Guest Post: Eschatology vs. Mormon Cultural Politics: No Holds Barred

Editor’s Note: HL Rogers is a bloggernacle neophyte, but since he’s a mormon lawyer, he should feel right at home.  He suggested this as an idea for a guest post, and we’re more than willing to oblige.

I was sitting in my car the other night driving home from work when I heard a story about global warming on my NPR. The story described how the Bush administration has earmarked $6 billion to prepare for catastrophic events predicted by proponents of global warming. Of course my eyebrows shot up: Bush administration preparing for global warming? This story was too questionable to be believed without some fact checking. Of course, I’m far too lazy for that, so instead I began to wonder about Mormons, eschatology, and global warming.

I think most Mormons enjoy using science theories and/or studies to support our own worldview (for example the UCLA study that found Mormons live longer because of the Word of Wisdom). We usually don’t base our faith upon such science or academic studies but still find them comforting/strengthening/interesting, etc. Some people are big Hugh Nibley aficionados, studying up on his theories of how ancient world texts support a Mormonism that spans the ages. Or, people latch onto chiasmus to show how the Book of Mormon has Middle Eastern origins. Many of us seem to enjoy and/or are comforted by tangible scientific or scholarly findings that support our beliefs (this, of course, is in no way unique to Mormonism).

Global warming seems tailor made for such use. This theory, as currently formulated, includes the proposition that certain selective temperature spikes have been playing, and will continue with increasing frequency and magnitude to play, havoc with global weather patterns. From this proposition comes the prediction that this phenomenon will lead to increasing natural disasters around the world: flooding in coastal regions; more frequent and larger hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.

Mormon eschatology, the beliefs surrounding the end of the world and the Second Coming, has certain universal aspects that I think most Mormons would agree are part of the general belief. Among these universally accepted eschatological beliefs are three main categories of impending future doom that will continue to ramp up until the actual event of the Second Coming. These three main predictors of the Second Coming seem to be: the worsening morality of the world, the increase in wars and rumors of wars, and the most relevant for this particular discussion: the increase in frequency and magnitude of natural disasters. For example in General Conference, April 2004, in his talk entitled "Preparation for the Second Coming," Elder Oaks stated:

For example, the list of major earthquakes in The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2004 shows twice as many earthquakes in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s as in the two preceding decades (pp. 189-90). It also shows further sharp increases in the first several years of this century. The list of notable floods and tidal waves and the list of hurricanes, typhoons, and blizzards worldwide show similar increases in recent years (pp. 188-89). Increases by comparison with 50 years ago can be dismissed as changes in reporting criteria, but the accelerating pattern of natural disasters in the last few decades is ominous.

Elder Oaks refers directly to a text containing empirical scientific data on increasing floods, tidal waves, and hurricanes. Isn’t global warming tailor made to support this Mormon eschatological belief? Why don’t Mormons pull out global warming as one more proof that the Second Coming is on its way, the way we do when we hear of new wars or rising crime? In fact, I have often heard, in relation to the conflicts in the Middle East: "well, there’s not much we can do to stop them, the Second Coming is approaching and these things will happen." Thus members look at the growing wars in the region and see in them (and perhaps also in Bush’s laissez faire policy for Israel) proof of the approaching Millennium.

Some Christian apologists do in fact link global warming and eschatology. One Christian author, Hal Lindsay, has written the popular Left Behind series dealing with this exact issue. While this is certainly not a belief held by Christian fundamentalists and most Christian Evangelicals, it is held by some conservative Christians who are interested in the advent of the Second Coming.

So why don’t Mormons respond to discussions on global warming, with its predictions of increasing natural disasters, the way they do to reports of new wars and hostilities or new surveys showing the rapidly declining morality of the American population? Is it that the general cultural state of Mormon politics being firmly in the Republican camp outweighs the desire that many Mormons have (and Mormon culture generally) to point to support for our beliefs from mainstream media and science? Or is it that global warming is too unsure a theory, too much in debate, too questioned about its scientific validity? Or is it a mix: most Mormons, being Republican, are more willing to believe global warming naysayers, and thus the theory is not enough of a support for our eschatology to be used in general Sunday School discussion? And if politics is in the mix, how much power do our politics, as Mormons, have over our belief system?

