briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Today Is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day: So, What’s That Really About?

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the very first Earth Day in the United States and that half century commemoration becomes the catalyst for a necessary understanding of the worldview issues that were at stake then and perhaps even more pressingly are at stake now. You’re looking at so many controversial issues. You’re looking at the constellation of so many questions and you’re looking at the fact that 50 years later, almost everything that was discussed then is being discussed now. You can draw a line of sorts from the very first Earth Day, 50 years ago, to the proposals for a Green New Deal. You can also look at all kinds of sub-issues, but let’s just look at the issue of Earth Day itself. It did not emerge from a vacuum.

Why did the United States declare the very first Earth Day back in 1970 and what does it mean?

Well, I was a 10-year-old boy in 1970 and I can still remember the conversation about Earth Day in my elementary school. Now, the context for the emergence of Earth Day takes us back to the period of the 1950s and the 1960s. It culminated in that very first Earth Day in April of 1970, but during the time of the ’50s and ’60s with a vast expansion of the American economy and also after the Second World War, the vast expansion of the scientific endeavor of modern industry, all kinds of new technologies—also modern ways of farming, especially mass models of farming, the development of such things as advanced fertilizers and chemical pesticides—all kinds of these developments came even at a time that many in the United States were beginning to worry that there was something wrong with the way we were doing business.

There were some events that certainly drew attention to this. One of them took place in 1969 when there was a massive oil spill off of Santa Barbara, California. It was caused by a blowout on a drilling platform and that led to the realization there’s very little regulation of this entire enterprise and many of our most beautiful beaches and shorelines and the animals on those shorelines and the fish and the other creatures in the sea are put at risk without any regulation. That led to all kinds of considerations in Congress that eventually led to some regulations on the very existence of an operation of oil platforms. Let me just remind you that we’re also looking this week at the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that took place in the Gulf of Mexico. That ecological disaster took place 10 years ago, so we’re looking at some round numbers here.

But thinking about that first Earth Day, it was also occasioned by developments that came in the 1960s, especially when Americans began to recognize that many of our waterways had become very obviously polluted. Examples of the kind of pollution that had become obvious includes the fact that in 1969 the Cuyahoga River that flows through Cleveland into Lake Erie actually caught fire. In other reports, Lake Erie itself was on fire. The surface of the lake on fire had to do with how many chemicals have been released by industry into the waterways, into the river, and eventually into Lake Erie. And it wasn’t just chemicals and pesticides, it was also fertilizer. There were giant algae blooms that had begun to appear both in fresh and in salt waters around and within the United States, and there was just the obvious pollution that came by seeing, for example, oil on the surface of what should have been a mountain stream without any kind of oil source whatsoever. A part of this was just the natural result of a vast expansion of technology and of chemicals and chemistry, of engineering and of industry, especially all of this set loose in the economic expansion after the Second World War in the United States.

Similar concerns had arisen in Europe, but in North America the particular concerns were oil spills and other very visible signs of an ecological problem. Back in 1963, the Clean Air Act had been adopted in the United States. It was years later that the Clean Air Act was expanded to be enforceable by both state and federal governments. Almost 10 years later, what had been known as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 had been updated to be known as the Clean Water Act as an analog to the Clean Air Act. But one of the most important things to recognize is that the pollution that had most concerned Americans were the pollution they could see in the air in air pollution and what was then called smog over many American cities and also the degradation of the water. And again, very visible signs of an ecological degradation and of a disaster that was looming.

But at the same time there were ideological currents that were set loose in the society. And those came with very interesting worldview implications, including a basic idea that human beings were a blight upon the planet and that technology needed to be reversed and repudiated, that fertilizers, in all cases, need not to be used and the same thing for pesticides. A certain back to nature movement emerged at the very same time that was against cities and was against population centers writ large and was against modern industry, was against almost everything except regulation. All of this came together in a flurry of new laws, but also of quite legitimate ecological concern in the 1960s and ’70s, and Earth Day became a part of that concern and it also came as part of a political movement that had its own ideology.

