Divine Destruction

'Wise use,' dominion theology, and the making of American environmental policy.

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

—Genesis 1:28

Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit.

—Numbers 35:34


The godfather of the modern Wise Use movement, Ron Arnold

(Kevin P. Casey)

In 1845, New York journalist John O'Sullivan editorialized that "it was the nation's manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given." With this, O'Sullivan coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny," an expression that would remain shorthand during the late 19th century for the belief that Americans had an obligation to settle the Western territories. Indeed, the phrase "Manifest Destiny" implied that America's expansion was predetermined, undeniable, and—most importantly—inspired by God.

The ideas that precipitated talk about and belief in Manifest Destiny, however, were not necessarily the most important cause for America's population expansion in the West. Rather, throughout the late 1840s, Manifest Destiny was taken up and used as a rallying cry by those in government who had already wanted the entirety of the North American continent settled. A religious rationale that echoed this aim was a convenient and useful way to ask Americans to go West. Quite simply, arguments about Manifest Destiny provided only the rationale for westward expansion, not its impetus.

Today, large, well-organized, and powerful groups of anti- environmental activists are using similar tactics. The anti-environmental philosophy known as "Wise Use" has gained a large audience, and many of its advocates and thinkers hold a menacing influence over government. A frightening fact in its own right, the widespread acceptance of anti-environmental thinking in the guise of Wise Use is made more troubling in that there are increasingly close ties between those who subscribe to the ideas of Wise Use and members of fundamentalist Christian churches and organizations. The Wise Use movement's influence over religious conservatives thus mirrors the traditional relationship between religious and political conservatives in that Wise Use advocates are increasingly adapting their own agenda to include the concerns of religious voters. In so doing, they have gained an army of God to promote their own agenda.

Although many credit the modern-day right-wing activist (and timber industry consultant) Ron Arnold of Bellevue with having coined the term "Wise Use," the phrase actually originated a century before with the man appointed head of the U.S. Forest Service by Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot. He used the term in his 1903 book, A Primer of Forestry, partly in response to intense pressure from railroad companies to use Forest Service lands. Pinchot believed that a balance should be struck between caring for the forests and man's interests.

But Pinchot also formulated the term in response to the views of famous naturalist John Muir, another Roosevelt associate, who advocated that public lands remain completely untouched. Thus, Pinchot's position was that of a somewhat enlightened government official needing to find a compromise between business interests, the concerns of naturalists, and the still ongoing expansion of the population into the Western territories. He was trying, in short, to find a way to protect the emerging concept of public land from what Roosevelt called the "land grabbers." Wise Use, as it was originally conceived, allowed the Western territories to prosper, and continue doing so, while preserving many forests and other natural environments for future generations.

While Ron Arnold did not coin the term Wise Use—he maintains, however, that he has coined other terms such as "ecoterrorist" and "rural cleansing"— he has come a long way in redefining the concept from the way it was initially used by Gifford Pinchot. Indeed, Arnold is generally considered the "father" of the modern-day incarnation of Wise Use, and he is particularly well-known for a series of sophisticated writings about the environment in which he has, since the mid-1980s, conceptualized a combative critique of the environmental movement that is deeply ideological. He is currently executive vice president of a Bellevue-based think tank that, although a nonprofit, unironically calls itself the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE), and which, according to its Web site, monitors "threats to free markets, property rights and limited government." It also serves as a key center for anti-environmental activism.

In a recent attempt to clearly define his positions, Arnold critiqued the central tenets of the environmental movement, claiming that concealed below its talk of conservation was a radical political agenda, one that he believed aimed to "hamper property rights" and "dislodge the market system with public ownership of all resources and production." Arnold argues that since the 1980s, the environmental movement has moved into the mainstream and become "the Establishment"; he describes his own Wise Use movement as a "competing paradigm" to the environmental movement as he understands it. Arnold proclaims that the solutions to the world's environmental problems, whatever they may be, will be found by leaders in technology, industry, and trade—not by the environmental movement, as he believes is widely assumed. In short, Arnold declares that we need natural resources to survive and prosper and can survive any side effects of their use. "Our limitless imaginations can break through natural limits to make earthly goods and carrying capacity virtually infinite," he writes.

