In Our Hands
In Our Hands
Ep. 16. Mark Stoll (Pt. 2) on Religion and the Environment

Ep. 16. Mark Stoll (Pt. 2) on Religion and the Environment

Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Mark Stoll about religion and its relation to environmental movements.

In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Mark Stoll, a professor of environmental and religious history at Texas Tech University, where he also serves as director of Environmental Studies. This is our second episode with Mark that continues the conversation focused on his work with religion and the environment.

Stoll has written two books about the American environmental movement's significant formative religious influences: Protestantism, Capitalism, and Nature in America (1997) and Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (2015). His newest book, Profit: An Environmental History, is an environmental history of capitalism and has been described by such figures as Bill McKibben and Katherine Hayhoe as a “must-read” outlining “the central tale of the human story.”

We discuss the relationship between religion and environmental movements, how political influences have shaped the opposition to environmentalism within certain religious groups, and the multicultural nature of contemporary environmental beliefs.

Episode 1 with Mark Stoll is available here.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

In Our Hands is a production of Amasia. Follow these links for more about our firm, the Amasia blog, our climate fiction podcast, and Ramanan’s blog.

Thanks for listening! Subscribe here for future episodes.

Show Notes

[00:01:39] From the Beginning

[00:05:40] The Shift in Religious Views on Environmentalism

[00:08:25] Denominations and Consequences

[00:15:30] Denominations in Power

[00:20:38] Syncretism

[00:24:30] Influence in a Secular Society

[00:00:14]: Ramanan Raghavendran: All right, we're here today for our second episode with Mark Stoll, professor of American Environmental History and American Religious History at Texas Tech. Our last interview was focused around Stoll's new book, Profit, and is similar to others you may have heard on our show. But in that conversation, and even just looking at Mark's biography, we really felt there was another thread to explore here of some consequence, and that is his expertise on religion and its relation to environmental movements.

First, a bit of background on him, for those of you who may not have listened to part one, and then we'll dive straight into our questions. As I said, he's a professor at Texas Tech University and also serves as Director of Environmental Studies. He has a bachelor's degree in history in German from Rice University and a PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to Profit, just to tee us up for this session, he has written two books about the American environmental movements, significant formative religious influences.

The first book published in 1997 was Protestantism, Capitalism and Nature in America, and the second one published in 2015 was Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism. He may be one of the world's leading experts on this topic.

[00:01:39] So we're going to start from the beginning, which is how did you get interested in religious history? Does this relate to your upbringing in some fashion?

[00:01:44] Mark Stoll: It does. I was raised in a religious household. Both my parents, particularly my father, were religious. I was raised in a Presbyterian church, which this is back in the days when mainline denominations truly were mainline denominations. It's declined to ... I don't know, practically irrelevant today. So pretty standard upbringing for the 1950s and '60s. The religious upbringing did not take my teens. I had, I think appropriate word would be lapsed. So I'm a lapsed Presbyterian, but because of my religious upbringing and the fact that I'm a good student, I paid attention in Sunday school and I knew a lot about religion and acquired a lot of interest in it.

And so in my travels, I spent ... 1980, I was age 25. I spent eight months in Indian Sri Lanka and was quite interested in visiting Ostrom's and temples and Buddhist monastery, the Southwest [inaudible 00:02:59] at Southwest Sri Lanka where I was there for three weeks, I think.

And whenever I'm traveling in Europe, I like to stop at churches and cathedrals and yeah, I continue to have a fascination with religion in all its aspects. So that's explains my interest in religion. And since I'm not an active believer, it's more from my academic interest or I don't know, something in me that has this sort of perpetual interest in religious belief and religious practice around the globe.

[00:03:38] Ramanan Raghavendran: My journey from a different cultural background is similar to yours, so I can very much understand the continuing interest despite being lapsed as it were. Do you find that as you get older ... and this is a very personal question, so you don't have to answer it, but you don't have to answer any questions, but this is a personal one. Do you find that as you get older, the attractions of religion are sort of manifesting themselves or not really?

[00:04:08] Mark Stoll: Not really. I did for a while, particularly when I was younger, kind of miss it in some way and kind of wish that I could believe it if that makes any sense.

[00:04:23] Ramanan Raghavendran: It does, it does.

[00:04:24] Mark Stoll: And I just have lacked the ability to and interest and actually believing. So it's really kind of out of reach. And as the older I get, the less I feel that. And I occasionally do ... for my parents. My parents passed away 2019, in 2021 and went back to the church where I had spent many hours back in late sixties, early seventies, and it had grown very foreign to me.

