Mad Max, Christian Theology and the Long History of American Creation Care

Dystopic tales of the earth's destruction are perhaps what fill the seats at theaters these days, but art did not always reflect such a pessimistic view of nature. As Mark Stoll details in his new book, Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, American conservation has largely been led by the optomistic religious front of American culture. 

From Calvinistic conservation to Presbyterian national parks, American Protestant Christianity in particular has been one of the first to evoke theology for the good of preserving God's wonderful creation. 

As the Pope's Climate Encyclical draws more and more attention, remember that you don't necessarily need to be Catholic to carry the torch of climate action. You simply need to pick it up.

The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism

By Lauren Sutton for Religion Dispatches

What do the Mad Max franchise, protests of the Keystone pipeline, and the idolization of Theodore Roosevelt have in common? They all reflect attitudes towards environmentalism that, according to Mark Stoll, are steeped in Christian intellectual history.

In Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Stoll, a professor at Texas Tech University, explores the religious roots of environmentalist concepts of nature. Doing so, he challenges the preconception that conservationism and religion are inherently hostile towards each other.

Stoll documents the role of Calvinism, Congregationalism, and Presbyterianism in the creation of our national parks, forestry, and conservation efforts. He shows how many of our modern notions of nature are steeped in the morals and traditions of these particular Christian denominations.

The Cubit reached out to Stoll to discuss individualism and spirituality, the recent dystopian fiction trend, and the future of environmentalism.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book works to break down some assumed barriers between religion and environmentalism in America. What surprised you during your research?

A number of things. First of all, I thought that the chapter on New England environmentalism would be easy to write, because I assumed Emerson and Thoreau would be essential. And then I discovered that nobody was reading Emerson! So I began to realize that we read that back into the 19th century from the middle of the 20th century, especially when Thoreau became so popular in the 1960s and 70s.

Lawrence Buell’s book The Environmental Imagination takes the environmental movement as Thoreau’s legacy. I began to realize that is incredibly exaggerated historically. So if there’s no Emerson or Thoreau, I had to ask, “Why are all these New Englanders all over the place? They’re not all Transcendentalists.” And that’s when I discovered the centrality of the New England town as a model for them of something they were trying to save. Out of that idea they got national parks, conservation, and forestry, which was an interesting discovery.

Another surprise was finding just how many people were Presbyterian in the Progressive era. That was completely unexpected. I knew there were a few, and then I found out that the Presidents, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Secretary of Interior were all Presbyterian. So the Presbyterian-ness of the Progressive era overall—not just in conservation—was also surprising. There’s probably a big story there to tell about the influence of Presbyterianism on the Progressive movement as a whole.

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