Good earth Friday

Posted on April 22, 2011. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

It’s a rare, cosmic coincidence that Earth Day (created in 1970) and Good Friday (circa 33 AD) are both observed today. The two holidays won’t occupy the same calendar date again until 2095.

Perhaps the parallel is providential. After all, the causes behind the twain celebrations are more alike than different. Both deal with redemption in the context of the planet and its inhabitants. Assuming the old maxim linking cleanliness and godliness has any merit, followers in both instances share responsibilities as worldly stewards.

Both days of observance also admonish the refreshing notion of resurrection—one for the natural environment and the other for the human spirit.

All of which makes today an unusually good day for contemplation about religion, nature and our national heritage.

It’s a political pity that divisiveness pays better dividends than unity these days. Our country’s religiosity was clearly identified by observers as a strength from the outset, as was our growing nation’s abundant natural resources.

No serious student of history can paint a convincingly secular image of early America. All you have to do is read anything—including state constitutions, public declarations and dedications, presidential speeches, even Supreme Court decisions—from the formative American period in order to see that nobody ever said anything of much import without honoring, thanking, praising or praying to God.

That doesn’t mean there was ever a movement to create a national religion in the United States. Quite the contrary—the reigning consensus (as inked in the First Amendment) was that the federal government could never establish a religion by law.

The people also overwhelmingly supported the idea that the federal government could never prohibit citizens’ free exercise of religion, which even then was manifested in a variety of denominations and doctrines.

It’s critical to remember the context of the time. Our founders sought to avoid a federal version of the Anglican Church, whose tax-supported entanglement with the British government had corrupted both entities more than it improved them.

What many people today don’t realize is that the First Amendment did not prohibit the states from establishing religion or having official churches, which was common then. Indeed, the history of the disestablishment of the early colonial and state churches makes for some eye-opening reading.

Connecticut wouldn’t disestablish its official Congregational church until 1818. Massachusetts maintained an establishment of religion (it required church membership and allowed churches to tax its members, but permitted denominational choice) until 1833.

In neither instance, nor in any of the other state evolutions away from religious taxation laws, did the federal government interfere. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to incorporate the First Amendment establishment prohibitions as applicable to the states in 1947, the concept of official state religions was already archaic.

Acknowledging the overt theocratic tendencies of the states after First Amendment ratification doesn’t endorse those ideas as policy for today, but ignoring the fact (or omitting it) deprives any discourse about religion of the key ingredient of truth.

The main point is that the First Amendment is one of the earliest American gestures of diversity and tolerance. It embodied the true spirit of those words, in contrast to the lectionary degeneracy they have more recently suffered at the tongues of agenda-driven activists and revisionists.

For the faithful, the concept behind Earth Day long predates the late Senator Gaylord Nelson’s achievement in 1970 of a “teach-in” day about celebrating the planet’s natural environment.

While the phrase God’s Green Earth appears to have originated in a poem published in 1837 by a Rev. Hetherington, the idea of sacred earth as God’s creation is as old as Genesis itself (and older for other religions).

In fact, a great many churches have adopted and embraced Earth Day in the 41 years since its inception, and continue to do so.

With its political origins, it’s no surprise that players of all political stripes have long compromised Earth Day’s message. Global cooling was all the rage at the time of the first Earth Days, as scientists, professors, activists and editorialists ominously warned of a coming ice age.

Today, the worry du jour is warming, with Earth Day once again viewed by activists mainly as a megaphone. On the flip side, greenwashing practices by businesses have become as ubiquitous as CFL light bulbs.

Interestingly enough, one tidbit of information routinely pushed to the rear in any polite Earth Day discussion is Nelson’s steadfast belief that immigration quotas were integral to environmental success.

“It’s phony to say ‘I’m for the environment but not for limiting immigration,’ ” he said in 1995, referring to the good sense notion that larger populations create more environmental challenges—and recognizing that immigration is a main cause of U.S. population growth.

Maybe this Earth Day, with its congruence of religion and nature, will encourage the best of both spheres to reject petty politicizations, and embrace their significant common ground.

That’s where the greatest opportunity for education and understanding lies, and where all real progress begins.

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