Protecting natural resources was an integral part of my youthful experiences with the great outdoors. We removed our trash and that of others found along hiking trails and in campsites.

Graffiti that others painted on rocks or carved into trees were considered blots on nature’s canvas and a personal offense.

Whether on official outings as Boy Scouts or Explorers — or adventures of our own — my friends and I were oriented toward preserving nature’s beauty for those who would come after us.

And there was nothing remotely political about our orientation. In fact, we were raised in an insular, conservative enclave.

Yet, we subscribed to the mantra: “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.”

It just made common sense that the beauty of God’s creation that we encountered and enjoyed should be available to others without unnecessary human markings.

An American bald eagle fishes along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

An American bald eagle fishes along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: John D. Pierce)

John Denver added to my teenage understanding of the majesty of nature when he sang, “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.”

All of this aligned quite well with what we’d learned in church about being divinely assigned as caretakers of creation. It seemed the psalmist was keen on experiencing the divine through the wonders of the natural world as well:

“The heavens tell about the glory of God. The skies show that [God’s] hands created them. Day after day they speak about it. Night after night they make it known. But they don’t speak or use words. No sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into the whole earth. Their words go out from one end of the world to the other” (Psalm 19:1-4, NIRV).

My first stark realization that demeaning environmental efforts was becoming a preferred political ideology for some Christians came in the early 1990s. A few of the more conservative students at Georgia Tech, where I served as Baptist campus minister, obsessively arranged their classes to not miss Rush Limbaugh’s radio program.

His bombastic messages of grievance and self-interest registered with them regarding environmental concerns and other issues of the day.

Two students, as I overheard, were making light of using as many paper napkins as possible at a restaurant near campus — to prove they weren’t interested in protecting the earth. While choosing my battles carefully, I engaged that one.

Their opposition to creation care, I learned, was their way of dismissing the environmental concerns raised by Vice President Al Gore in his recently released 1992 book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.

I suggested the reading of another book: Genesis.

It was surprising and disappointing to see that a basic concept of creation care had become politicized in such a way that one’s conservative political (even “Christian”) chops were enhanced by arrogantly choosing the side of destroying natural resources for one’s exclusive and immediate pleasure.

My mind returned to those youthful understandings that while particular environmental issues were debatable, the idea of taking care of the earth for us and future generations was not a political issue but one of respect for the handiwork of God and consideration of others.

There were no political arguments when as a teen I organized — as a scouting service project — a Saturday clean-up of the roadways in the Boynton community in northwest Georgia. Trash bags were filled with all matter of gathered refuse — except for the soft drink bottles with values that would bring a few cents each.

SOAR (Save Our American Resources), as the project was known, had no partisan agenda. It was just a simple effort to make the rolling hills and highways of our little community more scenic and less toxic.

And as Christians, saving souls and saving the planet didn’t seem at odds.

The ideological reorientation of creation care as somehow offensive and unworthy has had tragic results. Climate change, despite its devastating effects, is dismissed as some liberal hoax despite overwhelming evidence.

Environmentalism overall is treated as caustically as pulling handfuls of unneeded napkins destined for landfills to prove one’s political prowess.

Pompous, rightwing grievance-filled voices amplified in recent decades have had significant influence among conservative American Christians. The who-cares attitude toward protecting the environment is a stark example of how basic human decency and concern for others gets sacrificed on the altar of me-first political expediency.

There is much in redefined Americanized Christianity today that is at odds with both common sense and the fuller biblical revelation that culminates in the person of Jesus.

Fear casts out love; self-absorption rises above love of neighbor; and exclusion trumps inclusion.

Political talking points are preferred to the Sermon on the Mount. Defensiveness beats out discipleship.

The politicization of taking care of our natural resources is just one tragic example of this ongoing devolution of what it should mean to be followers of Jesus.

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