Mormons Want to Save The Planet: it’s part of their theology but many shy away from being called environmentalists

By Emma Penrod- published 03/27/2018 in the Salt Lake Tribune’s LDS Conference edition insert

There are many words Farmington resident Alicia Connell might use to describe herself. Mormon. Mother. Realtor. But up until a few years ago, ”environmental activist” didn’t seem to fit. “It’s not that it was told to me by the church, that you shouldn’t be protesting,” Connell said. “I just never saw myself as a protester. I never saw myself as someone to take a stand and start rallying people.”

It’s no secret that environmental activism and Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, don’t always go hand in hand. Even when it comes to small-scale efforts such as taking public transit or organizing a car pool, a recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that “very active” Mormons are less likely to participate in environmentally minded behaviors than members of other faiths or less-observant Latter-day Saints. Another Tribune-Hinckley survey showed that, although 63 percent of active Mormons believe in climate change, that number ranks far below the 87 percent and 83 percent found, respectively, among Catholics and Protestants.

LDS environmentalists remain mystified as to why fellow members don’t see environmental concerns as a higher priority. Church teachings, they argue, provide a strong foundation for environmentalism. Independent scholars don’t blame Mormon doctrine for that attitude. They point instead to a complicated relationship intertwining LDS history, culture and politics. The issue isn’t so much what Mormons believe but rather what many Mormons think environmentalists believe.

‘Stewards’ of the Earth

Official LDS teachings encourage members to be conscious of their impact on the Earth. After all, Mormon doctrine holds that the planet will be “sanctified” and receive “celestial glory.” Leaders urge the faithful to act as responsible “stewards” of the air, land and water. Conservation of animal life is particularly emphasized, with sermons and scriptures that hold all living creatures have eternal souls.

“Latter-day Saint teachings have long emphasized that we have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the Earth and all of God’s creations,” LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said. “ … Though the church does not typically take a stand on specific governmental or regulatory proposals for dealing with environmental challenges, we teach these important principles of stewardship and reverence, hoping they are remembered and applied in the lives of our members as they care for God’s creations.” Hawkins’ statement echoes a presentation, titled “Righteous Dominion and Compassion for the Earth,” about Mormon environmental beliefs by LDS general authority Marcus Nash.

“Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to live lives of internal consistency, true to God, true to his present and yet-to-be-born children, and true to the purpose of his creation,” Nash said. “To the degree that it enlarges our understanding of who we are, why this Earth was created, and inspires us to respect this Earth as the handiwork of God and to think of others (including future generations), religion can change how we will treat the Earth and all things thereon.”

This 2013 speech wasn’t presented to the general membership from the pulpit of the faith’s semiannual General Conferences. Rather, it was delivered at a Stegner Center Symposium that focuses on the environment and natural resources. That’s representative of a wider pattern demonstrated by the church, according to religious scholars. Although Mormon teachings about the environment have not changed, LDS leadership hasn’t put as much emphasis on environmental issues in recent decades as it did in the 1970s, when it issued edicts asking members to walk to their worship services whenever possible and published articles in official church magazines.

A 1971 story in the Ensign declared that “in our mindless rush toward material prosperity, we have unbalanced powerful biological forces that we do not fully understand, that portions of the environment are now extremely unstable and susceptible to rapid and potentially catastrophic change, and that we have not been paying sufficient attention to the very serious problems created by our technology.”

Part of the difference in approach can be attributed to changes in church leadership, according to Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Arkansas’ Henderson State University. In the ’70s, then-church President Spencer W. Kimball had a stated interest in environmental topics, Bowman said, including animal conservation. The apparent shift also may be related to the political atmosphere, the historian said. In the ’70s, environmentalism was a bipartisan issue. Republicans, for example, helped pass critical environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency. That changed with the rise of the conservative movement in the 1980s, said Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

This swing to the right, according to Bowman, came from three distinct groups: business leaders who wanted to see fewer government regulations, “military hawks” who desired to grow America’s might on the global front, and conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, who worried about certain social movements, including feminism and gay rights.

The LDS Church, which institutionally opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, fell into that latter group, Bowman said.

