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Greening the Divine: Bowersox Talks About How We Talk

Politics Professor Joe Bowersox has run circles this year as chair of Willamette's Sustainability Council, so it might surprise some to discover that underneath that frenetic activism lurks a first-rate scholar. Bowersox's soon-to-be-published book chapter, Greening the Divine: Religion, the Environment, and Politics in 21st Century North America, explores how politicians, environmentalists and "green" Christians and Jews speak to their audiences.

Bowersox earned his credentials at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but he received his "calling" in the South Salem hills, where he wandered as a boy. "I watched the cherry and plum orchards all being transformed into subdivisions," he says. "It really set that issue in my mind." He listened to a Pete Seeger song that talked about how the world will be "a' doublin" and "a' doublin," and the words translated to him as "That field next to me will soon be gone, and the field on the other side, too." There was a visible impact on the things he loved.

When Bowersox lived in Korea he saw the loss--or gain, depending on how you're measuring--on a frightening scale. "I saw Seoul marching outwards," he says. He arrived in 1986 and lived in a thatched-roof village. Six months later, the government had razed the entire village and replaced it with concrete buildings, and when he went into Seoul his throat grew raw from the pollution.

"There was a sense of loss associated with patterns of human behavior," Bowersox says. "I wanted to understand the political structures that encourage that behavior." While most of his research these days focuses on forest and fire policy, Bowersox is also interested in the language environmentalists, politicians and even green Christians and Jews use to persuade the public--and each other. "Success or failure may depend on knowing how to use the right language to make a convincing argument," Bowersox says.

Historically the environmental movement often appealed to religious language to attract converts, Bowersox says. Conservationist John Muir described nature as a "window opening into heaven" and forests as "God's first temples." And after the 1930s Dustbowl disasters, Charles Lowdermilk, in the Roosevelt administration, spread the message of soil conservation through "Soil Conservation Sundays," where preachers spoke of the sin of land loss. Lowdermilk invoked religion in the quest to save land, and it was a powerful tool.

Contemporary environmentalists often feel squeamish about speaking about the natural world in spiritual or emotional terms, so arguments for sustainable lifestyles or preservation are reduced to hard, empirical science and economics. Decision-making is stripped bare of ethical and spiritual consequences.

The danger with this path, Bowersox says, is that many secular arguments for environmental protection become abstract accounts, devoid of language that compels people to rethink their values or make sacrifices. Their messages only reach those already converted.

And contemporary green Christians and Jews often use the same rhetoric employed by secular environmentalists, offering up statistics and data to convince decision makers, the public and their own congregations. They have, for the most part, failed to employ spiritual language as an argument for living a sustainable lifestyle.

Bowersox wonders if that limits their appeal. "In some ways, it gets down to the 'emotion versus facts debate,'" he says.

On the other hand, many politicians, especially in the conservative camp, are not shy about basing their arguments on their convictions, or on King James. "Despite our church/state separation, religion and spirituality have always influenced politics," Bowersox says, "and politicians dip into religious language to attract voters.

"George Bush had it down during the election," says Bowersox. "John Kerry never knew whether to risk failure by playing the religion card."

Bowersox advocates looking past data-driven arguments and politicized, standoff language, to begin an authentic discussion about shared--or dissimilar--values. Perhaps, Bowersox says, after we strip away all the rhetoric, it comes down to simple values, and they should have an authentic place at the table.

Perhaps, Bowersox says, environmentalists shouldn't be so hesitant about revealing their passion for a forest cathedral--a passion instilled from childhood hikes or from a conviction that to lose a place they love would be like losing their right hand.

Perhaps green theologians and congregations shouldn't feel the need to rely so heavily on empirical arguments while throwing out the eloquent phrases from the Bible, the Talmud, the Qur'an or other religious texts.

And perhaps it should be safe for politicians to speak openly about why they ran for office, what they stand for and what they believe--in their gut. "Although many intellectuals chided presidential candidate George W. Bush when he identified Jesus Christ as the greatest philosopher who ever lived, most North Americans probably would have a hard time coming up with an alternative," Bowersox wrote. "Whether they are religious or non-religious, they are probably more familiar with a religious text than they are with Plato."

Apparently, Bowersox and the Sustainability Council must be speaking a language many people understand. Their list of first-year accomplishments is astounding, as they facilitate adoption of sustainability across the Willamette campus. They've sponsored a Sustainability Retreat, Earth Day and Sustainability Month activities, lectures, forums, sustainability grant projects, booths, a website and a newsletter. They have also helped facilitate sustainable construction guidelines, food service educational events and increased attention to sustainability in University and Willamette Academy curricula.

Where does Bowersox find his energy? "Students keep me going," he says. "The best thing we did with the Sustainability Council was to turn much of it over to the students. They have a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

"The biggest challenge is how to nurture them," he says. "I don't want to turn out a bunch of Pollyannas, but I don't want to turn out cynics. I want to inculcate a sense of balanced stewardship. There's a joy in taking care of the Earth."

Bowersox's chapter, Greening the Divine: Religion, the Environment, and Politics in 21st Century North America, will come out soon in Religion and American Politics: New Perspectives, New Directions from Lexicon Books.