Obama’s “Phony Religion” is Environmentalism, Santorum Explains

What did Rick Santorum mean when he said that President Obama is promoting a “phony theology?” It got more and more confusing as he tried to explain it and it still hasn’t gone away. Initially it seemed he might have been returning to hinting the president is a Muslim; then it seemed  he might have been referring to Glenn Beck assertions last year that “progressives” embrace unbiblical “liberation theology.” RD’s own Anthea Butler suggested that the subtext was to suggest that the president is “not one of us” (a view with which I do not disagree).

On Face the Nation, Santorum insisted he was not questioning the president’s religion, that he was referring to the president’s commitment to environmentalism. If it seems like there is a disconnect here (questioning the president’s theology but not his religion?) it is because Santorum was being less than honest; in his view environmentalism is a religion. Santorum explained he was talking about

“this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do—that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth…. when you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says that we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth; by things that frankly are just not scientifically proven, for example, the politicization of the whole global warming debate—this is all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and to give more power to the government.”

“I’m talking about the belief that man should be in charge of the Earth and have dominion over it and should be good stewards of it.”

This view of the environmental movement as a religion in and of itself, and one explicitly at odds with Christianity, is widespread on the religious right and especially in the Christian right wing of the homeschooling movement of which Santorum is a part. Rachel Tabachnick over at Talk to Action has a great piece on the Cornwall Alliance, its anti-environmental film Resisting the Green Dragon, and the (biblical) economics of both. 

While this view is by no means limited to Christian Reconstructionists, they are important in the development and dissemination of it. In his 1967 work The Mythology of Science, Rushdoony characterized biblical Christianity and environmentalism as “two rival faiths.” In the earliest years of the Reconstructionist movement, this critique was the basis for the opposition to efforts at population control (in 1975 Rushdoony wrote The Myth of Overpopulation). By 2000, in his Systematic Theology, Rushdoony wrote:

“The anti-Christianity of modern humanism has led to an hatred of both God and man, and a readiness to sacrifice man to nature…. The Bible separates man from the rest of creation because man is God’s image-bearer and is called to exercise dominion. The environmentalists separate man from nature as the destroyer who must be restrained and suppressed in his dedication to dominion and development.” 

One of the best examples of a Reconstructionist-oriented dissemination of this view of environmentalism as a rival theology to biblical Christianity is found in the work of Doug Phillips and his organization Vision Forum. Phillips is a pillar of the biblical patriarchy and Christian homeschooling networks, appearing at homeschool conventions across the country. I explored the contemporary Christian Reconstructionists’ anti-environmentalism in his Earth Day blog here, and the way in which this this developing  critique and countering environmentalism (that they call pantheism) was one of Vision Forums key “accomplishments” in 2010 here and 2011 here.

According to Vision Forum’s year-end report, 

“Without a proper understanding of the biblical doctrine of creation, man, the animal kingdom, dominion and sovereignty, our children may well fall prey to the vision-destroying false worship and spirit of the age—environmental pantheism. Environmental pantheism is a direct attack on the biblical family because it devalues human life and seeks to obliterate the mandate that men through their families take dominion over the earth. Most importantly, it substitutes the worship of the creature, for the worship of the Creator.”

This is not to claim that Santorum is a secret Reconstructionist, but rather to point out how successful Reconstructionists have been at shaping the discourse in the half-century since Rushdoony began writing.

jingerso@unf.edu'

Julie Ingersoll is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. She is the author of Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles and is currently writing a book on the influence of Christian Reconstructionism.