Forget the “culture wars” and the assault on Christianity.  The real conflict in America is thoroughly secular—between environmental and ecological “religions”—or so says Robert Nelson.  He makes the argument, long known to conservatives, that religion never really goes away.  Modern secular religions, like these two, borrow heavily from the Christian tradition.  As such, they inherit the same theological language and ideas.  Most importantly, they inherit age-old theological debates and animosities.

Nelson defines economic religion as a general faith that believes some combination of science, government, and market can solve human misery.  It is organized like the medieval Catholic Church, with economics as the new scholasticism, economists the new priesthood, and the state as the new church.

He sees differences between capitalism and various forms of socialism as trivial, as all share a fervent belief in “progress,” in which economic development will eradicate poverty.  This is a secularized theology of the New Testament, in which the good news of the economic gospel will eradicate the sin of poverty that society may be redeemed.  Heaven on earth is indeed possible.

Economic religion was conceived in the West, attained maturity by the mid-19th century, and became a global force through the leadership of the United States.  However, the human toll of the two world wars, numerous Marxist revolutions, and the Cold War created a crisis of confidence in economic religion.  The crisis worsened when it became widely recognized that economic religion—whether capitalist or socialist—was responsible for massive environmental destruction that could threaten all life on earth.  This realization led to the emergence of environmental religion and a secular reformation against economic religion.  Like the Catholic Church, economic religion had perverted the spiritual mission of mankind.  Rather than heaven, it created hell on earth.  If economic religion continues its destructive practices, humanity is doomed—and damned.

Environmental religion has replaced New Testament ideas of mercy and redemption with those of the Old Testament—judgment and damnation.  Modern environmental writers and activists frequently define people as “evil,” “decadent,” “sinful,” “selfish,” and “arrogant.”  They frequently describe humanity as a “blight” or “cancer” on the planet.  And punishment, they prophesy, will come in the form of environmental catastrophe—volatile weather, species extinctions, famines, diseases—truly a biblical scenario.

Paradoxically, scientists and policymakers are among the most fervent in using explicitly theological language.  They universally accept Darwinian evolution, but rely on religious—even creationist—arguments as the basis for environmental policy.  The very idea of protecting plants and animals from extinction has no place in evolutionary theory: If a species cannot compete, it becomes extinct.  Yet, conservation policies consistently contradict this scientific position.  Species must be “saved” from the ravages of human exploitation.  What conservation biologists are essentially saying is “don’t destroy God’s Creation.”

Moreover, the rationale to protect nature is often aesthetic and moral, rather than concerned with sustaining biological functions or the evolutionary process.  Nature must be protected because it is “majestic,” “grand,” “beautiful,” “sublime,” “moving,” “mysterious.”  Again, policymakers often use the word creation in place of scientific terms like earth, environment, or planet.  And they implore people to protect nature out of “moral obligation,” “compassion,” “duty,” “conscience” and “empathy.”

How did this paradox develop?  In the book’s seminal chapter, “Calvinism Minus God,” Nelson makes the explicit connection between environmental religion and Calvinism.  Calvin had a negative view of people—most are so sinful, they are beyond redemption.  He also believed there should be no intermediaries between God and man except for Scripture.  What fewer people know is that Calvin also believed that nature—God’s Creation—was another reliable intermediary.  He made the connection between human faith and nature: “The knowledge of God [is] sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature.”

This direct experience of God through nature is precisely the attitude of modern environmental religion, except that here the worship of God is replaced by nature worship.  One of the manifestations of this worship has been “wilderness” preservation.  Wilderness ranks high on environmental religion’s agenda, as it is seen as something pure, untainted by man.  Here the Calvinist idea of purity is applied to nature rather than to the soul.  Like Calvinists, modern environmentalists see man as so depraved, so fallen, he cannot be trusted to live in nature without ruining it.  Hence man must be removed from the land (as happened with the creation of the National Park System) to restore it to its purity.  Wilderness is nature before the Fall.

Nelson shows how many prominent American environmentalists grew up as Calvinists, or in Calvinist surroundings.  Emerson and Thoreau grew up in Puritan New England.  Key environmental activists of the 20th century—John Muir, Dave Foreman, Rachel Carson, and David Brower—were all raised staunch Presbyterians.  Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson was a Southern Baptist.  And the “butterfly lady”—Julia Hill—who lived in a California redwood tree for two years to protest the clear-cutting of old-growth forests, was the daughter of an itinerant fundamentalist preacher.

