Rick Santorum, the environment and the lessons of Noah’s flood

27 Feb

"Noah's Ark," by Edward Hicks, 1846

I hope all Christians paid close attention to Sunday’s Scripture readings in church, but especially GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. The Old Testament lectionary reading came from Genesis, describing the scene after the big flood (Genesis 9:8-17). You know: Noah, the ark, the animals, etc. According to the story, God unilaterally promised never again to destroy the entire world with a flood, and he was careful to include not just human beings but “every animal of the earth.”

I don’t usually mention Sunday school classes here, but ours had a lively conversation and one person’s remark referred to an earlier passage, one that explained why God sent the flood in the first place:

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:5-7, New Revised Standard Version).

So why did God target all the creatures—dogs and cats and cows and spiders—as well as people? It doesn’t make sense for God to entirely scrub down creation. Only the humans sinned, right?

But then there’s an even earlier and more familiar verse:

 “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (1:26).

Rick Santorum

That’s what made me think of Rick Santorum. He likes to quote this verse, especially when talking about “radical environmentalists.” Santorum, a Roman Catholic,  believes they get in the way of creating jobs and progress and a good economy, and he said they engage in “some phony theology” (lumping the president in with them last week). As he explained to CBS newsman Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation last week, he was talking about

“the idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do—that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.”

That, by itself, sounds fine to me. As a Christian, I’m all for stewardship and not at all for earth worship.

But a quick reading of his energy policies makes it clear what Santorum means. He proposes, for example, to “remove bans on drilling—both onshore and offshore” and “repeal bureaucratic regulations such as EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations, Utility MACT, Boiler MACT, Cement MACT, the reclassification of coal ash, and any regulation of farm dust,” among other policies.

I couldn’t help noticing the lack of any qualifiers. Does he mean to remove all bans and all regulations?

His energy policies, on the other hand, don’t include one word about environmental impact—not to consider it, not to study it, not even to give it a polite nod in passing. It just doesn’t exist in the Santorum universe.

But since he appeals to theology, then to theology we must go—and that means we can’t ignore the rest of the message in Genesis.

The story of Noah is clear: we dominant humans are responsible for the fate of all creation. Think of Spider-man, only at a cosmic level: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks, about 1845

“Dominion” isn’t a license to recklessly “kill, baby, kill” or “drill, baby, drill.” Yes, according to the Bible, humans are empowered to draw on the world’s resources. But every good “steward” (to use Santorum’s word) knows the wisdom of thoughtful restraint and moderation. Every good farmer and hunter knows the difference between reaping the land and raping it, of working with nature rather than exploiting it. Or as one commentator put it more eloquently,

“Creation, including humanity, is one. What affects part affects all. The deep purpose of nature is diversity in unity under God’s ownership. Yet humanity consistently fails to accept its given limits and attempts to take possession of life into its own hands, contaminating the cosmos with violence and fear.” (William Loyd Allen, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.)

And then, of course, is the teaching of Santorum’s own church. As far back as 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote:

Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives. (Emphasis added.)

Rick Santorum has the right to get theological if he wants, even as he runs for president. But I’m not sure he really wants to do that.

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6 Responses to “Rick Santorum, the environment and the lessons of Noah’s flood”

  1. Brian March 1, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    But your quote from Santorum didn’t say “all”–you did. His quote simply used the plural: “bans” and “regulations.” Is there other evidence to suggest that we should adopt the uncharitable interpretation you pursue? Perhaps he has no qualms about inflicting widespread and wanton damage on the environment, but I don’t see the evidence for it here. By using the plural, if he gets to the White House and can only repeal two bans and two regulations, then technically he’s fulfilled this campaign promise. I really don’t know what he believes (he’s a politician, so you can never be sure), or how he would govern, but your interpretation of his website and other quotes sounds like it leverages negative stereotypes more than it does the quotes themselves.

  2. sjdahlman March 1, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    Brian: You’re right about the wording, but a few notes in response: (1) I intentionally raised the point as a question. (Yes, a rhetorical question, but a question.) (2) By omitting any qualifiers, Santorum has indeed left himself “wiggle room,” as you suggest. But he could wiggle in either direction: he might repeal only a few bans, but he could also push to repeal all, right down to the 1970 Clean Air Act. (3) I think my interpretation is defensible, given his various statements about energy and environmental policy. Or I should say just energy policy, because he’s been virtually silent about environmental issues. By contrast, he’s consistent and emphatic about deregulation of all industries, including gas, oil and coal.

