Any discussion of ecology, environment, and religion in America rightly begins with the American landscape itself. It also properly begins with a reflection on the terms and metaphors that have been used to describe it. Although the term ecology was not coined until the mid-19th century, it is a preferred starting term in the sense that it denotes integrated natural systems within which humans are just one species among many. The word environment, however, is a particularly fitting term for any 21st-century discussion of religion and nature in America, for it frequently implies the conceptual separation of humans from the biophysical world, a separation often driven by economic interests and technological hubris whose consequences are strongly reverberating in the environmental injustices and climate change impacts we are facing today.
This inquiry into the relationship between religion, nature, ecology, and environment necessarily includes the use of all three of these terms, all of which are contested—as is religion—and require nuance and attention to context when they are deployed. Throughout this article, all three of these terms are used somewhat interchangeably, but with attention to the shades of meaning that differentiate them, as well as to the religious, cultural, and political contexts that shape who uses what kind of language and to what purpose.
We understand the history of “religion and ecology/environment” in America as having two dominant strands: (1) a broad, spiritual reverence for nature as inherently sacred, and (2) 20th-century forms of religiously based environmental action and concern. The first, the story of spiritual reverence for nature, has its roots in colonial worldviews, garnered broad enthusiasm in the mid-19th century and continues to flourish today in 21st-century nature writing and in environmental organizations and activism at all levels. The second dominant strand in the history of “religion and the environment” in America is that of environmental concern that is explicitly and unapologetically religiously based. It is this second strand that is the focus of this article. Nevertheless, the broader historical context of the varied, contested meanings of nature in America—including the notion of nature itself as the source of the sacred—is ever present in how religious environmentalism is articulated and negotiated. The many forms of religious environmentalism that have developed since the 1960s are as diverse, complex, varied, and nuanced as religious America itself. In its more liberal Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish forms, religious environmentalism is often grounded in the social justice concerns and activism of earlier periods, particularly in the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and 1970s and in various Social Gospel campaigns from the early 20th century through the 1940s. Much religious environmentalist activism whether at the congregational, denominational, or national level is clearly rooted in earlier, religiously grounded social reform movements, but extends the conceptual reach of these reforms to include both the health of nature itself and the many ways in which environmental degradation directly impacts human health and well-being, often disproportionally along race, class, and gender lines.
More conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, however, have also become increasingly engaged with environmental threats, both in terms of their own history of attention to social justice and in terms of seeing the natural world as God’s creation and, as such, requiring the care and respect of humans who are created “in the image of God.” Using the language of stewardship and “creation care” and emphasizing the necessity of humility in relationship to God and God’s creations, many religious conservatives who may resist the term “environmentalist” have become actively involved in environmental advocacy with particular attention to the growing climate crisis. Their work has included collaborating with religiously liberal groups in direct lobbying for policy changes, a development that has surprised those who assume that environmental advocacy is only a concern of political and religious liberals.
As more recent immigrants have established themselves in the United States, new voices of religious environmentalism have emerged. These include the perspectives of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh citizens who have brought their own perspectives on environmental concerns to the fore, often developing ideas of nature and forms of environmental activism that are both grounded in their landscapes and cultures of origin and reimagined in an American context. Meanwhile, environmental activism and organizing has continued to emerge from indigenous tribes for whom the sacredness of nature has always been central to their spiritual identities. In many cases, this activism has been directed toward protecting endangered species (who are understood to be kin), combating climate change and resisting petroleum industries that are ravaging sacred lands.
When viewed in historical perspective, religious environmentalism both reflects and sheds new light on the larger story of religion(s) in America of which it is a part. Religious environmentalism continues to wrestle with the legacies of the assumptions about nature that colonial settlers brought with them, even while trying to overcome those legacies. In addition, while religious environmentalism is most obviously a religious response to threats to the natural world, clearly concern for nature is always deeply intertwined with concern for human flourishing. The task of much religious environmentalism is often to clarify the extent to which human welfare and the welfare of nature are profoundly linked. Religious environmentalism, then, is necessarily shaped by larger questions about what kind of nature is being valued, in what ways, for what reasons, and by whom. Such questions are invariably tied to larger issues of identity and cultural power, especially—but certainly not exclusively—in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Finally, to the extent that American religion has been challenged, revitalized, and transformed by the long history of immigration and the ever-shifting effects of religious pluralism, so too has American religious environmentalism been shaped by the worldviews of newly arrived Americans. The tensions and negotiations inherent in the ways that religious environmentalism is expressed, therefore, often echo the broader tensions and negotiations of American religious identity that are familiar to historians of American religion. Attention to these tensions and negotiations is central to the narrative developed here.