From an academic point of view, it's one thing, but to participate, it's ... Yeah, as I said it, it lost its appeal. I didn't even feel like these were my people anymore, if you know what I mean.

[00:05:13] Ramanan Raghavendran: Okay. Well, right there, we've got episode three, but we'll come back to that later. We're going to dive into the supposed main thread of our podcasts, which is environmentalism. Research has found that highly religious Americans, this may come as a surprise to some people are far less likely than other US adults to express concern about, for instance, warming temperatures around the globe.

[00:05:40] But in fact, environmentalism and religion have not always been perceived or have been at odds. When did that shift happen, and what caused it?

[00:05:50] Mark Stoll: Well, it's a slow development there. If you go back to say Earth Day, the first Earth Day in 1970, I don't think there was any religious opposition whatsoever from any corner. And do you have in the early seventies, Southern Baptist Convention, virtually every major denomination passing resolutions that we have to do something about this environmental crisis. So some are stronger than others, but I think with the politicization of the religious right in the late '70s and the 1980s, politics begets to seep in, and particularly as the politics affects the laity, it was not so much led by the church leadership or the ministers like say in the Southern Baptist Convention, but rather they were feeling pressure from their congregations-

[00:06:56] Ramanan Raghavendran: Interesting

[00:06:58] Mark Stoll:... to not speak up about environmentalism. And by the 1990s, they had moved into opposition camp, so you can find plenty of people who'd said the exact opposite things, 10 years apart, 1980s and 1990s. So it's really driven by politics much more than believers understand, I think.

[00:07:20] Ramanan Raghavendran: Or perhaps a link to what scripture says and so on. As you say it, this comes bottoms-up.

[00:07:26] Mark Stoll: Yes, right. They go searching for scriptures to back up their position, having changed their mind. It's like, "Okay, somewhere scripture must support me," and then you go cherry-picking through the Bible.

[00:07:40] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it. So bottom line is-

[00:07:41] Mark Stoll: I think that just political opposition to environmentalism, particularly funded by corporations who are being affected by that, is very effective in moving the already conservative churches, even more conservative.

[00:07:59] Ramanan Raghavendran: Fascinating. Well, we're, we're going to continue exploring, and here I want to come closer to your thesis in Inherit the Holy Mountain, your book from 2015. And there you've honed in ... We tend to think of religions even when we belong to them as these monolithic things, but the reality is denominations vary widely and denominations of Christianity and their differences.

[00:08:25] You honed in on how these affect environmental worldviews. I think for our audience, it would be useful if we got a few examples of differences between how Christian denominations have thought our thinking about the environment and the consequences that flow from that.

[00:08:45] Mark Stoll: Sure. Now, I'm a historian, and so this is a book of history of how environmentalist develops, and you have to also be aware that denominations develop and evolve. So churches as they were in the 19th century is very, very different from the way exact same denomination would be today, although there is something cultural that remains the same. But there a lot of the other things could change.

But to get what you're asking, you could see a strong difference between certain denominations in the way they think about the individual society and nature and the relationship between the three. For example, coming out of the Calvinist tradition, in particular, the traditional, the old Calvinist churches, which in the United States became congregational church, which is the old Puritan church, which today is known as a couple mergers later as the United Church of Christ, UCC, the Presbyterian church. Many know Presbyterians are very notoriously [inaudible 00:09:54].

So there's all kinds of Presbyterians ... come out of this Calvinist background. And the Calvinist idea was to needed to reform; that the Bible was a model for everything, and in the Bible you would find a model for how you should behave, a model for the family, a model for the community, for government, for society, for culture. Calvinism was a very totalistic kind of theology, more than Luther or any of the other Protestants or certainly the Catholics.

[00:10:35] Ramanan Raghavendran: Very interesting.

[00:10:35] Mark Stoll: So it meant we have to change everything to make it godly. And this is what the Purists had in mind when they were setting up their godly society, New England. So it's a church that would work hand in glove with the authorities, with the magistrate, with your local government or your state government or originally colony government. So there's a trust and a reliance on government to do things, particularly to restrain sin.

Stuff that was sinful, dangerous to the community was up to the government to restrain that, to the benefit the whole. Well, then you get people who succeed from that, like the Baptist, most strongly. But they, Baptist Church originally comes out of New England and out of the Puritan. We think of it as southern thing, but it moved south. It didn't start there, but it comes ... it's kind of the dissenters to this idea of this totalistic thing. It's like, no, it's not what the Bible says, it's not what Jesus says. Jesus completely focuses on the behavior of the individual, and so you rely on the individual.

