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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mormons and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

The Mormon religion has traditionally cultivated a connection to the earth, but author Terry Tempest Williams, herself a Mormon, tells Steve that in recent years, the Church has lost its way on the environment. She says the environmental movement will suffer as long as it remains a political one, and does not incorporate faith.


CURWOOD: Utah is home to the Goshute tribe, but today it is Mormon country. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints account for nearly half of the state's population. A strong tenet of the Mormon religion is a deep respect for the land. Mormon founders press the theme as a road to salvation, and encourage individuals to live simply and sustainably. But over the decades even Mormon ties to the land appear to be weakening. Terry Tempest Williams is one Mormon who holds that view. She is co-editor of the anthology New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community. And she says the genesis of the Mormon connection to the land is very real and very close to home.

WILLIAMS: There is a belief within Mormon theology that Eden was in North America, at a place called Adam on Diamant, which is in Davis County in Missouri.

CURWOOD: Well, that's a neat concept, that there actually is an Eden and it's right here and it's right here in North America.

WILLIAMS: Personally, I think it's a little west of Missouri (Curwood laughs). I think that's a personal opinion. But I think the point is, Mormon theology is truly imaginative, and it is unusual. And the impetus of this book was the idea that Mormonism is broader than the stereotype.

CURWOOD: Mormonism is broader than the stereotype. What do you mean, when it comes to the environment? There's supposed to be a stereotypic Mormon view of the environment?

WILLIAMS: In 1995, when Utah really was on fire politically because of the 1995 Utah Public Lands Management Act, this is right after the Republican sweep in '94, there was the assumption that you could be Mormon, Republican, and anti-environment, or Democrat, non-Mormon, pro-environment. And I think we, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, wanted to say no, that's too narrow. And we set out to really look at how nature has infused Mormonism, how Mormonism has eliminated a sense of place. It's in our history, and we seem to have forgotten that. As Harold Bloom has said, Mormonism has become the quote-unquote "American religion."

CURWOOD: Now, this is not unique to Mormonism. I mean, the whole Judeo- Christian tradition has a document. The first book of Genesis talks about Eden and the land and everything, and yet there are few sects in Christianity and Judaism that I would see as particularly environmentally active or proactive. Why do you suppose that is?

WILLIAMS: I think it's a good point, and one of the things that I think is very interesting is that there is a movement within religions, of all denominations, of looking at the Earth in a more holistic way. Call it the green cross movement. Much is being done. I think about Paul Gorman, who's the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. And he says something interesting. He says, "We have found again and again that when the issue of caring for Creation interests people's hearts, it has incredible resonance in their lives." I find this encouraging, because I think in the past, it may be said that the environmental movement has been a political movement. I think until it becomes a movement of conscience, it's going to become too narrow.

CURWOOD: Do you feel that Utah is a state that especially struggles with the church and its role in environmental issues?

WILLIAMS: I think Utah is a very complicated state, and maybe every state, well I'm sure every state has its complications. It is highlighted because, I think, of the dominant religion here, which is Mormonism. And I think it's largely a matter of interpretation. I think the church is changing as the people are changing. The Mormons settled Utah as anglo people with a spirituality connected to the land. They felt this was sacred ground, and that's where they staked their claim. Brigham Young has remarkable statements about sustainability. Everything from overgrazing to water conservation. And like I said, I think we seem to have forgotten that, as the church has become larger and more successful in its financial holdings.

CURWOOD: Why do you suppose Mormons have forgotten, or lost track of their roots to the land?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think Mormons reflect the American people at large. And I think we as Mormons have not just forgotten our connection to the land, but we Americans have forgotten our connection to the land. So much of the Constitution, I think, stakes its philosophical ground on North America. So, I think that this is an exciting time in that we're reimagining, reinhabiting North America, each of us within our own communities, finding out what that might mean.

CURWOOD: It's just about time for us to go. But before you do go, Terry, I'm wondering if you could read a portion of your essay in this book New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community. I think you call your essay "West of Eden."

WILLIAMS: I'd be happy to. "A sustainable relationship with the Earth nurtures a sustainable relationship with God, because we acknowledge and honor the power of reciprocity, that there are in fact limits and consequences of what we desire. If we act on the premise that we are not alone, that other individuals and creatures have wants and needs, that our definition of community is not just human-centered but Creation-centered, then we begin to engage in a spiritual economics that promises to be more unselfish than our present relationship to other. We cannot continue to simply take from the Earth without giving back something in return, even if that means drawing on principles of restraint, generosity, gratitude, and compassion."

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much. Terry Tempest Williams' new book of essays, hers and some other folks; it's called New Genesis. This essay was called "West of Eden." Thanks for joining us today.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much, Steve.



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