Faith and Land

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Our legal and policy analyses of land use and environmental issues often overlook the role of religious belief.  Faith and spiritual values shape land use behaviors, policy choices, and social ethics.  A systematic study of the relationships between religious faith and land use and environmental policies can not only inform our understanding of current practices but also aid in assessing the potential for more environmentally responsible land use decisions.  My own commitment to environmental conservation and social justice flows out of my Christian faith, not a particular political ideology or policy pragmatism, even though public policy is necessarily secular, pragmatic, and political.  If we avoid or dismiss assertions of religious values in land use and environmental policy, our empirical analysis is inadequate and our normative judgments are biased.

 

Two relatively recent articles do an excellent job of analyzing the relationships between religious values and the content of our environmental laws.

 

In "The Spiritual Values of Wilderness," http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=794184, Notre Dame law professor John Copeland Nagle addresses the spiritual values of the Wilderness Act of 1964, as the following abstract describes:

The Wilderness Act of 1964 is the principal legal mechanism for preserving wilderness in the United States. The law now protects over 100 million acres of federal land, half of which is in Alaska. Yet the contested meaning of the term wilderness continues to affect the management of those wilderness areas, and the designation of additional lands as wilderness areas. Much current thinking about wilderness emphasizes the ecological and recreational interests that Congress cited when it enacted the law. These justifications for wilderness preservation are important, but they are incomplete. They are best supplemented by a better understanding of the spiritual values of wilderness. Religious conceptions have long informed American attitudes toward wilderness, beginning with the hostility that early settlers gleaned from Old Testament images of wilderness lands, and later appearing throughout the writings of John Muir. More recently, the witnesses testifying on behalf of the proposed Wilderness Act during the 1950's and 1960's repeatedly sounded spiritual themes, including biblical examples of the values of wilderness. The decades since the enactment of the law have produced a substantial theological literature that explores the meaning of wilderness. This article integrates the writing about the spiritual values of wilderness into the discussions of the management of wilderness areas, relying upon the examples of Alaskan wilderness lands to consider how to identify new wilderness areas and how to manage existing areas.

 

In "World Religions and the Clean Water Act," http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=914571,  Pepperdine land use professor Shelley Saxer and law-and-theology scholar Daryl Fisher-Ogden, explore the common spiritual and ethical themes of major world religions concerning water quality:

Religion could help save the ecology of our planet. Religious ideals are at the core of many people's value system and speaking to this core may help realize the radical ethical changes required to save our planet. Like other political movements throughout the history of the United States, the environmental movement is often inspired by religious ideals. However, sometimes religious values are suppressed in public discourse about environmental law and policy because Americans are uncomfortable with combining religious values and government policy. This article contends that religious values from diverse world religions can inform policy choices in developing regulatory schemes that protect air, water, and land resources. The incorporation of stories from our global religious heritage may enable us to establish a relationship with nature that can provide for human needs while protecting our environmental resources. With the moral power of religion behind an enforcement plan, it has a better chance of success.

First, we examine the major world religions and indigenous spiritualism in an effort to discover how religious views of the human relationship with nature generally influence environmental laws, and more specifically water law. The views towards water held by indigenous people, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians are similar in many respects in that theirs is a religious ethic to preserve nature as it is found in this world, even while their adherents must, by necessity, utilize these resources. Muslims also seek preservation of water quality with a sense of stewardship for future generations while Hindus view water as a life giving force in the world. Regardless of the religious background, there is a well-spring of popular spiritual support for greater preservation and care about water and its quality. Second, we examine the current legal views about the human relationship to the environment, including the definition of property and the constitutional basis for environmental rights, and also consider how world religions view the human relationship to the environment. Third, we practically incorporate religious values into a regulatory structure and examine the impact of religious values on clean water laws by using religious stories, images, and values to provide powerful ways to capture the attention of legislators, enforcement personnel, and the public at large.

While there may be several ethical systems within a community, often the religious and secular environmental approaches come to the same value-decision: achieving the maximum quality of water possible while still providing for human need. The article concludes by advocating that values from world religions be used as a rich, diverse, and proven framework that can enable the relationship between humans and nature to thrive physically and spiritually, rather than wither by operating at cross-purposes. If environmental laws could be designed and implemented with a greater acceptance of religious values in the public dialogue, they might be less susceptible to constant challenge. Secular environmentalists should recognize that many environmental ethical theories have been influenced by religious values and that people with religious views are their allies, not their opponents. Although secular persons may not fully understand religious motivation, by facilitating the entry of religious ideas and vernacular into the environmental dialogue they can build a coalition to achieve their desired end: environmental protection. Religious ideals can supplement secular views to help develop a more robust environmental ethic for the 21st century. Protecting our environment, the very thing which sustains us physically, is too important to be limited to a single spiritual or non-spiritual viewpoint.