This Sunday is Earth Day. Originally spearheaded in 1970 by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson as a national“teach-in” on urgent environmental issues, it has since become an internationally recognized holiday in192 countries. Earth Day is partially credited with jump-starting the modern environmentalist movement, and helping to pass legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. So naturally, it is stalking horse for Pagan religion and must be stopped at all costs, at least according to Minnesota State Representative Mary Franson from Alexandria. In a response to conservative activist Sheila Kihne on Twitter, Rep. Franson said the holiday “absolutely infuriates” her, calling it a “celebration of a Pagan holiday.”
Nor did Rep. Franson walk back her comments after they gained attention from local press, saying that people should “honor and give thanks to God…not Earth” and “big deal, so I don’t like Earth Day.” Of course, this isn’t simply about not liking Earth Day, all sorts of people don’t like Earth Day for a variety of reasons. This is about the idea, the meme, that Earth Day is a religious holiday, a Pagan religious holiday. Conservative pundits, politicians, and activists have been describing environmentalism, and especially the belief in human-caused climate change, as a “cult” for years now. This has led to the inevitable environmentalism equals Paganism accusation, the purest expression of which comes in the form of a documentary entitled “Resisting the Green Dragon.”
In it the speakers make it plain that this is a spiritual struggle, a battle between competing religions. Christianity on one side, and the“green dragon” of pagan environmentalism on the other. Participating in the video series is a roll-call of conservative Christian heavy-hitters, including Bryan “superstition, savagery and sexual immorality of Native Americans played in making them morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil ” Fischer, and David “paganism and witchcraft were never intended to receive the protections of the Religion Clauses” Barton. This view of the world reached a new height recently when then Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum accused Obama of adhering to a “phony theology.” When pressed on what he meant by that, he elaborated that our president might just be worshiping the Earth.
“…a world view that elevates the earth above man … I was talking about the radical environmentalists. [T]his idea that man is here to serve the earth.”
So this idea seems deeply entrenched, and increasingly popular as an attack on any who would attempt to seriously address the many challenges we face regarding our environment. Will it always be so? According to Lisa Weaver Swartz, author of “‘This Is My Father’s World’: American Evangelical Ambivalence Toward Climate Change,” there is a “sharp decline” of this idea among evangelicals, “a reframing of environmental issues into existing evangelical frameworks.” This shift is typified by Rev. Richard Cizik, former chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, who works to encourage environmental stewardship among Christians.
“Dominion does not mean domination. It implies responsibility — to cultivate and care for the earth, not to sully it with bad environmental practices. The Bible also teaches us that Jesus Christ is not only redeeming his people, but also restoring God’s creation. Obviously, since the fall of man and entrance of sin into the world, all of creation has yearned for its redemption from sin and death and destruction. That will occur with the Second Coming of Christ. But in the meantime we show our love for Jesus Christ by reaching out to and healing the spiritually lost and by conserving and renewing creation. Christ’s call to love nature is as simple as his call to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
But the environmentalism = Paganism meme dies hard, and the fact that it is still widely parroted by a variety of commentators, and entered into the 2012 presidential race, says that the tipping point within American evangelical culture, and conservative Christianity as a whole, is still a long way off. Until then, any who espouse a belief in climate change, who want stricter environmental regulations, who want to protect our national parks, runs the risk of being labeled an adherent of “radical environmentalism – a form of neo-paganism.”
Despite this, elements of immanence, pantheism, and various indigenous perspectives have become increasingly popular and “mainstream” in our modern culture. Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”, notes that this development is as “American as apple pie.”
“The remarkable language in the Ecuadorian constitution and in Boliva’s new Mother Earth law did not, however, result from indigenous Andean spirituality alone. They were also influenced by a generation of thinking and debate around the world about human responsibilities toward nature. In the U.S., much of this has taken place among philosophers and legal theorists, including in the landmark argument by Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing?: Law, Morality, and the Environment, which was first published in theSouthern California Law Review in 1972. Indeed, I contend that the recent developments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and within the United Nations are as American as apple pie: they are to some extent in the spirit of a diverse range of American voices that led to the pioneering Endangered Species Act of 1973 signed into law by Richard Nixon. Yet today, those who call themselves conservative are generally hostile to environmentalists, often considering them to be politically or spiritually dangerous socialists or pagans.”
The danger of this rhetoric is that we cut ourselves off from the simple truth of our place in the natural world, to the interconnectedness of all things. Acknowledging that, and the responsibility it places on us, is not theology, or pantheism. To engage in this smear-tactic, to make simple reality controversial is increasingly dangerous. Rep. Mary Franson thinks she is defending her faith, but in reality she is politicizing a topic that should be a major concern for all human beings on this planet. The longer we fight this false battle over “paganism,” an imaginary green dragon for crusaders to defeat, the worse things will actually be when we finally are forced to face the ramifications of our inaction.