Dispensationalist alert: Only several billion trees to go

jameswatt.jpgBlaine Harden of The Washington Post writes with sympathy for evangelicals who care about the environment — or “creation care,” as one pastor says he calls it because of evangelicals’ purported hang-ups about the word environmentalism.

But there’s one big cowpie in those pastoral fields:

Even for green activists within the evangelical movement, there are landmines. One faction in the movement, called dispensationalism, argues that the return of Jesus and the end of the world are near, so it is pointless to fret about environmental degradation.

James G. Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s first interior secretary, famously made this argument before Congress in 1981, saying: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”

Something about that example rang false, and it wasn’t just the idea that even a dispensationalist envisions a day “after the last tree is felled.” Blogger David Kopel began taking apart this urban legend last week. The remark comes from three primary sources:

• Bill Moyers, in one of his recent screeds against the religious right.

• Glenn Scherer of Grist magazine, whom Moyers cited as his source. (Scherer has appended a correction to the end of his article, “The Godly Must Be Crazy.”)

• Ex-evangelist Austin Miles, whose book Setting the Captives Free (1990) was Scherer’s source.

John “Hindrocket” Hinderaker of Powerline interviewed Watt by phone and performed more fisking, including this excerpt from Watt’s actual testimony in 1981:

Mr. Weaver [D. Ore.]: Do you want to see on lands under your management, the sustained yield policies continued?

Secretary Watt: Absolutely.

Mr. Weaver: I am very pleased to hear that. Then I will make one final statement … I believe very strongly that we should not, for example, use up all the oil that took nature a billion years to make in one century.

We ought to leave a few drops of it for our children, their children. They are going to need it … I wonder if you agree, also, in the general statement that we should leave some of our resources — I am now talking about scenic areas or preservation, but scenic resources for our children? Not just gobble them up all at once?

Secretary Watt: Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.

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.

Hinderaker says he has written to the Post to request a correction. One can always hope.

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  • Joshua Cordell

    Great post. Please update if the Post responds. Christians are accused (often rightly so) of being responsible for a lot of Urban Legends. It is always nice when someone does the research to debunk anything that isn’t true.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    I’m also grateful for this post. I think we’ve all seen some ludicrious quotes about what this or that conservative supposedly said, and they often turn out to be urban legends. The Dobson/SpongeBob fiasco is a good example of how words can get twisted a bit. (And this holds true of things liberals supposedly have said, too. All quotes need verification before reptition.)

    What was attributed to James Watt was a foolish argument, though. I’m glad he didn’t say it *quite* as it was quoted.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    There’s another really weird thing about this piece–the wrap-around anecdotal material relating to the Rev. Leroy Hedman. He pastors at a place called Georgetown Gospel Chapel, which (though the piece doesn’t say this) is a Full Gospel church–meaning, if I’m not mistaken, charismatic/Pentecostal/Baptist, roughly. But at the end of the piece he is quoted as saying in a sermon, “The Earth is God’s body.”

    Now, that is perfectly respectable feminist theology–Sallie McFague is the best-known proponent of that idea. But it’s awfully unusual to hear a Full Gospel pastor using that phrase. To leave it unexamined at the end of the piece is to miss rather a large opportunity… and also to see traditionalist evangelical readers of this article run for the hills screaming “the neo-pagans are coming! the neo-pagans are coming!”

  • http://www.forrestmims.org Forrest M. Mims III

    The WASHINGTON POST has added this to the top of the web version of the article with the false quote attributed to James Watt: “Correction to This Article. A Feb. 6 story incorrectly quoted James G. Watt, interior secretary under President Ronald Reagan, as telling Congress in 1981: “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” Although that statement has been widely attributed to Watt, there is no historical record that he made it.”

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    You make a good point, Andy. I had noticed that “Earth is God’s body” remark, and at one point I included two paragraphs on it. But I did not like how they flowed with the rest of the piece. They felt too tacked on, so I left them out.

  • Harris

    James Watt was known both for his dispensationalism — this was still exotic in the early days of Reagan — and for what could be politely called his pro-development agenda. Whether he made the link himself, many others saw the two convictions as intertwined, hence the apocryphal quote.

    At an abstract level, it certainly seems to be rational to make the connection: if faith does inform all of one’s life, then it is difficult not to ask about the relationship between faith and policy. So the question at the end is not whether Watt said this, but to what extent his belief and their attendant cultrual pessimism influenced his decision making by making him less vigilant, etc. And THAT is always news.

  • Will

    The whole thing shows what an ideologized audience is constntly ready to swallow on the authority of somebody says somebody said. To paraphrase Lewis, “Don’t you think you liberals are strangely unsuspicous people?”


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