Various leaders within these factions sought to find common ground to build an alliance and strengthen their political power. Among the ideas floated, Bowman said, was the notion that Christians don’t need to worry about the environment, because Christ soon would return and cleanse the Earth. This thinking served the interests of both Christians and conservative business leaders, Bowman said, so it rapidly gained popularity among conservatives. It also resonated with right-leaning Mormons, he said, despite any LDS teachings that stated otherwise. Unlike matters involving the family and gender roles, environmentalism never became a top priority for the LDS Church, Bowman said. After Kimball died, and the environment became an increasingly politicized issue, Mormon leaders became less vocal about the topic.

The church, as an institution, tends to shun political controversy, Bowman said, with a few exceptions that strike at its core values such as gender roles, families and immigration. “In more recent years, there have been more institutional movements toward something like [environmentalism],” Bowman said. “But it hasn’t been quite as public as the president of the church standing up and saying, ‘We are bad stewards of the Earth.’”

A year ago, apostle Dallin H. Oaks, now the first counselor in the faith’s governing First Presidency, warned graduates at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University-Hawaii about the dangers of a changing climate, without touching on the role humans play in the phenomenon. “Seacoast cities are concerned with the rising level of the ocean, which will bring ocean tides to their doorsteps or over their thresholds,” said Oaks, next in line to lead worldwide Mormonism. “Global warming is also affecting agriculture and wildlife.”

LDS leaders also have trumpeted the construction of “green” meetinghouses in Utah and elsewhere that not only save the church money in energy costs but also reduce the carbon footprint of such buildings. The same principles are being extended to new and retooled temples.

The politics of environmentalism

Some LDS environmentalists believe many Mormons have allowed political tilts to supplant their religious tenets. Latter-day Saints “value and cherish things like family, looking out for future generations and caring for creation,” said Craig Galli, a Salt Lake City attorney who specializes in environmental law and will be leaving his practice later this year to become president with his wife, Laurel, of the LDS Church’s mission in Barcelona, Spain. “But sometimes,” he said, “we can put our politics or our political affiliation above those values that are fundamental and core to our LDS identity.”

Some Mormon environmentalists believe this is because many fellow members are unfamiliar with their faith’s teachings about environmental stewardship. If the LDS prophet were to deliver a sermon or edict like those issued in the 1970s, they say, rank-and-file members would change their tone and their tune. “If something like that were directed over the pulpit again,” Bowman said, “I suspect many Mormons would abide by it. But it hasn’t been repeated, so I think it has been forgotten.”

George Handley, a professor of interdisciplinary studies who teaches environmental humanities at BYU in Provo, insists members largely ignored those sermons and articles of the 1970s. For change to occur, Handley argues, environmentalism would have to be incorporated into standardized church materials such as manuals for Sunday school and the children’s Primary. “There’s a link that is missing in the curriculum,” he said, “that I think is a very serious gap.”

Some of the difficulty, Handley said, rests in the fact that LDS congregations are overseen by lay leaders. While this is largely a good thing — “I would rather have that freedom to define my religion and my relationship to the world,” he said — Handley also recognizes the potential for political dogma to be taught as though it were church doctrine. “In certain local communities,” Handley said, “certain ideas are just accepted as verities of eternity that have no basis in reality.”

Galli, the environmental attorney, believes most Mormons know the difference between LDS teachings and their political ideology, but that they compartmentalize their beliefs without examining whether they line up with one another. “It’s very easy for us to set in a particular bucket — the political ideology and traditions that we’re accustomed to,” Galli said. “It’s hard to take those [beliefs] one by one out of that bucket, and examine them artfully to see if they are really consistent with our religious values.”

One reason conservative ideology has become so attractive to so many, Bowman said, is that it presents people with an overarching worldview that helps to put all these disparate ideas together. If you support conservative social causes like the sanctity of life and marriage, for instance, and you share a belief that government regulation is morally hazardous, then conservative ideology helps to connect all those dots and create one uniform sense of being.