What we're going to do is we're going to evangelize everybody in the world. As soon as they all have Jesus in their hearts, they'll all behave like perfect Christians and we'll have the godly society. So it has to be from bottom-up, and it's very individualistic. We don't use the government. And you could see this in the different approaches to, yes, we need the government to restrain the evil corporations who are trying to rape the landscape and cut down all our forests and leave us with a polluted mess versus no, let's everybody recycle, everybody drive an electric car. That can also segue into just opposition to environmental regulations altogether.

So this is very strong amongst the Baptists. Also, Methodists tend to be in that camp and very much in the 20th, beginning of the 20th century, we get to the charismatic, the Pentecostal tradition, which is extremely focused on get the spirit. It's very individualistic, very experiential, and I can't really discern any social ethic whatsoever in the Pentecostal tradition. And they certainly have not produced any significant environmental figure.

[00:13:11] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, one obvious question that arises from what you just said is, what is missing? And I guess what is missing that maybe you can comment on is the Catholic Church.

[00:13:25] Mark Stoll: Catholic Church is, yeah, it's interesting. You would think it would be more in the trust government.

[00:13:33] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yes, precisely.

[00:13:36] Mark Stoll: But I don't know exactly what to ascribe it to, but perhaps it's because most of the Catholics who came to this country, were not from the ruling classes, not from upper classes, not from the educated classes, but rather as the very poor Catholics from Sicily and Italy and Poland, Ireland and so on and Mexico that come here, and they have a very bottom-up kind of view of things.

[00:14:03] Ramanan Raghavendran: Interesting. Very interesting.

[00:14:05] Mark Stoll: "Yeah, I don't want to come telling me what to do. That's what they told me. That's how it was back in Europe. We had a very hierarchical society there, and I'm tired of being told what to do," and so on. They're much more kind of in the Baptist camp. We'll trust everybody to ... If we could get everybody to think properly, think right. It's again this kind of evangelical kind of attitude. There was a recent book that came out about the history of this group in Chicago during the 1950s, 1960s that was trying to overcome racism in Chicago. Racial problems.

And the problem is that they never really got along very well with the African American community because this was their attitude. If everybody will just accept Jesus and accept this idea, racism is bad, then it'll go away. You'll wait a very long time before that ever happens.

[00:15:00] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, I'm laughing, but it's out of sadness.

[00:15:08] Mark Stoll: And it's the same way with everybody having Jesus in their heart or whatever. It hasn't happened yet, and I'm not holding my breath.

[00:15:12] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, it's very interesting as the way you've just laid this out is a good segue into the next question, which is, there's this broad spectrum of beliefs that vary by denomination as it relates to environmentalism.

[00:15:30 ] This is a bit of a softball question, which is, to what degree does that distribution of views by denomination reflect how powerful those denominations are in American society?

[00:15:46] Mark Stoll: Well, this is a complicated question.

[00:15:49] Ramanan Raghavendran: Oh, I'm sure. None of these are easy questions.

[00:15:51] Mark Stoll: If we look at the congregationalist of the 19th century and from congregationalism came, the first movements for parks, the first calls were the strongest calls for conservation, for forestry. Pretty much congregationalists were leading all of that, but you will not find, for example, congregationalist president.

[00:16:14] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right. Very interesting.

[00:16:16] Mark Stoll: So they are not very good politicians. Coming out of this, the Puritans have a kind of specific way of thinking about things that's very much shaped by their history that they were a very village-oriented culture during the Puritan colony era. And they visualize society in terms of the town regulating itself, having one church, which would be the congregational church, and everybody belonging to that and everybody working for the common good, but it doesn't train them very well to try to lead ... get into national politics.

I mean, we have John Adams with one term and is not looked upon as a very successful president. His son sneaks in, John Quincy Adams, and then that's the last congregationalist we have until all people, Coolidge comes from a much more conservative. By the 20th century, the denomination ... actually, early 20th century, the denomination, which is today extraordinarily liberal, was getting really conservative. So I went this kind of through this very conservative phase, and it hit Calvin Coolidge.

But other than that, that's really ... and he got to be president because he was vice president because he won it in a open election.

[00:17:37] Ramanan Raghavendran: No fair and free election.

