What most Americans seem to have forgotten is that the link between religion and environment is not recent. The relationship between religion and environment goes back centuries, but the original moral and religious inspiration for conservation and environmentalism was forgotten during environmentalism’s heyday in the ’70s.
The environment is a natural concern for a pope who took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the environment. The encyclical’s title, Latin for “Praised be,” is taken from Saint Francis’s most popular prayer.
Pope Francis has said that the saint “teaches us profound respect for the whole of creation and the protection of our environment, which all too often, instead of using for the good, we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.”
Laudato Si’ will restate what previous popes have said on environmental destruction and its impact on the poor, but as an encyclical, the church’s highest teaching document, it will have magnified impact.
The encyclical should remind us of American environmentalism’s own intensely religious and moral roots, which have mostly been forgotten since the 1960s.
The very issues that Francis will emphasize — sin, the common good, and the harm that greedy exploitation causes society — inspired conservation and environmentalism from their earliest beginnings. Their roots, however, were in the social and religious teachings, not of the Catholic Church, but of Calvinist churches, such as Congregationalism and Presbyterianism.
In early colonial days, Puritans following Calvinist principles established communities across New England. Calvinism put special emphasis on God’s presence in the works of nature, and Puritans often went alone into the fields, woods, and hills to pray and meditate.
So that none would be poor, New England towns granted each family a share of land, which religious duty commanded they pass on to future generations in as good or better condition. Towns regulated land and timber use to ensure resources for the future.
By 1830, colonies became states, Puritans became Congregationalists, and New England towns, with their white steepled Congregational churches on the greens, became the very emblem of democracy, prosperity, and moral order.
Congregationalists held their towns up to the nation as models of morality, equity, and sustainability. They spearheaded the first parks movement to provide green space for recreation for all classes.
Most prominent was Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park and many other parks and developments. Others advocated forestry and conservation to sustain fertility and preserve resources. Five of the first six heads of the Forest Division (later reorganized as the Forest Service) had New England ancestry, and one of them was a Congregational minister. At the same time, Transcendentalists and others spread the idea of nature as a church, temple, or cathedral where God drew close.
By the 20th century, people raised Presbyterian took over the cause. Less communal and more political, Presbyterians turned the movements for parks and conservation into a national crusade for nature and against sinful greed.
As President Theodore Roosevelt insisted, “Conservation is a great moral issue. I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.” His friend John Muir, the nature writer and parks advocate, said of those who would exploit National Parks, “These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.”
After World War II, Presbyterian-born writers and activists laid the foundations for environmentalism. Rachel Carson, granddaughter and niece of ministers, is said to have started the environmental movement in 1962 with “Silent Spring,” which blamed corporate greed for dangerous overuse and misuse of pesticides.
David Brower crusaded against destruction of nature and transformed the Sierra Club into a national environmental organization. Edward Abbey, son of a church organist, railed in his 1968 bestseller, “Desert Solitaire,” “Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us.”
But by 1970, environmentalists were blaming the ecological crisis on Christianity’s theology of conquest of nature and dominion over it as a gift of God to humankind to do with as they pleased. Recoiling, conservative Protestants called environmentalism pagan and anti-Christian. The divide helped create toady’s political impasse over global warming and other environmental issues.
By highlighting its moral and religious aspects, Pope Francis brings American environmentalism back to its roots. Laudato Si’ may help ease the divisions that have blocked any major environmental legislation since 1990.
But encyclicals avoid politics and cannot make up for the political force and righteous urgency that once flowed out of Calvinism. Calvinist denominations have been melting away for decades. Nevertheless, opponents of selfish greed and avarice, the common enemies of nature and mankind, would welcome Francis’s powerful words.