BY JOHANES MALIZA
On Wednesday, October 8, the Law School played host to Professor John Nagle of Notre Dame Law School, who discussed Evangelical Christianity and its intersection with environmentalism and the law.. Nagle’s talk, entitled “Wilderness, Christianity, and the Law,” was hosted by the Harvard Law School Christian Fellowship. Though the self-professed Evangelical professor spoke mainly about religious themes, there was an underlying theme that these issues are neither foreign to, nor exclusive to Christianity.
Professor Nagle’s scholarship begins from a premise that much of the writing about his three topics of research tends to focus only on two of them, while leaving out the role the third must inevitably play. For instance, it is common to see a class on law and the environment, or a class on law and Christianity, or even a class on the environment and Christianity, but the three rarely mix. For Professor Nagle, the intersection seems not only logical, but natural.
However, he realizes that it has been an uneven growth in the United States. While the country was preoccupied by the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, the nascent environmentalist movement tended to focus much more upon the philosophical aspects of the natural world and much less upon its theological implications. Likewise, the law’s concern with the environment was indifferent at best, as we often wrangled and abused nature in the name of development.
Nagle traced the starting point of his research to the 1964 Wilderness Act. In support of that bill, ordinary Americans gave testimony regarding their belief that “God created this world, and we should protect it.” Though the thought seemed to be on Evangelical Christians’ minds, Nagle admitted that the Evangelical voices urging preservation were not the loudest. Indeed, some writers of the time blamed Christianity for the degradation which the Wilderness Act was intended to halt.
Nagle stated that, whatever truth there was in the charges back then, modern-day Evangelical Christians have an obligation to care for the natural world. He said that a serious and thoughtful Christian must recognize certain biblically-based axioms with regard to God and the environment. Chief among those, he said, are that “God created the world…and God gave humanity dominion over creation.”
Nagle’s second point has produced great controversy. The controversy is not primarily found among the Evangelical Christian community. Rather, Professor Nagle understood many secular environmentalists as taking issue with the idea that humans exist above, rather than in concert with, the rest of nature. He said it creates particular tension between Evangelical Christians and animal-rights groups who believe that humans have no more inherent rights than animals. Borrowing the language of real property law to defend the proposition that humans are “above” the rest of nature, he emphasizes that the bible counsels us to be more like “licensees,” than outright owners.
However, it is from this position of stewardship that Nagle says stated we must approach laws and discourse regarding the environment. One group of prominent Evangelical ministers penned an open letter endorsing a church-wide shift in focus. The shift would mean an elevation of environmentalism to the same level as more commonly-recognized focuses of social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Another group, equally as prominent, urged to stay the course and avoid distraction themselves. Seeing little difference between the groups on other issues, Nagle wondered why there was a cleavage there.
For Nagle, it boiled down to this: those who favored opening a new front on environmental issues also tended to be the ministers who support a more active role for government in regulating private behavior and social norms.
Nagle also said that Evangelical Christians can see a basis for encouraging bio-diversity and species-preservation in religious teachings. Stating that, “God has created things that we just don’t understand,” Professor Nagle spoke of the untold scientific advances we are yet to uncover in the world’s forests and oceans-he cited cures for some types of cancer as concrete examples. The thought is that the natural world is a way through which humans can discover more of God’s purpose in creation. In his mind, legally-trained Christians are perfectly-positioned to make laws that protect God’s will and vision for the natural world.
Nagle closed with a provocative question: “How does one translate some of the biblical arguments for environmentalism to a secular public?” Rather than toning down the religious aspects of his message, Professor Nagle urged Evangelical Christians to press forward, confident in their theological arguments. “Secular arguments [about the environment] don’t always resonate,” he said. “Sometimes, when you start getting arguments that touch on a moral or religious theme, more people start to listen.”