Comments

  1. (btw, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote “Left Behind”, not Hal Lindsay.)

    This is an admittedly cycnical view, but for what it’s worth…

    Interesting thought. I can’t speak as a Mormon, but I think that the politics of science does play a large role. It is possible that since global warming is seen as something that can be curbed on an individual level (i.e. by recycling, using less CFCs, etc.), acknowledging that it “exists” is also acknowledging that we should do something about it. The acknowledgment of war doesn’t carry this same implication (after all, what can “I” do on an individual level?).

  2. Another cynical response…
    Many Mormons identify closely with the Republican party. Many of the Republican party’s pundits downplay the effects of global warming (although maybe that is at an end). Therefore, Global Warming (surely just a political issue) is no big deal.

  3. John C.
    I think you are right on. But why don’t Mormons who identify with the Republican party jettison certain Republican views when they don’t fit the Mormon-world view? Or do they and global warming just isn’t enough within the Mormon-world view to warrant a departure? But if Mormons do abandon certain tenets of Republicanism for the Mormon-world view then which tenets. I can’t think of any. For example, I think the Republican party platform takes a harder line approach to abortion then does the church, yet I think most members of the church follw the Republican view as opposed to the Church’s view.

  4. It’s a fascinating idea. I have a few friends who adhere to the agenda set forth by the Republican party as teneaciaoulsy as they do the doctrine set forth from the pulpit at General Conference. Or at least they purport that they do. It seems like a very Mormon thing to do. We think we fit squarely into the religious right when many leaders on the religious right would do anything they could to distance themselves from Mormonism — an anti-christian cult. We feel a special kinship with Jews because they’re the chosen house of Isreal and we know at some point they will be taught the Gospel and have their chance to return to the fold. Yet, hearing Jewish leaders talk about Mormons, you get the feeling that they hold no such special feelings for us — quite the contrary. Anyway, I guess like anyone else, we seem to believe the world revolves solely around us. And now I’ve gotten very far away from the original thread. Sorry.

  5. HLR,
    I don’t particularly want to turn this into a republican vs. democrat LDS thread. As I stated, it was written with a healthy dose of cynicism.
    I would also guess that general Mormon inertia regarding all things environmental relates to D&C 104:11-18. I have heard this passage interpreted to mean that the environment will take care of itself, so don’t worry about it. Such an interpretation may very well be missing the point.

  6. Bob Caswell says:

    I just wanted to point out that Sunday school talk of too-bad-for-those-in-the-Middle-East-it-looks-like-the-Second-Coming-is-really-close kind of bothers me. Reliance on such prophecy broods complacency, as peace will never happen until Christ comes… So let’s not even try… Bleh.

  7. Shawn Bailey says:

    Perhaps the limited emphasis on millenarianism in general in the contemporary church explains the limited discussion of global warming as hastening the apocalypse.

    Of course, there may be something to your point about not believing global warming is serious due to political commitments–or fearing that global warming is serious but not wanting to acknowledge its results (or potential results, I maintain a healthy mix of skepticism and ignorance) in a religious context due to political commitments.

    Forgetting political categories though, it is rather undramatic to think of green house gas emissions as the harbinger of the end of times. Perhaps such emmissions are the wimper to the bang of nuclear war (that many have imagined as initiating the burning associated with the end of days).

    This leads me to my best answer (for now anyway) to your query: To me, both global warming and nuclear war give people too prominent a role. I submit that the end of this last dispensation and the initiation of the millenium must be brought about by the hand of God in a way that cannot be explained away as the result of human foolishness or technology gone awry. Elder Oaks’ use of scientific sources about the rising incidence of natural disasters (that as far as I know are not caused by people) is consistent with this view. I am obviously not saying that this is the doctrine of the church. It is just my intuitive sense regarding the question you raise.

  8. Tom Manney says:

    John C., I think the D&C 104 interpretation — correct or not — accounts for a lot of Mormons’ lack of interest in the environment in general.