Lobbying by Wise Use groups has quickly precipitated the government to sanction various timber industry exploitations of public forests, the development of resorts in our national parks, and the opening up of Forest Service land to off-road vehicle (ORV) use. The accommodation of off-road vehicle users, in fact, may represent the most profitable exploitation of publicly held land yet, especially considering that the private companies that stand to benefit from increased ORV access to the parks and forests—chiefly, the world's automotive manufacturers—are some of the biggest corporations in the world. The history of these environmental concessions, particularly the transfer of public land to private interests, shows the efficiency and power of the Wise Use movement's advocacy work.

While Arnold's aggressive conceptualization of the Wise Use movement was not codified until the publication of his 1989 book, The Wise Use Agenda, as early as 1979 he was giving the logging industry advice that revealed his innovative tactical thinking in its early stages. In a series of articles for Logging Management Magazine, he wrote:

Citizen activist groups, allied to the forest industry, are vital to our future survival. They can speak for us in the public interest where we ourselves cannot. They are not limited by liability, contract law or ethical codes. . . . [I]ndustry must come to support citizen activist groups, providing funds, materials, transportation, and most of all, hard facts.

A few years later, while addressing representatives of the Canadian logging industry, he bluntly restated these tactics that he would go on to develop to great effect: "Give them [the pro- industry groups] the money. You stop defending yourselves, let them do it, and you get the hell out of the way. Because citizen's groups have credibility and industries don't."

David Helvarg, perhaps the leading authority on Arnold and the Wise Use movement, has detailed in numerous reports from the field—and particularly in his landmark book, The War Against the Greens—that the modern Wise Use movement really kicked into gear in the late 1980s, in response, says Helvarg, to "the perceived threat that George H.W. Bush would follow through on his pledge to be 'the environmental president.'"

Helvarg notes that in the battle against groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, Wise Use activists not only used Arnold's idea of forming fraudulent citizen activist groups that were actually funded by industry, but they also used "vigilante-style tactics ranging from telephone death-threats to arson and shootings." According to Helvarg, "In Washington, Idaho, Montana, and New Mexico, a number of wise-users even united with the militia movement." But it was a tactic that backfired, Helvarg thinks, after the 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by militia associates Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, when much of the movement's industry funders backed away.

Still, despite the tactical and political setbacks experienced by the Wise Use movement during the Clinton administration, the current movement has been reinvigorated. In particular, it has reached new constituencies and found a sympathetic executive. The recovery came about largely under the guidance of Arnold (who quickly tempered his habit of inflammatory language, such as when he said, "We want to destroy environmentalists," and that he wanted to "kill the bastards"). Also important to that recovery was the leadership of the man who had been Ronald Reagan's "notoriously anti-environmental Interior secretary," James Watt (who, after being fired by Reagan, told a group of ranchers that "if the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used"). Many current and recent government officials who oversee the environment, such as George W. Bush's current Interior secretary, Gale Norton, and Bush's former Agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, were protégés of Watt and worked for him at his Mountain States Legal Foundation, which has billed itself as the "litigation arm of Wise Use."

But what may have contributed most to that recovery is the connections the Wise Use movement has made with the New Christian Right. In a strategy seemingly modeled on Ron Arnold's directive to "stop defending yourselves" and "get the hell out of the way," some leaders in the Wise Use movement reached out to collaborate, especially in the late 1980s, with the newly repoliticized Christian Right. As this collaboration has become more substantial, Wise Use activists have had increasing access to local, regional, and national Christian grassroots organizations. Such collaboration between religious and political ideologues recalls, in many ways, the mobilization of Manifest Destiny more than 150 years earlier.

The collaboration between Wise Use and the Christian Right has remobilized Manifest Destiny.