But as is so often the case, there was another catalyst when it comes especially to elite opinion in the United States and political momentum. And that catalyst was the emergence of a New York Times bestseller by the writer Rachel Carson. Her book was entitled Silent Spring and it was published in 1963. Now, Rachel Carson was a very interesting figure in and of herself. She was amongst the very first women scientists of the era who became an aquatic biologist. She was later hired by the United States Bureau of Fisheries and she was basically first of all, an expert in fish and aquatic wildlife and also the ecological conditions that threatened that wildlife. She became herself quite concerned about pollution in various forms and particularly about pesticides. The title, Silent Spring, was originally a chapter from her book, a book about an ecological crisis in which one chapter was to be devoted to the impact of the use of many pesticides on wild birds, songbirds and other birds, leading to a decimation she threatened of the entire bird population. Thus Silent Spring was to be a chapter, but the publisher began to understand that that was such a powerful title that it should become metaphorically the title of the entire book, not just of the chapter.

Silent Spring, as I said, became a New York Times bestseller, and it’s one of those books that caught the attention of the American public and began to give a narrative that provided politicians, cultural leaders, and others with a vocabulary to use and a cause to champion. And as I want to make clear from a Christian worldview perspective, there really was an ecological problem. The problem was so acute that it was visible to many and at the very same time there were ideological opportunities driven by those who had political agendas and they all came together one moment in history. And Earth Day, 50 years ago today, is something of a parable of that moment in history.

What became Earth Day can perhaps historically be credited not only to Rachel Carson whose book had appeared in 1962, but to Senator Gaylord Nelson, the junior Democratic Senator from the state of Wisconsin, who decided out of ecological concern to call for what were then known as teach-ins on America’s college and university campuses. That meant something of a student protest, a suspension of normal classes, and instead teachers and others beginning to teach explicitly for this day on ecological issues, the dangers of pesticides and fertilizers and pollution, and to call for government and political action. And the very first Earth Day, as it was known as we’ve said, was 50 years ago today, April the 22nd 1970, but at the very same time, there were massive political movements underway.

Back in 1963, the Clean Air Act was passed by a Democratic Congress and then signed into law by a Democratic president. By the time you get to 1970, what became known as the Environmental Protection Agency began to operate, but under a Republican administration. At that point, the Republican administration of President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon would also, even as a Republican president, oversee a vast expansion of the federal government in the name of protecting the environment and other regulatory goals. Now, the important thing to recognize here is that you had the Lyndon Johnson administration in the 1970s declaring a war on poverty. The aspiration for what President Johnson called the Great Society, which President Johnson saw requiring a vast expansion of the federal government. And you had President Nixon, the Republican president, a law and order president, as was his platform when he ran successfully in 1968. But in worldview analysis, it’s important to recognize that President Nixon had basically also bought into the idea of a vast expansion of the federal government.

The first Earth Day also took place under the administration of President Richard Nixon 50 years ago. It was in the United States in 1990, it actually became a global observance. And as the official website for Earth Day tells us, “Today, Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global national and local policy changes.”

Now, it is interesting that of course that publicity for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day now appears somewhat out of date and out of place given the COVID-19 crisis and the fact that right now that is the issue that is foremost on the minds of most people around the world, not Earth Day, even the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

But as Christians trying to understand this, let’s go back and consider the fact that even as a 10-year-old boy, I knew something had gone wrong. You had cars that were spouting black smoke behind them. Emissions weren’t a big concern in the 1950s and the 1960s. You had jet airplanes that were taking off, leaving massive black streaks through the sky. You had all the pollution you could see in the waterways. As a boy in Florida, I could see what was happening to the Everglades at the time. You were not surprised to see oil slicks on water where no oil could be explicable. Waterway by waterway, Americans could also observe fish kills, another phenomenon, some of which undoubtedly would have taken place naturally, but others that were directly attributable to chemical invasion. You also had the understanding that there were people who were experiencing patterns of birth defects and other effects that were not coincidental with chemical or industrial operations that might have been nearby.

Part II

How Should Christians Think about the Earth and the Environment? Dominion and Stewardship in the Biblical Worldview

And this leads to some of the most interesting issues of worldview deliberation that continue to reverberate right down to the present moment. Again, I mentioned those on the Democratic left who are pressing for what they call the Green New Deal. Also, all kinds of issues related to climate change. Where does this take us?