    But even as one who is concerned about the environment and global warming, I find one of environmentalism’s core tenets to be untenable — the notion that the earth can be overpopulated and its resources exhausted. I suppose at least theoretically I have to accept that there is a critical population mass, but for religious reasons I can’t help but trust God that we’ll never reach it. I don’t know why I should be putting my trust in God, though, since he doesn’t choose when people are born — we do when we exercise our agency to procreate (or, as so often happens, when we foolishly risk the possibility of conceiving a child when none was wanted). But assuming there is a finite number of spirits intended for this world, it stands to reason that the Earth would have been formed to accommodate all of them (perhaps even 33% more who chose not to come) within a reasonable span of time.

    Anyway, the anti-birth aspect renders environmentalism somewhat of a difficult political philosophy to reconcile with any religion that embraces “right to life” thinking. In fact, many activist environmentalists seem to be driven by the belief that humans are just another species on the planet, that their right to life is no more important that that of, say, the western speckled fleasucker, and that’s so contradictory to Christianity’s pervasive anthropocentrism that it poisons many Christians’ regard of environmentalism as a whole. As an aside, I wonder if Mormonism really justifies the anthropocentric view. On the one hand, it seems kind of arrogant, but on the other the scriptures support a view of man as Lord over the whole of the earth. The Lord is our master but also our brother. Likewise, then, are we masters of the earth or are we its caretakers, capable of gross mismanagement?

    I guess it’s a question of just how fragile you think the earth is. A lot of environmentalists portray it as being so frail and tender that draconian population control measures are warranted, and in turn this induces a lot of people to discount the need for other demanding changes that are, at least in my opinion, much more sensible and warranted, such as getting off fossil fuels, reducing waste, using more renewable resources, and protecting fragile ecosystems. At the other extreme, many on the right would have us think that the earth is so durable that it can be used and abused for fun and profit with no need to treat it responsibly. Such a position lacks humility before God and lacks respect for his creation; it’s an “all is well in Zion, yea, Zion prospereth” way of thinking, and therefore probably cannot be right, in my view.

  9. There is some debate online whether James Watt made some odd comments about not having to worry about the environment because the Second Coming would solve everything. I remember reading such quotes over 20 years ago, so I don’t think they are the invention of some blogger as has been alleged.

    In any case, I think that we are poor stewards if we are relying on the coming of Christ to clean things up. Certainly faith in the Second Coming doesn’t imply relying on it to fix our problems.

  10. Two points: First, HL what is a nice boy like you doing in a bad corner of the internet like this.

    Second point, I wonder if eschatology is as vibrant now among Mormons as it once was. Might Elder Oaks’s talk be an attempt to high light an important doctrine in which he sees lagging interest rather than as yet another example of a ubiquitous phenomena.

  11. Several people have made the comment that perhaps LDS interest in the Second Coming is waning. I wonder if that is actually the case. Perhaps I have too much family in Idaho where the speculations still seem rampant and constant.

    Shawn,
    I think your comments about man-made phenomenon is intriguing. I think that probably has some weight in it. Though it seems to me that when a political belief we hold matches a Mormon belief we hold the nuanced considerations like that disappear. So perhaps that does gain traction when the poltical and religious beliefs don’t perfectly match.

    I also wonder how wed we are to our personal philosophies as compared to our religious beliefs. Do our religious beliefs sometimes take second seat to our politics or our culture? If global warming isn’t a great example how about the Church’s fight to keep guns out of churches in Utah? Are some people so wed to their guns that they place that above their membership in the Church in some level. And obviously this isn’t a one party issue. I can think of just about as many examples on each side of the political aisle.

    And Nate: I’m here trying to avoid the evil influences of the internet–you know like FMH.

  12. Nate’s “what is a nice boy like you doing in a bad corner of the internet like this” has me rolling on the floor…

    For me, it is that the global warming theory seems to be more of a religion than science, with the primary goal being to exert political power.

  13. Some interesting points. The broader issue of eschatology and the environment is covered in an interesting article on the Economist website at:
    http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=3490697
    (obviously without the intriguing Mormon flavour on display here!)

