaith campaign to counter global climate change, saying it did "violence to God's creation" and violated moral and religious principles of justice.

*The Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation is rallying hundreds of churches to support President Clinton's proposal to protect more than 40-million acres of public forests.

*An effort led by the Redwood Rabbis, an extension of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life in the Northwest, staged a mock trial of a powerful timber executive, accusing him of violating Jewish law by felling ancient redwoods.

"We don't see it as a greening of religion as much as a drawing out of the inherent care of creation that has always been a part of Christianity," says Fred Krueger from the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation. "Every Christian, ipso facto, is an ecologist who, like Jesus, was concerned with the common good. The fact is you can't have a healthy economy and a severely degraded life-support system."

As the new millennium begins, when environmental concerns have never been greater, Mr. Illyan asks: If Jesus were to appear today, would he be more inclined to be a land developer or a conservationist? "Scripture doesn't warn about worshiping nature, but it does warn continually about worshiping material wealth," he says.

Murphy has ministered for 23 years in Wyoming, where anti-environmental rhetoric remains fierce. His sermons attract worshipers from miles away. Recently, he organized a church hike up the slopes of Heart Mountain. One of the parishioners was so inspired, she persuaded the Nature Conservancy to buy the land to permanently protect it.

"It's not our intent to criticize others so much as it is to declare what's right by the Bible," adds Mr. Krueger. "What's right is preserving our forests and fisheries and keeping our streams clean.... We think Jesus would agree."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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