Barring Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Christianity’s loudest voices have rarely led the charge for environmental stewardship. At worst, they’ve denounced the science behind it. At best, they’ve deferred to other authorities or remained silent altogether. That reticence to accept the facts – and to utilize their political influence for the common good – has pushed many who trust in the consensus of the scientific community to draw negative associations between religion and the environment.
Hold that thought.
Following nearly two decades of research, author Mark R. Stoll, director of environmental studies at Texas Tech University, has welded the histories of America’s religious and environmental movements, tracing their co-evolution and exposing a relationship that bucks the stereotype of environmentalism today.
“Virtually every single person associated with the early movements for parks and forest conservation was no further than one generation away from a Congregational church in a small New England town…” Stoll writes in the introduction to his latest book, Inherit the Holy Mountain.
By deconstructing specific paintings and photographs from artists of various religious backgrounds—Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow [see above], for example, and Sanford Gifford’s Hunter Mountain, Twilight—Stoll details America’s evolving attitude toward nature, from the late 18th century to the present. Focusing primarily on Christian denominations, he begins with early American Calvinism, a doctrine whose strict moralism shamed human activity and considered nature a reflection of the divine. Moving forward, he illustrates how Calvinist Puritans’ in New England emphasized communal living and orderly towns as a way to promote a godly society. When industrialism flourished and that godly society began to fade, he writes, Congregationalists pushed for local agricultural improvement, parks, and forest conservation. Later, New England religious outsiders, such as Thoreau and the Baptists, would shift the environmental focus back onto the individual, arguably to the detriment of the common good.
“Those who advocate converting everyone to the proper attitude…in hopes of an environmental millennium,” Stoll writes, bluntly analyzing the historical evidence, “evince an optimism toward human possibility for which history supplies little supporting evidence.”
But perhaps the most surprising religious influence unearthed through Stoll’s obsessive research is Presbyterianism’s overwhelming contribution to American environmentalism during the Progressive Era. Through a host of high-ranking politicians (Presidents Harrison, Cleveland, T. Roosevelt and Wilson, to name just a few) and other influential artists and writers, Presbyterians established both the National Parks and National Forests systems, and returned the moral urgency of Calvinism to the conservation movement. “By the 1960s,” Stoll writes, “they transformed conservation into the broader, more popular (and more populist), more political, and deeply moralistic environmental movement.”
Yes, this is an academic work: citations and notes comprise nearly a quarter of the book, and many of the passages lead with a pedantic thesis statement. But don’t let that scare you away. Inherit the Holy Mountain is brimming with centuries worth of legendary cameos, from writer Ed Abbey to Sierra Club director David Brower, photographer Ansel Adams to painter Georgia O’Keefe, the Rockefellers to the Vanderbilts, Thomas Jefferson to Teddy Roosevelt. When viewed through the lens of their religious affiliations, the contributions of each of these individuals fit into a larger, unified framework. One may also be assured that Stoll’s meticulous analysis produces some novel conclusions. For example, despite Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wide-ranging influence—especially on other artists—his focus on transforming the individual wielded much less political power than those directly tied to a communal, organized religion.
In studying history, the old adage goes, we hope to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Inherit the Holy Mountain depicts American environmentalism not—as too many perceive it today—as the hobby of lonely mystics or radical fringe groups, but a movement dependent on community and a belief in social, rather than individual reform. Calvinism may have died out, but the success of environmentalism today may depend on our willingness to trust in those communal tenants we seem to have thrown out with it.
“Religious traditions that urge upon government the moral responsibility to restrain socially harmful behavior and promote the common good have left by far the more important and effective environmental legacy,” Stoll concludes, “from parks to safe food to clean air and water.” Today, when environmental organizations are “larger and less effective than ever,” a religious response may be our best hope for catching up. The Pope’s encyclical is a good start. So are groups like Interfaith Power & Light, which push to address climate change with a morally driven, faith-based response. Inherit the Holy Mountain reminds us that, despite one’s misgivings with organized religion, it holds the potential to shift the national conversation in a way few other forces can. It’s happened before. It could happen again.