Opinion: Mayor Pete isn’t the first to link religion and the environment

Pete Buttigieg
Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses supporters during a rally in Des Moines on Nov. 1.
(Nati Harnik / Associated Press )

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and Democratic presidential hopeful, calls contributing to climate change “a kind of sin.”

He connected the dots in an interview with Stephen Colbert: “The way I see it, I don’t imagine that God’s going to let us off the hook for abusing future generations any more than you’d be off the hook for harming someone right next to you. With climate change, we’re doing both.”

Linking religion with environmental and energy policy might appear novel — Colbert wondered aloud why Mayor Pete was the only Democrat willing to do so — but it follows a long American tradition. Broadly speaking, twin religious doctrines of caring for God’s creation and asserting mankind’s dominion over it fight it out in our public policy and our foundational ideas.

“Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us,” the Puritan and Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop sermonized in 1630, and the command imagines a carved-out space amid American wildness. The 19th century principle of Manifest Destiny held that Americans had a right — an obligation, even — to use natural resources for human ends. This “dominionist” tradition has remained strong among policy makers, especially members of the GOP with an evangelical bent.

Last year, then-Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his religious convictions led him to conclude that America should not hesitate to use fossil fuels. “The biblical world view … is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind,” he said.

In a campaign speech at the Colorado School of Mines in 2012, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum put the view succinctly: “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit and not the Earth’s benefit.”


A rural Republican state lawmaker here in Texas told me once that he had authored a bill encouraging the use of renewable power because “God is giving you all this stuff; you need to use it.” He used the same reasoning to support the construction of heavily polluting coal-fired power plants.

But lurking at the edges of Pruitt’s and Santorum’s confident assertion of biblical support for exploiting the Earth, there is a counterpoint: A call to stewardship. If God loves his creation, this tradition holds, then humans should as well. Stewardship is what Buttigieg taps into, and it runs as deep in the American psyche as Manifest Destiny.

“I suppose that what in other men is religion is in me love of nature,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1842. In the thick of the Industrial Revolution, he, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists encouraged New Englanders to experience God directly, through nature, in a way that logically led to the modern environmental movement.

The great conservationist John Muir followed the trail they blazed. In his memoir “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” about the journey he made on foot in his late 20s from Kentucky to Florida, Muir bristles about the dominionists he has known.

“The world, we are told, was made especially for man — a presumption not supported by all the facts,” writes Muir, who had been raised in a strict Presbyterian household. “A numerous class of men are painfully astonished whenever they find anything, living or dead, in all God’s universe, which they cannot eat or render in some way what they call useful to themselves.”

“In the same pleasant plan,” he continued, wryly, “whales are storehouses of oil for us, to help out the stars in lighting our dark ways until the discovery of the Pennsylvania oil wells. ... Cotton is another plain case of clothing. Iron was made for hammers and ploughs, and lead for bullets; all intended for us.”

Today, the tension between the dominionists and stewards is increasingly felt generationally. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and an evangelical Christian, is much in demand as a speaker among younger evangelicals because she seeks to reconcile science and faith, and she urges government action on global warming.

“Just about everybody, who says they’re a Christian,” Hayhoe has said, “would agree that God created the Earth in some way, shape or form, and gave it to humans to take care of.”

Buttigieg would agree. He’s not an evangelical; he’s a mainline Protestant who, unlike other Democratic candidates, isn’t shy about acknowledging his faith publicly or using the word “sin.” The mayor appears to be reaching out beyond his party’s relatively secular base to more conservative, religiously minded Americans in part by underlining his embrace of the stewardship thread of American environmental thought.

It remains to be seen if marrying faith and environmentalism — however long their intertwined history in the U.S. — will make new converts to either cause.

Asher Price is a staff reporter at the Austin American-Statesman and a journalism fellow at the University of Texas’ Energy Institute, studying the influence of religion on U.S. energy policy.