[00:17:39] Mark Stoll: Which he did. Soon as he was president, he was reelected, but that's sneaky way to get in, take the win in an election. But you have a different group with the Presbyterians who are coming from a culture that believed in preaching to power and very much criticizing power and trying to get your godly society from the top-down. So they're were used to the way in Scotland used to working with the king and queen and the powers and constantly fighting with them.

So when they brought that over here to United States in that this gigantic Scottish migration here that really infused life to the Presbyterian church here, and they're much better at politics. And so you get a period, particularly in the progressive era, late 19th, early 20th century in which they have the presidency, one after the other from Benjamin Harrison to Woodrow Wilson. They're all Presbyterians except for Taft, who was Unitarian. And then we have a Methodist McKinley, and they're the ones that just under them, the whole system of national parks is established. This system of national forest is established and a lot of government top-down making America's use of its resources righteous.

[00:19:03] Ramanan Raghavendran: Right. Interesting.

[00:19:05] Mark Stoll: In that period, and then since Woodrow Wilson, we have had no Presbyterian president. That's been ... that's it. So they had their moment, and they're very influential.

[00:19:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, they used their moment to the extent that you care about the environment. They used their moment.

[00:19:21] Mark Stoll: And it wasn't only the environment that they passed antitrust. And so it was definitely this moment where they affected America, and you cannot think of the new deal without it being thought of as kind of a extension of progressive era, Theodore Roosevelt and then have kind of ... comes back again in the 1960s with a great society. And that seems to be the last gasp of it.

[00:19:49] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, to the extent that one agrees, that is the last gasp of it, it's a good segue to our next question, which is, you say in the closing chapters of Inherit the Holy Mountain, that African American congregations, Catholics, whom we just touched on briefly, Jews, whom we did not touch on, all these groups and others have influenced the environmental movement in the second half of the 20th century and now well into the 21st.

I mean, the state that brilliantly obvious are societies are more multicultural than ever before, and as someone who spends a lot of time around the world, I would argue that today as America, maybe the most multicultural society perhaps in human history, we can debate that one, but certainly I sense that-

[00:20:37] Mark Stoll: Very possible. Yes.

[00:20:38] Ramanan Raghavendran: What kind of cultural or religious ad mixture is there in contemporary environmental beliefs that maybe pulls in from all of these places?

[00:20:53] Mark Stoll: I have a hard time kind of identifying if anything in particular. We've kind of moved into the more personal individualistic kind of direction. All three of these traditions have a tendency towards that. And I should mention this is a part of a bro movement, the Democratic Party as whole. If you look at the leadership, say Congress or the White House, Catholic, Jews, African-Americans. It's like what happened to the white Protestants. They're like-

[00:21:23] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah, we also have some Indian Americans floating around, by the way.

[00:21:27] Mark Stoll: There are. Curiously, I think the most prominent ones are on the conservative side.

[00:21:32] Ramanan Raghavendran: That is just because they're the loudest voice, but you know Kamala is half-Indian. And there's a litany of Democrats, and the point is not so much Indian Americans. The point is there is this diversity, and I mean that in a neutral sense of stating the obvious. There's this diversity. Are they all aligned in some direction as it relates to the environment or as you say, does this ultimately come back to a much more individualistic society and so it's this bottoms-up movement?

[00:22:06] Mark Stoll: It seemed to be very bottoms-up, but we are moving in the right direction probably too slowly, but surely regarding climate change, we're moving very gradually there. But it is moving in the right direction. Finally, after what James Hansen world congress in what, '88 or whatever it was, of the problems of global warming, and it's like, oh, maybe he was right. I think Hansen was still alive to witness his vindication, but before we leave the Indian Americans, yes, it is true that I think that they are ... the polls show them to be either kind of moderate liberal as a group. It is just almost every Indian American politician I can think of though is on the right for some reason.

[00:23:01] Ramanan Raghavendran: And this is a good conversation to have because sitting where I sit, most of them are on the left. The ones on the right are very loud indeed, and one of them is running for president, and so gets in a lot of places. But there's a [inaudible 00:23:14] of-

[00:23:14] Mark Stoll: The California guy, right? What's his name?

[00:23:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: So there's Ro Khanna who is a congressman here near where I live and whom I know, but there's a small set of others. There are four or five Indian Americans in Congress, and they're all Democrats. But the one running for president is very much on the right.