(Kevin P. Casey)

A clear example of Wise Use's historic influence on the New Christian Right can be found by looking at the peculiar evolution of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), a group founded in the ashes of the 1986 electoral defeat of Joe P. Lutz. Lutz was a fundamentalist minister trying to wrest the Republican nomination for senator away from incumbent Bob Packwood, whose moderate and pro-choice stance angered many fundamentalists; Lutz barely lost, garnering 42 percent of the vote.

Much like the impressive conservative mobilization after the presidential defeat of Barry Goldwater (in 1964) and the conservative Christian mobilization after the presidential defeat of Pat Robertson (in 1988), Lutz's supporters created OCA as an ultra-right-wing pressure group, one that the ACLU has called "the most militant antigay organization in the Northwest." In 1988, the group advocated a statewide vote to overturn an order protecting homosexuals from discrimination in state government. The group has also threatened to run ultraconservative third-party candidates, forcing prominent Republicans to compromise on key issues of importance to far-right voters. Despite the collaboration of many conservative groups and political agendas, The Washington Post has noted that the OCA's organizing strength really comes from the group's "conservative Christian activists." Under a banner of "traditional family values," the OCA continued such activism, including measures to force a vote on an initiative that would prohibit protection of homosexuals against discrimination and harassment. The OCA claimed 150,000 members in 1992.

Even though the OCA was founded to advocate issues of importance to religious voters, the group's funding stream seems to have significantly broadened its ideological platform, according to a 1993 report by Dave Mazza, now editor of The Portland Alliance. After years of subsidy by anti-environmental groups, the OCA drafted a statement of principles that not only reflected their New Right agenda but also, according to Mazza, included "several articles which dovetailed with the philosophical direction the nascent Wise Use Movement was going: privatization of government where possible, free market economy, nearly absolute private property rights and the conviction that the environment was primarily for the use of man." Mazza goes on to note that the "religious right, wise use, industry and other forces are tapping the same population pool, and that ties between these various factions are being created at the grassroots level."

It is this kind of complex relationship that defines much of the Wise Use movement's current work. In exchange for funding, resources, or connections, the Wise Use movement has gained a large base of committed conservatives, even if such conservatives would not have initially identified themselves as anti- environment. However, having already made an impressive connection to fundamentalist Christian organizations, the Wise Use movement stands to gain considerably as the current political administration panders to Christian voters.

An instructive 1992 story in Time magazine highlighted the fact that the Wise Use movement always stands to gain in times of economic downturn. In the search for easy solutions to a troubled economy, many can be convinced that loosening some environmental regulations is a good thing. Indeed as Time's Charles Alexander reported: "The Wise Use movement hopes to gain the upper hand by presenting itself as the voice of moderation in difficult economic times." Given the importance the Bush administration places on the conservative Christian vote, and the continuing economic stagnation in the U.S. economy, Wise Use might easily grow in size and influence. The movement has, without a doubt, been reinvigorated and strengthened.


In his book Crimes Against Nature, Robert Kennedy Jr. argues that the Wise Use movement became even more potent, both as an ideological and as a fund-raising force, when it joined forces with the New Christian Right. In particular, he writes:

. . . [W]hen the Wise Use allies hooked up with Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, they hit a home run. Robertson's special contribution to right-wing theology was to substitute environmentalists for communists as the new threat to democracy and Christianity. . . . They invoke Christianity to justify the rape of the land, violating manifold Christian precepts that require us to be careful stewards. Rather than elevating the spirit, their interpretation of Scripture emphasizes the grimmest vision of the human condition. They embrace intolerance, selfishness, pride, arrogance toward creation, and irresponsibility to the community and future generations.

This strategy combined fundamentalist Christians with some of the worst polluters in the land, and both assumed real power after they proved key to Bush's success in 2004. But while the organizational prowess of the New Christian Right has been generally acknowledged in helping deliver the 2004 election, little attention has been paid to its inherent fund-raising abilities on display in that campaign and its ability to thus influence policy.