    I’m not denying that the EPA, OSHA and other government agencies can overreach and often do. But so do companies, left to their own devices without oversight. So I’m concerned by the lack of balance and, in Santorum’s case, the dubious theological spin he gives it.

  3. Brian March 2, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    So he’s “virtually silent” on what he intends to do when it comes to the environment. But what does that silence mean? A politician’s silence could, indeed, mean that he has nefarious plans he doesn’t want to reveal. It could indicate apathy or ignorance about the area. Or it could indicate a comfort with the status quo. In lieu of evidence one way or the other, why is it reasonable to automatically extrapolate his silence into a negative direction? One could also reasonably extrapolate form the terminology he used in the other quote that he’s actually rather thoughtful about the issue. The use of the word “husband” in this manner doesn’t sound like a calculated sound bite, but like a precisely chosen term to indicate a broader, deeper, richer concept of careful, thoughtful management. Or… it could also be chosen to give the impression I just described, without real substance behind it.

    My point is this: you seem to have jumped to a negative conclusion based not on evidence, but on a lack of evidence. Instead of collecting campaign quotes and trying to extrapolate direction and integrity from them, let’s look at his record. What has he actually Done, over the long haul? Do his votes and substantive contributions indicate careful stewardship, reckless deference toward business interests, or something else entirely? I don’t think your analysis above is based on enough real evidence to tell us.

  4. sjdahlman March 3, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    I’m usually hesitant to argue from silence, but in some cases the silences are as telling as anything said.

    Imagine a pro-choice politician who consistently supports abortion rights, speaking out in speeches, at rallies, in election campaigns, and perhaps even in legislation he or she pushes. He or she even outlines specific policies as a central part of his or her campaign and says stuff like, “If elected, I will work to eliminate restrictions on abortion.” (Note the grammar.) Then someone asks, “What do you think about limits on abortion? Should there be any?” He or she says something like, “Well, of course no one really likes abortion. It should be rare.”

    My rhetorical question is: What would you conclude about that politician’s priorities? What would you expect of him or her in office? The answer is obvious.

    No analogy is perfect, but I don’t think this one is a big stretch. That’s where I was coming from.

    PS: This will be my last comment on this post. (That’s just my general policy: two at most and then out.) But feel free to respond again if you want.

  5. brian March 3, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Again, unless you are aware of some evidence not included in your post, your final reply seems to me to be based not on direct evidence (for instance, if he voted against environmental protection), but on (1) an absence of evidence combined with (2) a widespread negative stereotype. I am fully prepared to find out that he’s voted in ways that one could reasonably label him “anti-environment” or at least that he’s not thought through the environmental consequences of his votes as much as he should. It’s not so much that I don’t think that’s possible. I just don’t care for someone getting slammed without the slammer gathering and presenting enough evidence to make their case. What you do say leaves me hungry to find out if he really lives down to the borrowed stereotype that you’ve used to define him.

    As far as your example, one would know the politician’s true beliefs and/or character (or as close as we can determine from here) by the votes they made on the legislation they were presented with, or in lieu of that (if they hadn’t been in office anywhere before), what did they do with their time, energy, and money? Your example sets up the foundation for why we should want to pay more attention to Santorum’s record, both in and out of office, and not just assume he’s just like your worst fears.

    As it stands now, this column above has taken a stereotype (“Conservatives pay no heed to the environment and blithely manipulate Scripture to get duped Christians to go along with them and line the pockets of the corporations”) and used it to fill in the blanks, instead of finding out what reality really fills those blanks. If regulation has overreached (as you have admitted is a possibility), then the details, both of the nature and extent of that overreach, and of what Santorum would do to address it, really matter. Heck, if one could identify the areas of overreach, it is within the realm of possibility that a politician could actually reduce regulations as a whole, while leaving the overreaching parts in place, leaving things worse than they started, even as they might have appeared to be cutting the bad things back.

    What little I know of Santorum’s record makes me wonder if he fits so neatly into a standard Conservative pattern (let alone the overused unfair stereotypes). Maybe he uses his brain. Maybe he has integrity. Maybe not, but at this point I don’t know. And this column didn’t really help me get any closer to knowing.

  6. brian March 3, 2012 at 10:38 pm #

    Another point, on reviewing your example again: If it were going to be a true parallel, then we would have to be justified in labeling Santorum “anti-environment” from the get-go. You have us imagine a pro-choice politician, and then ask what we should reasonably expect from him/her once he/she was in office. Well, since you constructed your example to be a pro-choice politician, by definition, then we would assume he/she would live down to the definition you gave him/her. But that’s just begging the question. I want to know if Santorum is anti-environment. You have assumed that he is. I just want to see the evidence.

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