By James Watt
Saturday, May 21, 2005
The religious left's political operatives have mounted a shrill attack on a significant portion of the Christian community. Four out of five evangelical Christians supported President Bush in 2004 -- a third of all ballots cast for him, according to the Pew Research Center. Factor in Catholics and members of other conservative religious communities and it's clear that the religious right is the largest voting bloc in today's Republican Party.
The religious left took note. Political opportunists in its ranks sought a wedge issue to weaken the GOP's coalition of Jews, Catholics and evangelicals and shatter its electoral majority. They passed over obvious headliners and landed on a curious but cunning choice: the environment. Those leading the charge are effective advocates: LBJ alumnus Bill Moyers of PBS fame, members of the National Council of Churches USA and liberal theologians who claim a moral superiority to other people of faith.
Their tactics are familiar. I encountered them more than 20 years ago as President Reagan's secretary of the interior, when I clashed with extreme environmental groups adept at taking out of context -- or in some cases creating -- statements that, once twisted, were attributed to me as if they were my religious views.
Now political activists of the religious left are refreshing those two-decades-old lies and applying them with a broad brush to whole segments of the Christian community: "people who believe the Bible," members of Congress and "Rapture proponents." If these merging groups -- the extreme environmentalists and the religious left -- are successful in their campaign, the Christian community will be marginalized, its conservative values maligned and its electoral clout diminished.
Last December Moyers received an environmental award from Harvard University. About three paragraphs into the speech, after attacking the Bush administration, Moyers said: "James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, 'After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.' Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn't know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the Bible is literally true -- one-third of the American electorate if a recent Gallup poll is accurate."
I never said it. Never believed it. Never even thought it. I know no Christian who believes or preaches such error. The Bible commands conservation -- that we as Christians be careful stewards of the land and resources entrusted to us by the Creator. Moyers then attacked the congressional leadership, some by name, saying that "we're not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election -- 231 legislators in total and more since the election -- are backed by the religious right."
Moyers is not without reinforcements. A liberal theologian and active participant in the National Council of Churches, Barbara R. Rossing of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, published a book titled "The Rapture Exposed." In it she attacks a large segment of the Christian community after attributing to me erroneous motives and beliefs on the basis of a fragment of a sentence taken out of context. Rossing contends that Christians who believe in the Rapture presume that there is no need for stewardship of natural resources because of the expected return of the Lord. She writes: "Watt told U.S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clear-cutting the nation's forest and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, 'I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.' Watt's 'use it or lose it' view of the world's resources is a perspective shared by the Rapture proponents."
Rossing fictionalizes this whole scenario and neglects to finish the sentence, which was as follows: "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns; whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations."
Moyers, to his credit, has made a personal apology to me. But there has been no apology for the affront to major segments of the Christian community. Rather, the charges have escalated. On Feb. 14, the National Council of Churches issued a statement "in an effort to refute" what NCC theologians "call a 'false gospel' . . . and to reject teachings that suggest humans are 'called' to exploit the Earth without care for how our behavior impacts the rest of God's creation. . . . This false gospel still finds its proud preachers and continues to capture its adherents among emboldened political leaders and policymakers."
If such a body of belief exists, I would totally reject it, as would all of my friends. When asked who believed such error, where adherents to this "false gospel" might be found, the NCC turned to its theological sources, Moyers and a magazine called Grist, which had also apologized to me. I then contacted the chairman of the NCC task force and asked him about the "some people" who believe this false gospel and the "proud preachers" advancing this false gospel. He could not name such persons.
Be alert. I learned this lesson two decades ago -- the hard way. Never underestimate the political impact of the twisted charges by extreme environmentalists now advanced by the religious left to divide the people of faith.
The writer was secretary of the interior from January 1981 to November 1983.