In an interview with me, Kennedy asserted that Ron Arnold was key to making the interaction with Pat Robertson and other fundamentalists succeed. "Earth Day happened in 1970," Kennedy told me, "and soon after, environmental-protection laws began to be put into place. Polluting industries saw that these laws would threaten their profits. Ron Arnold was instrumental in going to them and convincing them of a way to create an 'army' to combat the environmental movement." Arnold's strategies, said Kennedy, sparked a means of connecting fundamentalist Christians and the industries that stood to lose money because of environmental protections.

Kennedy, a practicing Catholic, also questioned whether the religious impetus in the policy making of the Bush administration is genuine. The fundamentalism advocated by the administration, he said, "is not a religion. Religion is an organized framework for seeking truth. Fundamentalism is about power. Shakespeare says that the devil quotes the Bible for his own purposes. With the fundamentalists, it's really all about power."

Mark Crispin Miller, however, disagrees, at least on whether the religious orientation is sincere. What's more, he says that the particular religion of the Bush administration makes its sincerity all the more fearsome. In an interview with Buzzflash.com, Miller, the author of Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order, made a direct connection between the administration and "End of Days" theology: "What's most significant here, and yet gets almost zero coverage in our media, is the fact that Bush is very closely tied to the Christian Reconstructionist movement," Miller told Buzzflash. "The links between this White House and that movement are many and tight. Marvin Olasky—a former Maoist who is now a Reconstructionist—coined the phrase 'compassionate conservatism,' and was hired by the Bush campaign in 2000 to serve as their top consultant on welfare. . . . "

Miller defined the Bush administration's fundamentalism as "Christian Reconstructionism," which he calls "a maverick theological movement."

"It's far more activist and radical than most Christian Evangelism is," Miller explained. "For the most part, Christian Evangelicals generally have chosen to deplore this world in their expectation of Jesus' return, whereupon this world will be improved. The Reconstructionists believe that it is the obligation of every Christian to do whatever he or she can do to make this a Christian republic with an eye toward making the other nations of the world Christian republics."

Reconstructionism is the most common form of dominion theology, which is why both terms, in fact, are often used interchangeably to describe a fundamentalist Christian worldview that advocates an activist stance based on a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible. Essentially, dominionists believe that the Bible is to be taken literally, and that the world is to be governed by what they call not a theocracy but a theonomy—that is, ruled not by God but by the law of God set forth in the Bible. Based on their reading of the book of Revelation, they believe that once that rule is established around the world, and once Christianity has ruled the world for 1,000 years, Christ will return and all good Christians, living and dead, will ascend to heaven in what is called "the Rapture." (Some dominionists say Christ will return first, then there will be a 1,000 year "utopia" before the Rapture.)

The precise link between the environment and dominion theology lies in a popular interpretation of a well-known passage from the Bible's book of Genesis: "God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (The passage was, according to the dominion theologists, written by Moses, along with the rest of the book of Genesis, in 1445 B.C.)

Even within the conservative Christian movement, however, there are differences of opinion over what the passage means. Some say that it was a directive, in a time of wars and pestilence and climatic catastrophes, to build up decimated populations—a bit of encouragement to take heart and be strong. Others view it as a divine command for stewardship of the earth. As a statement on the Web site of the Evangelical Environmental Network (www.creationcare.org) states, "Most major environmental problems such as air pollution, water pollution, and the threat of global warming hurt people. These problems fight against Christ's reconciliation of all of creation. In many instances they hit the poor, the children, and the elderly the hardest." The organization, which publishes a newsletter called Creation Care, includes numerous citations on its Web site of other sections of the Bible reinforcing the idea that Christians need to be environmentalists, too. Among the many is one, Jeremiah 4:18–28, picturing an angry God:

". . . [Y]our own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!" . . . Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins. . . . "My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good." I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert. . . .