I'm going to move us to our final question because I could talk endlessly about the peculiarities of the Indian American community. Maybe that's episode four, but just to stay with our times, we live in our times and we have to deal with them. You've noted that, and we began with a very personal statement, more or less to this effect, "A strong religious upbringing leaves distinctive traces and everything people do as adults. No matter what religious beliefs or none at all, they adopt later." This is a time when many people believe themselves to be free of religious influence.

[00:24:15] Mark Stoll: Captain [inaudible 00:24:16] of our own faith.

[00:24:16] Ramanan Raghavendran: Captains of our own faith, and you and I are both lapsed religious people. You've embraced the idea that you may be a lapsed religious person, but you are not necessarily free of that influence of your childhood. And I share that.

[00:24:30] Are there other ways in which no matter how lapsed you are, these religious ideals reveal themselves in our society? Is it somewhere there deep down, or just we have to look for it in the world around us?

[00:24:26] Mark Stoll: It does seem to be kind of buried in us and does get transmitted to our children. How many generations that will be transferred and in what form it will end up, it's hard to say. I did, for example, gave a talk, oh gosh, 20 years ago, gave a paper at a conference on the influence on ideas about nature if you were for Jews. So if you were raised in a Jewish home, even if you're not practicing Jew as an adult, what sort of typical attitudes you had. And after my paper, one of the audience members came up to me and was disturbed by this because she was a convinced environmentalist, but she had thought that she came to her environmentalism purely intellectually because it's the right thing to do and rational, et cetera. But she said, I had described her perfectly that both of her parents have been raised Jews, but both of them were atheists.

[00:25:50] Ramanan Raghavendran: Okay.

[00:25:51] Mark Stoll: So it is like a wonderful confirmation of the ability of these moral ways of framing the world get passed on even without explicit theological or religious traditions framing them for you.

[00:26:51] Ramanan Raghavendran: I mean, there is-

[00:26:11] Mark Stoll: And this is probably worth getting into [inaudible 00:26:13], but yeah ....

[00:26:15] Ramanan Raghavendran: The nice thing about our podcast is we can talk about anything we want. This is just super, super interesting stuff, period. I mean, stop me if I read this wrong, but as you described, the presidencies of the end of the 19th century and the early 20th and the massive effect they had on actual stuff that got done about the environment at scale, I almost sensed a little longing of a certain nostalgia. Was that just me overreading into what you were saying?

[00:26:50] Mark Stoll: Well, I do miss that sense of purpose, that sense of duty that we must do this, that this is the world thing to do. It drove these people. The other thing is, of course, the denominations were so much stronger back then, and so when they spoke, the audience was there to listen and respond so that this was something that affect all of society. So there is kind of a nostalgia for that. I don't know if I was a round back time then if the endless self-righteousness and censor seriousness would've driven me nuts, and that's part of it.

[00:27:35] Ramanan Raghavendran: That is part of it. And just navigating through as a historian, you've got to set yourself apart from the good and the bad. But there was much goodness in that era, and there was badness to deal with as there is in ours.

[00:27:48] Mark Stoll: There is certainly no perfect era. And they had their blind spots on race, for example.

[00:27:54] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yes. No question. No question. And our podcasts are about climate and the environment, and so we tend to focus on that as a narrow thread, but the environment exists in an environment and that environment doesn't have nothing but good or not.

Mark, this is the best 30 minutes of a month for me. You have been enormously kind with your reflections and insights. I would urge folks to read both of your books. Actually, one quick question before we leave. Are you working on a book for the future?

[00:28:24] Mark Stoll: I am still trying to form an idea for the book. Possibly, the book would be kind of what I've hinted at, that this is not just an environmentalist kind of thing that you could ... I could also trace just the history of liberalism back to these indirect, unconscious religious roots because you find that the women's movement and the abolition movement and so many of 19th century and 20th century progressive, what we call kind of a general progressive causes, came out of these same churches. And so you can see also there's an evolution of liberalism or progressivism in this country that parallels this pathway of environmentalism. So it's attempting to kind of go back and write a similar book about that.

[00:29:22] Ramanan Raghavendran: That sounds widely interesting. And if you write it, we will read it, and we will come talk to you about it.

I want to thank you. You've been very gracious and kind with your time

[00:29:34] Mark Stoll: All right. Thank you very much for inviting me to talk. It's a pleasure.

In Our Hands
In Our Hands
In Our Hands is a podcast series featuring interviews with climate and sustainability experts on the front lines of climate action, emphasizing behavior change. Guests include researchers, journalists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, authors, and more.