Tree Huggers, Tree Cutters, and the Challenge of Pope Francis | Sojourners

Tree Huggers, Tree Cutters, and the Challenge of Pope Francis

Before snowballs on the senate floor, Republicans were champions of the environment. Those days are now long gone.
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“The task of cleaning up our environment calls for a total mobilization by all of us. It involves governments at every level; it requires the help of every citizen.”

Sounds like a liberal Democrat, right? Someone who has been using Pope Francis’s recent climate encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Blessed Be”) as a political bludgeon, wielded against “climate change deniers?” Nancy Pelosi, perhaps? Not quite.

With these words, President Richard Nixon concluded his plea to congress in 1970 to take action on behalf of the environment, stressing that this was “an urgent common goal of all Americans.” Nixon then gathered bipartisan support as he spearheaded the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and inked 14 laws related to environmental protection.

To be sure, Nixon didn’t know what to make of environmentalists, once complaining that they wanted everyone to live like “a bunch of damned animals.” Still, when a 2012 poll asked 12 leading environmental groups to rank the three most environmentally-friendly presidents, Nixon came in second — behind Teddy Roosevelt, a fellow Republican.

Skip ahead to the present, and Nixon’s Republican heirs are fuming over Pope Francis’s embrace of the science on climate change and coinciding critique of free market capitalism. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh theorized that “this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party,” as he called it a “Marxist climate rant.”

In Nixon’s time, environmental protection was a rallying point for a nationwide consensus. Now, tree huggers and tree cutters maintain a safe distance from each other. Moreover, the divisiveness of this issue has meant that even Catholic Republicans have severely discounted the position taken by the head of their church.

How did we get to this place?

It started the decade after Nixon left office. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt to Interior Secretary. A Pentecostal, Watt’s priorities were clear: "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber." In his mind, humans and the earth were at odds, with the former requiring resources from the latter in order to survive.

“The environmental movement is preservation vs. people,” he declared.

Meanwhile, Reagan was busy creating a Republican coalition that included evangelicals and Catholics, a duo that had become unlikely bedfellows in their shared opposition to abortion. Before long, conservative Christians of all stripes absorbed the GOP’s reflexive contempt for all things related to the environment.

And today, nothing raises some hackles like global climate change. This past winter, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma wielded a snowball on the Senate floor as he disclaimed “the hysteria on global warming.”

An evangelical stalwart, Inhofe invokes the Bible as an authority in the debate.

“I take my religion seriously,” the senator writes in his book, The Greatest Hoax. “[T]his is what a lot of alarmists forget: God is still up there, and He promised to maintain the seasons and that cold and heat would never cease as long as the earth remains.”

The chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe’s message on the environment is simple: God will take care of it, and we have bigger issues to deal with.

So while Catholic Republicans have continued to advocate on gay marriage and abortion concerns, a Catholic concern for the environment has gotten the cold shoulder. Instead, we find this group marching in lockstep with their evangelical brothers and sisters.

It’s a procession that started before Francis’s papacy. The two popes before him held similar views on climate change and environmental stewardship. Benedict even earned a reputation as “the Green Pope.” Moreover, in 2001, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement warning of the dangers of climate change.

But Pope Francis possesses a unique blend of charm, charisma, global fame, and a pastoral tone. So Laudato Si’ has drawn worldwide attention. It also resists the binary categories of American politics. True, Francis is critical of unchecked market capitalism, something generally articulated by liberals in America.

At the same time, though, Pope Francis insists that creation’s caretakers must show equal respect for the unborn and the family — issues often associated with conservative politics.

For Pope Francis, then, environmental stewardship is part of a “seamless garment” ethic that cherishes life from cradle to grave and all along the bounds of creation. What’s more, Laudato Si’ is not presented as “infallible” truth. Quite the opposite. Francis encourages Catholics and “all people of good will” to debate the specifics — something that he does at points, such as when he voices hesitation regarding the buying and selling of carbon credits.

But he also urges us to have productive conversations that lead to consensus, rather than gridlock, for the sake of “our common home.” After all, quibbling over whether or not climate change is human-induced does nothing to fix the “dead zone” off the coast of Louisiana, the floating “garbage patch” that continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean, or the other assorted environmental problems plaguing America and the world.

Will this call to action bring about any change? It’s hard to say. But there was a time in our history when the environment was a shared concern — when clean air, clean water, safe food, and a sustainable future were common goals. In other words, we have done it before. Maybe now, with a little help from Pope Francis, we can do it again.  

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