Environmentalism, Handley said, has also done this. “It’s a way of life, an all-consuming passion, that often comes complete with a cosmology and assumptions about the true nature of things,” he said. “I know a lot of environmentalists for whom their environmentalism is an expression of a broader belief system that is not as easily compatible with, say, a Mormon belief.” Mormonism itself can be all-consuming. And to many Latter-day Saints, Handley said, this, combined with other factors, can lead to a perception that “environmentalism is almost like a false religion. That if you don’t really understand the true nature of things, you might be seduced by [environmentalism].”

“Mormon environmentalists just don’t see it that way,” Handley added. “They don’t care about the environment despite the fact that they are Mormon, but because they are Mormon.”

Galli said he could see how Latter-day Saints might come to view environmentalism as a sort of false religion. What they don’t often see, he said, is that conservativism might be as well. “Either side can accuse the other,” he said. “But we never think of the other side, who advocate harsh treatment of immigrants, as supplanting their faith for political ideology. And I think the comparison is just as apt. Both sides, if they go too extreme, can, in fact, supplant their ideology with their faith tradition.”’

‘I took a stand’

A belief that environmentalism itself was “extreme” was one reason Connell, the Farmington-area Realtor, initially couldn’t see herself becoming an activist. Then she found herself picketing when news broke that Stericycle, which operated a nearby medical waste incinerator, may have emitted more pollution into neighborhoods than originally disclosed.

Connell still considers herself a “pro-business” Republican. But one of her three children has asthma, and when she got unsatisfactory answers from state regulators, she began speaking out. “As a mom, you don’t mess with my kids,” she said. “So I took a stand.”

This is a common sentiment among Latter-day Saints, said Torrey resident Ty Markham, a co-founder of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance. Mormon women, in particular, “feel that they are supposed to focus on certain things — family, spiritual matters,” Markham said. But when environmental “problems begin to hit home, LDS women are very powerful and can be very outspoken.” The Stericycle protests, Markham said, largely were led by Mormon moms for this very reason. “They made such a stink about it,” she said. “They made huge differences, and they became extremely active, and that’s because it was affecting their families.”

Markham said Mormon women, by and large, are concerned about the environment. But they feel overwhelmed by the issues and by their own responsibilities. They don’t necessarily see a place for themselves within the green community. “A lot of times activism gets a bad rap, because when you watch the news, you don’t see people who look like you,” she said. “You don’t see people dressed in conventional attire. You see people dressing in sometimes outlandish outfits, and they usually have signs that are somewhat demeaning to the opposing side. And that is just a turnoff to LDS women. … LDS women, in general, are a little more prim and proper about certain things, and how they appear in public is one of them. They don’t want to be seen as one of those screeching, angry women that they see carrying a sign.”

Markham hasn’t talked to as many Mormon men about the environment, but, as a clinical psychologist, she believes they, too, may feel averse to conflict. “Contention is seen in the LDS Church as something that is evil,” Markham said. “LDS people don’t enjoy going to rallies, where they are around people who are shouting and angry, and who are holding up signs with strong language. That makes LDS people uncomfortable.”

Indeed, Connell said that when she was helping to lead the charge against Stericycle, she heard rumors that women in her LDS congregation were talking behind her back about how she should have stayed home with her children. Connell shrugged off those whispers. “I felt I was called to do that. I needed to do that,” she said. “My decision to protest was inspired by Heavenly Father. I would not have done it if I hadn’t felt it was the right thing.”

Many Mormons, activists and academics alike, identified the kind of language used by some to talk about environmental issues as a barrier for some Latter-day Saints. Even the word “environmentalist“ can be difficult. “It’s such a … loaded term,” said Galli, who asked not to be identified as an environmentalist for the purposes of this article despite the fact that he wrote a religious study guide on environmental stewardship geared toward Mormons. Environmentalists, he said, are generally thought to be a specific group of people who are “litigious” and “hostile,” Galli said. Some environmentalists preach that humans are a plague on the Earth, he added, and push for population control, an idea seen as offensive to some Mormons. “Humans,” he said, “are the pinnacle of God’s creations.”

And humans, LDS environmentalists declare, have a vital role to play in saving another of God’s creations: Earth.

By Emma Penrod for the Salt Lake Tribune, published 3/18/2018.