On the first “Earth Day,” April 22, 1970, most people in the U.S. figured they were doing their part in preserving the environment merely by making sure tin cans and plastic jugs found a resting place in refuse containers. That is not good enough anymore.

As environmentally conscious citizens this month observe the twentieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, a steadily growing number of Americans are realizing that Earth’s resources are not limitless. Many have taken to recycling—or at least to feeling guilty if they don’t.

In 1967 historian Lynn White, in a widely publicized essay, faulted the church not only for its apathy, but for its contribution to environmental degradation. He charged that the theological concept of dominion was too easily cited to justify exploitation.

But in recent years Christians, including conservative Christians, have made major strides in developing a better theology of stewardship (see CT, Sept. 22, 1989). Robert Parham, associate director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has said that failure to address environmental concerns is tantamount to “default on moral leadership.”

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, an evangelical who directs the World Council of Churches’ subunit on Church and Society, maintains the church should move beyond the stewardship model to a “theology of interrelationship,” according to which creation has value “because of its relationship to God, rather than its utility for humanity.”

A Long Time Coming

“One of the reasons Christians aren’t more concerned with the environment is that they’re good Americans,” said David Mahan, associate director of the Michigan-based AuSable Institute, a support base that offers courses and training in environmental issues for use by Christian colleges. Mahan believes the whole culture has some catching up to do.

Conservative believers generally have been slower than their mainline counterparts to address ecological issues. One reason, said Dean Ohlman, president of the recently formed Christian Nature Federation (CNF), is that “many associate the environmental movement with the radical element in society, something that grew out of the hippie movement.”

However, Christian environmentalists acknowledge with virtual unanimity that things are changing for the better. The trend is easily documented. The American Scientific Affiliation’s Commission on Global Awareness and the Environment, for example, is in the process of producing Sunday-school materials on environmental issues. The Illinois-based ministry Christian Camping International has lately made environmental education a more integral aspect of its program.

Many believers have shunned the secular environmental movement because it is permeated with philosophies they find inconsistent with biblical Christianity. That is one reason the Fullerton, California-based CNF was formed. An organizational brochure states that the group offers its members the opportunity “to gain new appreciation of God’s handiwork” from a perspective that is “not tainted by humanistic, naturalistic, and neopagan bias (i.e., the New Age movement).”

But CNF’s President Ohlman encourages believers to support better-known environmental organizations partly because of their tremendous lobbying power. The AuSable Institute’s Mahan likewise believes there is plenty of room and need for Christian participation in secular environmental organizations. Mahan for four years worked for the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest private owner of nature preserves. He said the experience offered several opportunities to present his Christian faith as the basis for his environmental concern.

Mahan believes churches could have a major evangelistic impact by becoming “ecological witnesses in their communities,” in part by participating from a Christian perspective in this year’s observances surrounding Earth Day. Paraphrasing a National Wildlife Federation slogan, Mahan said that Christians, of all people, should affirm that “every day is Earth day.”

By Randy Frame.

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