Well, it takes us back to the fact that beginning with the biblical worldview, we come to understand that human beings are given a responsibility of dominion over the earth. That is to say human beings are not a blight on the earth. We are the creatures who alone are the image bearers of God in creation. But we also have an assignment from God as his image bearers to exercise a sovereignty or dominion over the world on his behalf. But the biblical worldview, by no means justifies the exploitation of, the ruination of, the destruction of planet Earth. But rather the central metaphor is the garden that appears right in the first chapters of Scripture and the responsibility of stewardship reminding us that the garden is to be used, its produce is to be enjoyed, its beauty is to be beheld, and its resources are to be used but in a way that reflects stewardship. We understand as Christians that we will give an answer to the Lord either for not using the resources that he has given us or for using them in a wasteful and destructive manner. Stewardship does not mean non-use. Stewardship means the wise use.

But we also have to recognize that even as there were quite legitimate concerns ecologically back in the 1960s and the 1970s, there was also a burgeoning ideological movement, especially amongst the elites in the United States that began to center on a basic opposition to human involvement in the entire cosmos and in particular in the environment. There was also a certain back to nature movement that began to style itself using terms. This is where the idea of organic as a label began to emerge early in the 1970s and beyond. Limited then, far less limited now. But going back to that particular ideology, it began to insinuate the human beings were a blight upon the planet, that the human footprint had to be reduced, that whenever human beings effected the environment, it had to be for ill, that natural resources existed on their own right and in their own terms and should be left alone by human beings. But of course that was always a mixed argument.

For one thing, the people making the argument, by the way then and now, still fly on jet aircraft to go to their conferences in general terms and to present their papers. We’ve seen that even just in recent months, just before the coronavirus hit. We come to understand that the very same technologies that those on the left decry as being invasive in the environment are the very same technologies that they also take advantage of just in order to live their everyday lives. But Christians and conservatives also have to recognize that there is a balancing of interests that always exists. That is by one definition the very exercise or essence of stewardship. It is a balancing of interest. The short-term versus the long-term, the now versus the then, the enjoy something in this generation or plant something for the future generation. That is all a part of the balancing we have to consider. Also, when we look at industry and technology and even chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides, we have to understand that you could not possibly feed the earth as it is now fed without both the fertilizers and the pesticides.

One interesting headline coming recently from Africa is the fact that some parts of Africa are affected not only right now by the coronavirus crisis, but also by a crisis of insects, especially those who are classified as locusts who are devouring crops, leaving people further endangered by the fact that they will not have food.

A responsible understanding of stewardship says that right now oil is a necessity, but after all oil does come with dangers. We need to mitigate the dangers and we also need to increase the efficiencies. Christians have every motivation to say that in the right time with the right technologies, if something better comes along, when something better comes along, then that balancing of interests needs to be applied once again. We come to understand that the Christian worldview begins with the fact that human beings aren’t the problem. They can do the wrong thing of course, but the reality is that human beings are given this responsibility and frankly the human beings making the arguments against industry and chemicals and pesticides and fertilizers are exercising the very same human activities that you have the other side using. The reality is human beings are going to be a part of this process one way or the other.

The responsible Christian worldview says that we must privilege the balancing that leads to the greatest flourishing of the human community and of human beings. Of course, we’re concerned about justice and we are also concerned about future generations. You can’t be a faithful steward if you’re willing to destroy for your use now what your own grandchildren and great grandchildren will need in the future.

But we’re also looking at the fact that many of these technologies have allowed a standard of human nutrition and the availability of food for human beings both in the United States and elsewhere unprecedented in human history. There has been a steady supply of quality food, food that is clean and food that is edible and nutritious and healthy, and yes, by consumer choice, people can choose the less nutritious and the less healthy. But the point is there is an abundance of food and abundance of calories that previous generations of human beings would have seen as an almost unreachable dream.

It is also true that a market economy working on efficiencies finds its way into a better stewardship of the kind of balancing we’re talking about of the use of chemicals and pesticides and fertilizers. Those who are dependent upon the use of those very chemicals in the long term, also have to be concerned about the misuse. They are likely themselves to help to develop ways of using those kinds of chemicals and frankly other technologies in ways that provide a better return with a less negative result.

It is also true that we in the United States have come to depend upon a certain regulatory regime and we as Christians thinking through these issues also have to understand that in a fallen world, some level of regulation, some existence of regulatory agencies becomes necessary. But at the same time we have to understand that driven by certain ideologies and also by the internal logic of an ever expanding government, those regulations are likely to threaten over time, to strangle the very goods they were intended to protect.

