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‘GOD’S PEOPLE DON’T DESERVE THIS’

CAN CHRISTIANITY FINALLY MAKE THE UNITED STATES CARE ENOUGH ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE TO ACT?

JOHN MUIR was a fervent believer. Not just in science or conservation or the National Park Service, which he championed. The founder of the Sierra Club and father of American environmentalism also believed in God. “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God,” Muir wrote in his 1897 essay “The American Forests.” “[For centuries] God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools.”

PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUAN HERRERO

This sort of religious language was “very much present in early conservation movements,” says Evan Berry, an associate professor at American University and author of Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism. George Bird Grinnell, founder of the Audubon Society, also invoked faith, and many of the environmentalist leaders in the late 19th and early 20th century were Congregationalists, a traditional Protestant sect, says Berry.

But then God abandoned the forest. During the Great Depression and two world wars, environmentalism took a back seat to what felt like more pressing issues, only to re-emerge in the 1960s in more secular forms, like Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. The new wave, Berry says, “wanted to build practical, policy-driven solutions to environmental problems without getting caught up in the messiness of religious ethics.”

For years, conservationist and faith-based views on the environment progressed on separate tracks, but in 1986 Prince Philip, then president of the World Wildlife Fund, organized a summit where leaders of the five major world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism—discussed how their faiths could help save the natural world. By the 1990s, religious groups such as the World Council of Churches were participating in international climate debates and conferences.

In the late 1990s, the Evangelical Environmental Network helped shepherd the Endangered Species Act through Congress, characterizing it to The New York Times as the “Noah’s ark of our day.” In 2002, the network launched a headline-grabbing “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign to call attention to fuel efficiency. In 2006, the group organized the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which released a statement making a moral argument for climate action. Dozens of evangelical leaders signed, including Rick Warren, Leith Anderson and Joel Hunter, whose megachurches have tens of thousands of members. Meanwhile, the Regeneration Project’s “Interfaith Power and Light” campaign, which launched in 2000 as “a religious response to global warming,” rapidly expanded its membership. According to the campaign’s president, the Reverend Sally Bingham, the organization comprised 14 congregations in California in 2001; today, it is in 40 states and includes some 18,000 congregations.

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