Nelson’s Catholic/Protestant and New/Old Testament analogies are insightful and often sound.  But economic and environmental religions are more similar than he admits.  Despite structural similarities between Catholicism and economic religion, the latter is still more influenced by Protestantism.  Though Nelson cites Weber’s famous thesis regarding the Protestant spirit and the rise of capitalism, he believes that noncapitalist versions of economic religion had other influences.  Later, however, he approvingly quotes Murray Rothbard, who believed the modern absolutist state originated in Protestant countries where rulers were no longer compelled to follow Catholic natural (moral) law.  Once free from Church interference, the state developed its own sphere of power, which included increasing control over resources and economic activities.

But the greatest similarity between these two secular religions is that both distort the traditional Christian idea of sacramentality, which sees the divine in all things—even the most ordinary.  It is a poetic vision in which spirit and matter are fused, making everything a sacrament, in that everything points to God.

Calvin challenged this vision.  He rejected not only the formal Church sacraments but the idea that God could be experienced in the mundane—especially mundane human beings.  Hence, his retreat into Scripture and nature as the only reliable means of experiencing God.

When ordinary things lose their spiritual value, they become subject to abstraction.  This process of reduction and abstraction has been a defining feature of modern thought.  In this respect, economic religion of every hue has been most guilty, having reduced virtually everything on the planet to an economic “resource.”  Environmental religion sought to resacralize nature by giving it some intrinsic value (while not extending the same consideration to humans).  But this effort has failed; environmental religion has simply erected a new category of abstractions.  Wilderness, environment, ecosystem, biome—even nature—are all equally unreal terms.

Nelson believes environmental religion is nevertheless ascendant and will continue to challenge economic religion; in doing so, it will transform America, and even the world.  He sees several possible scenarios here.  One is an alliance between environmental religion and libertarianism, which is also critical of economic religion.  At the policy level, Nelson sees libertarian ideas like Murray Rothbard’s “polluter pays” as potential environmental solutions.  Rothbard believed pollution is the responsibility of the polluter, not an innocent neighbor or the general public.  Pollution remains one of the most intractable economic problems.  If all pollution costs were incorporated into products and production processes, pollution could be reduced.  However, this would have dire economic consequences, as the price of all goods would rise, effectively putting an end to the consumer economy and economic religion as we have known it.  This, of course, is one of environmental religion’s goals.

Another point of similarity between libertarians and environmental religion is their critique of the state, albeit for different reasons.  Libertarians see the state as economically inefficient, whereas a growing number of environmentalists see it as the principal destroyer of nature.  Nelson concurs.  State-funded infrastructure—roads, rails, dams, airports, collective farms, housing developments, industrial parks—and warfare have destroyed more natural habitat than have business corporations.  They also grant corporations easy access to resources, thus intensifying natural destruction.

Nelson sees economic and political decentralization, and a concomitant focus on markets, as a better way to utilize resources and control pollution.  He admits this is not a perfect solution.  But it may be a necessary one, as national states alone are incapable of dealing with growing environmental problems.

Nelson concludes that environmental religion will either come to be seen as a great heresy, or it will merge with traditional religion.  Even if no great synthesis should occur, however, bringing traditionally religious people—conservatives, essentially—into the environmental debate is a long overdue development.  Among other benefits, conservatives could lend prudence to the environmental debate.  Not all is doom and gloom.  People can destroy nature, but they can also protect it.

Stewardship—a fundamentally religious idea that focuses on individual responsibility—and not just government and market solutions must be promoted in the interests of environmental protection.  And stewardship must begin at the level of the household and community (for conservatives, the center of life) and emanate outward.

An emphasis on stewardship would also return the principle of subsidiarity to respectability in economics.  A larger reliance on local labor and resources, especially in food production, would greatly reduce energy costs.  Stewardship and subsidiarity would also enhance the ideal of the simple life as a viable alternative to the consumerist one.

In the end, what conservatives have to offer is a different vision of existence—a sacramental vision—to deal with the world’s environmental problems.  In such a view, the idea of exploiting people or resources is unthinkable.  As Cardinal Newman once said, “With Christians a poetical view of all things is a duty.  We are bid to color all things with faith.”


[The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert H. Nelson (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press) 416 pp, $24.95]