    I think there are two separate issues, at least if you take a certain view of things – global warming and the broader issue of the increase in natural disasters and related phenomena. Some would suggest that global warming leads to some of these phenomena, but I’m not sure anyone is suggesting that global warming causes earthquakes.

    I think the lack of interest in global warming and broader environmental issues stems from a combination of the D&C 104 and Genesis / Moses / Abraham / temple doctrine on man having dominion over the earth, as well as the fact that environmentalists tend to emphasise environmental issues as the single most important issue of the day. This, I think, resonates little with most Church members, who have been trained (rightly, I believe) to think of moral issues, freedom of religion and others as paramount. There is no doubt that many prophets have taught the importance of caring for the world, being kind to animals etc., but I think Church members resist the extremist version of the environmental argument which suggests that we ought to be more worried about global warming than about moral decline.

    Separately, the lack of interest in these physical/geological signs of the last times. I think we’ve also been trained to think of the religious signs of the times (in the broadest sense) rather than the physical signs when we discuss the last days. This may be a good thing – we are very much a part of the religious equation, whereas we probably have little – if any – influence over the number of earthquakes in the world. This allows us to focus on those areas where there is work for us to do.

    One might argue that we also have a role to play in environmental issues, which have an impact on other ‘signs of the times’ but these are much less clearly defined, and there is still debate about whether global warming really is occurring at the rate suggested due to pollution etc. Thus, again, it makes more sense for Church members to focus on the things they’re sure about, and where they can have a direct impact.

    We should be interested in all three categories of signs that HL outlined – religious, military/political and physical – from an educational point of view, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing if discussion focuses on the religious to the detriment of the others, for example in Sunday School. At the same time, I think the defeatist view of both the politico-military and physical/geological issues isn’t helpful either. Just because we believe these things will happen eventually anyway doesn’t mean we can’t work to mitigate the pace of the development and their negative impact on the people of the world.

  14. Shawn Bailey says:

    I propose a little compare and contrast exercise. Consider:

    (a) Working toward the establishment of Zion in various ways: increasing unity and purity of heart, mitigating differences between rich and poor, being willing and prepared to give of our individual wealth (which I believe implies wise management of the personal, financial, and other resourses in our care), and furthermore, looking forward to rather than dreading and delaying the opportunity to give of our wealth as Hugh Nibley preached in Approaching Zion).

    AND

    (b) Working toward the apocalypse by being ambivalent about (or willfully destructive of) the natural resources put under human stewardship.

    Of course, these are simplified pictures–things may play out more subtley in our individual lives. But there is, I think, a kernal of truth here.

  15. It seems to me that a certain type of environmentalism is requisite of Church members. Several comments have dilineated between supposed mainstream environmentalists and their divergence from general Church members’ beliefs about the environment. I agree with these points and it seems to point in a direction both Jan and Shawn appear to mention: using wise stewardship in a way that creates a better, cleaner environment, while not doing so at the expense of more important issues from a Church perspective. There seems to be a lot there both normative and descriptive. I myself try to walk that line and find myself on different sides of it at different times. Sometimes, I’m honestly concerned about my stewardship of the land and the Lord’s admonitions to care for the world around me. At other times I find myself being lazy and thinking: oh there are more important things than recycling and supporting organizations that work to care for the environment (in a moderate manner), like going to the temple. I don’t presume to create a hierarchy of Church teachings here, b/c I think that would be a vast endeavor and migth turn out to be a waste of time except in a broad strokes analysis. But I do call myself lazy when I am in my everything is more important phase b/c I don’t think I’m really ranking the importance of things, rather I’m creating excuses to lessen my work load. Although Shawn’s thought experiment is simplified and stylized as he notes I think it is helpful in reminding us that there are many stewardships we must manage.

  16. I am LDS and an environmental engineer working for an oil company. I guess you could say I have been somewhat jaded by the more exaggerated (early on) global warming predictions made by environmentalists (not to mention their common political jabs at oil companies). Earlier studies often ignored the contribution of natural causes (e.g. volcanic activity) towards global warming. I reached the point several years ago where I felt that some environmentalists truly believed that it’s OK to ignore natural causes as part of the equation because anything Mother Nature does is good. If, however, higher CO/CO2 emissions from increasing volcanic activity could possibly make it impossible for any manmade emission reductions to reverse the global warming trend, shouldn’t that be a big consideration before the U.S. decides to take measures that could seriously disrupt the economy and increase human misery in other ways ?