However, there are those who take the Genesis passage to mean something entirely different: that man has the right to rule over the natural world and use it (or use it up) as he sees fit. This view, when combined with the belief that the End Times are near, leads some to believe that either there is no need to take care of the environment, or, alternatively, that actively exhausting the environment will speed the Second Coming.

As a Counterpunch.org report by Joe Bageant puts it, "Reconstructionist doctrine calls for the scrapping of environmental protection of all kinds, because there will be no need for this planet earth once The Rapture occurs." Or, as noted environmental reporter Glenn Scherer has observed, "Many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future. They believe we are living in the End Time, when the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire. They may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed—even hastened—as a sign of the coming Apocalypse." Although this may sound like the extremist views of a fringe group, the belief in the End Times scenario spelled out in the Bible's book of Revelation is actually widespread. In fact, a solid majority of Americans believe it, if recent polls are to be believed. A Time/CNN poll conducted in 2002 reported that over 59 percent of Americans take the prophecies of Revelation literally. A 2004 Newsweek poll put it at over 55 percent. For the majority of Americans, in other words, there is an obvious lack of incentive to preserve the environment, particularly amongst those who believe that Revelation's guaranteed ending will happen soon. Why concern yourself with fossil fuels or their emissions? Or destroying the greenbelt habitat, so crucial for climate and species protection? Why worry about what to do with hazardous waste or nuclear waste? For that matter, why even worry about the use of nuclear weapons?

While it is difficult to determine to what extent dominionist thinking actively concerns the environment, a few central points are clear. For one, the Wise Use movement has actively courted, and organized alongside, Christian fundamentalists of all varieties. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to determine why certain religious groups oppose environmental protections. It seems certain that some fundamentalists oppose these protections because of a dominionist understanding of the End Times. Perhaps the real point to be made, however, is that America today remains a breeding ground for extremist versions of Christian fundamentalism. Even for many devout Christians, widespread fundamentalist teachings about the Bible seem extreme. It is a problem, especially as Reconstructionist and dominionist ideas continue to be promulgated, that will only get worse with time. Indeed, as Glenn Scherer has pointed out, Christian children are often reared on Reconstructionist textbooks, among them America's Providential History, which teaches that:

The Christian knows that the potential in God is unlimited and that there is no shortage of resources in God's Earth. The resources are waiting to be tapped. . . . The secular or socialist has a limited resource mentality and views the world as a pie . . . that needs to be cut up so everyone can get a piece.

This belief alone—which is being fed to an unknown number of schoolchildren—teaches that the world's resources are sufficient, that there is no need to protect or fret about the environment. The dominionist paradigm talks of "limited resource mentality," as if environmentalists lacked a proper imagination. As the textbook explains further: "While many secularists view the world as overpopulated, Christians know that God has made the earth sufficiently large with plenty of resources to accommodate all of the people."


Excerpted from Divine Destruction: Wise Use, Dominion Theology, and the Making of American Environmental Policy by Stephenie Hendricks. Copyright © 2005 by Stephenie Hendricks. Published by Melville House.

About the Author

Stephenie Hendricks

The controversy over the role of religious faith in public policy has taken on new currency. From conducting a "crusade" against terrorism to applying a religious test to Supreme Court nominees, the Bush administration has blurred the lines between church and state. In a new manifesto, Divine Destruction: Wise Use, Dominion Theology, and the Making of Environmental Policy (Melville House, $12), author Stephenie Hendricks looks at how this has occurred in the environmental arena. She describes how a new brand of conservatism has emerged that conflates corporate and religious interests. In the accompanying excerpt, Hendricks describes how the pro-industry movement known as Wise Use—promoted by a secular Bellevue-based nonprofit—has linked with a brand of Christian fundamentalism to create a potent, powerful set of rationales for pursuing the unapologetic exploitation of the planet. Hendricks is an environmentalist and a veteran broadcast journalist who has worked for ABC Radio, CBS-TV San Francisco, and, most recently, as a producer for Pacifica Radio. Her book will be published later this month. Ed.

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