I have this Mormon friend who loves the Earth. Not so different from a lot of you. He taps into his deepest spirituality while in the outdoors. Shooting down a north-facing slope on skis, climbing a favorite pitch on Little Cottonwood granite or an easy hike up to Big Cottonwood’s Lake Blanche—it’s all church to him.
Not that he didn’t spend a lot of days worshiping the conventional way—in church. My friend holds the position of high priest—the top rank in the LDS priesthood. He once served in an LDS bishopric of a university student ward. He says it was a challenge, but he loved it.
Something that’s always confused, even irked, my friend about contemporary Mormonism is its anti-environmental image. If it were up to him, every Mormon would gladly support 10 percent of Utah land as designated wilderness. That’s a decent tithe for all the God-given beauty around us.
For a church that urges organization and sustainability with calls for food storage and disaster preparation, its leaders have rarely taken any consistent stand on organized stewardship of the land. The last big show LDS hierarchy made about environmental protection was its 1981 opposition to the MX missile in Utah’s west desert. People buzzed about it for weeks. Shortly after, then-President Ronald Reagan scrapped the project.
You might argue the MX opposition was more about peace than environmentalism, but I think the two are a matched set. If you ask most practicing Mormons today when was the last time one of their leaders urged them to drive smaller cars, or to walk instead of drive the two blocks to the neighborhood ward, or to eat less red meat or to stay on established off-road vehicle trails while recreating in Utah’s desert they would be hard-pressed to answer.
In my own faded Mormon memory, I have to go back to the ’70s for a clear environmental message. LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball urged church members in general conference to refrain from wantonly shooting the birds and the beasts—which rankled the hunters—and to take note of the world around them.
And, contrary to the politically conservative image of the official church, many Mormon scholars can find nothing in scripture that urges gobbling up resources at the expense of environmental protection.
“I have never come across anything in LDS Church doctrine that says, ‘Be wary, people, of this [environmental] movement,’” says George Handley, professor of humanities at Brigham Young University.
But we live in a state where nearly 80 percent of the Republican-dominated Legislature is Mormon. Four of our five members of Congress are Republican and devout Mormon. Most have aligned themselves with big oil, coal and gas interests, and go out of their way to fight the smallest environmental protection efforts.
Some faithful Mormons want to change that. Last month, 40 progressive Mormons turned out in Provo for a discussion titled “Faith and the Land: Conversations About Spirituality and Wilderness.” Sponsored by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the talk focused on perceived conflicts between practice of their faith and environmental protection.
“It’s astonishing to me how LDS theology is very imbued with spirit, very supportive of the environment,” says Deeda Seed, outreach director for SUWA. “I was raised Protestant, and I thought we had an ethic about respecting the earth. But, I’ll tell you, the Protestant religions are lame in comparison to Mormonism on this subject.”
Handley has taught a class in faith and earth stewardship at BYU, and has authored several scholarly papers on the topic. He finds ample scriptural support for his own pro-environment politics, which mesh nicely with his Mormon faith. The creation story, the LDS “law of consecration” (sharing goods with others, a la the old United Order) and especially the Word of Wisdom all speak to him of treading lightly on the earth.
“The Word of Wisdom counsels us to eat sparingly, to consume the fruits that are in season and to eat no more than is necessary,” Handley says. Because the beef industry is heavily dependent on land use and fuel to transport its products, “if we committed to eating 20 percent less meat, we can use less energy and create less pollution.”
Other comments that came from the Utah County discussion group:
- “The church greatly emphasizes the importance of the family. Time spent together in wild places enhances family relations.” n
- “The Mormon pioneers came here to stay. They didn’t come to just take and leave, like many of the prospector and trappers who passed through Utah. Understanding the need for stewardship is part of the Mormon way of life.” n
- “Stewardship means an accountability to God for all sentient beings, not an accumulation of material wealth. If we view the world as a supermarket, we are failing to live by Mormon doctrine.” n
- “I would like to hear someone speak about the importance of environmental stewardship at general conference.”
Heartened by the interest on this topic, Seed says SUWA will continue to hold similar discussions statewide. You can visit suwa.org for information and to read more comments from Mormons who believe in protecting the earth.