    I have not kept up with the latest studies or predictions – the foregoing is mainly to explain the root cause of some of my residual skepticism. With the recent reports of polar glaciers melting and/or breaking up, I am less skeptical that global warming may actually be happening and/or that it may have a significant effect. But, I am still skeptical that human-related activities are the primary cause or that man will be able to do enough to prevent it. There may be other natural contributing causes we don’t fully understand yet.

    Because of my profession my interest is always piqued when church leaders speak on environmental-related subjects and in my view it wouldn’t hurt if they did it more often. Certainly the Lord teaches us in the scriptures (and elsewhere) to be good stewards over the earth. Maybe there is a hesitancy to speak on this topic too often because environment these days is almost always tied to politics and church members don’t want to be perceived as being political in their church discourse ?

    As far as tying global warming to end-of-times prophecies, I personally would speculate about it if I were already involved in a discussion about a specific prophecy (e.g. D & C 133:26 “ice shall flow down at their presence”) but I would not put it out to a congregation or the public as a clear “sign of the times”.

  17. B. Winn,

    I think that you’ve brought up an important point. The political will to prevent climate change simply isn’t there. The economy is often held up as more important, but long-term it is probably in the economic interest of nearly everyone to prevent drastic climate change. I would disput that your assertion that we aren’t causing climate change, but I would agree that we probably aren’t able to reverse it. This is due to the way decisions are made and power structures more than any real technological inability.

    You will forgive me though if I compare getting climate infomation from an oil company to getting health information from a tabacco company, won’t you?

  18. Saith “a random John”:

    “You will forgive me though if I compare getting climate information from an oil company to getting health information from a tabacco company, won’t you?”

    a.r. John, I think you will have to offend me before I can forgive you. I have pretty thick skin to begin with, and I don’t really get any climate information from the company I work for. I can confess, however, to having co-workers who support me in my skepticism(s). Early in my career I worked for a county air pollution control district, so I have seen both sides of the fence.

    Hey, I did some quick research and found out there are some folks much smarter than me that are even more skeptical than I am. Michael Crichton is one of them. I think our fellow bloggers at this site would really be able to appreciate the parallels he draws between religion and environmentalism. His address to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club is located at this site:

    http://www.crichton-official.com/speeches/speeches_quote05.html

    Crichton goes along with my view that not only are we lacking political will, but we probably don’t even have the technology to have any significant effect on global warming. Even more, he seems to be saying that we don’t even have enough understanding to even begin choosing which technology is needed.

    Now I have to figure out how to get back to the original purpose of this thread. Oh yes, about LDS using “global warming” as additional evidence of predicted end-of-times developments. Crichton’s speech makes me lean even more towards Shawn Bailey’s previous assertion:

    “I submit that the end of this last dispensation and the initiation of the millenium must be brought about by the hand of God in a way that cannot be explained away as the result of human foolishness or technology gone awry.”

    While Chrichton’s speech includes some very solid recommendations, I don’t think the momentum of our nation’s collective political and social consciousness can ever be slowed down or reversed to take the needed action and may even prevent us from discovering additional critical causal factors. Future events will roll forth as predicted by God’s prophets and become history while the ruling classes of the earth continue in their vain attempts to write a different history.

  19. I agree that we don’t have the technology to keep doing what we are doing and slow global warming at the same time. And we don’t have the will to stop using the harmful tech, so if the short term economic interest trumps all then we don’t have a way of confronting this problem.

    Crichton is not a worthwhile source in my book. His thoughts on nanotech contain many basic scientific errors. I would be shocked if his expertise on climate change is much deeper.

    As for Shawn’s comment. Shawn, I respectfully disagree. I agree that the Lord has His own timetable, but man has forced his hand before. The Flood was caused by Him because of the evil of men.

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