It’s also important that we recognize that many of the same arguments that are being made now in the context of the climate change controversies are the very arguments that were made back during the 1960s and the 1970s in the birth of the modern ecological movement.

Another constant is that these have often come hand in hand with the population control movement, a movement that is antithetical to an understanding of a biblical concept of humanity and basically says the human beings need to be reduced in net numbers. And increasingly you see, even as was clear in the 1960s and ’70s, the elites being willing to say reduced by any means necessary and reduced according to our rules. Those who hold to biblical Christianity can never embrace either an unbiblical anti-humanism or an unbiblical humanism, an idolatrous humanism. We have to avoid both because what the Bible presents is not a humanism, but rather an understanding of the human being as made in the image of God and his image bearers, bearing dignity, exercising rights given by the Creator and respecting the creation over which we are assigned responsibility.

Part III

A New Religion for Secularists? The Modern Ecological Movement Reveals a Theological Substructure

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Hugh Roberts, an ecological writer, contributed an article to The New York Times entitled: “This Earth Day, We Should Repent.” And thus next, this brings us to a very interesting intersection. We often talk about the fact that theology, even in a secular age is always there if you will only see it, but it really comes to fore in this article. After all, the author writing to a secular audience has said, “We should repent.” Now, why would he use that word? How exactly does he mean that word to be understood and how is he going to explain it or justify it to a secular readership of The New York Times?

Here’s what he writes about his use of the word repent: “Of course, there will be objections. For instance, anything even remotely resembling repentance must be an oppressive relic of Christianity and so should be disqualified. This will be a momentous argument. First,” he writes, “it would prevent us from ever being truly sorry about anything. Second, it would disqualify many of the main tenants of secular Western society, which are clearly borrowed or repurposed from Christianity. He concludes this paragraph, “The idea of a universal linear movement towards salvation is uniquely Judeo-Christian.” There is so much here for us to see. For one thing, you have in this article an argument that explicitly says, “Let’s repurpose that old Christian worldview in a way that will fit our modern secular context.” Going back to use the word “repentance” as if human beings have anything to be sorry for. It is interesting that in this article, Hugh Robert says that if you eradicate the idea of repentance, then you’re never truly sorry. He’s right about that by the way.

There’s also right in that paragraph the acknowledgement, I read it again, that many of the main tenants of Western secular society have been, in his words, “Clearly borrowed or repurposed from Christianity.” Well, that’s really interesting and about that he’s absolutely right. Now he’s actually arguing for the repurposing, you might say, well indeed he did say of the Christian concept of repentance, but it is an acknowledgement we ought to note that when you’re looking at so many of the modern movements such as the modern ecological movement, you are looking at a repurposed moral outrage. You are looking at what is basically, if even openly denied, a theological movement.

You also have that last sentence in this paragraph, “The idea of a universal linear movement towards salvation is uniquely Judeo-Christian.” But notice here, Hugh Roberts is not saying, let’s return to that Judeo-Christian understanding. Let’s not return to a biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation. No, he saying, we can repurpose that basic, Judeo-Christian, Christian worldview, biblical concept of history as linear, a linear movement, he says we can repurpose even that Christian understanding of linear movement towards salvation, but apply it to modern ecology. Now, again, incredibly revealing. That’s exactly what has happened. The modern ecological movement has become an ersatz or substitute new religion for many who have abandoned Christianity. But despite themselves, they really can’t abandon religion.

So as we conclude on April the 22nd 2020, I am thankful that you don’t have to worry about seeing American rivers on fire. I am thankful that you do not see those black streaks behind either cars or buses or a jet aircraft in the sky. I’m thankful for that. But at the same time, I’m thankful for the automobile and I’m thankful for the jet aircraft and I’m thankful for the civilization that has produced them. I fully understand why people elsewhere in the world who don’t have, for example, things even more basic such as refrigeration, want them and need them and even rightly demand them.

But in conclusion, I want to remind us that one of the titans of evangelical Christianity in the United States, Francis Schaeffer, wrote a book published in 1970 entitled Pollution and the Death of Man, and he helped us to understand that very important balance. In chapter four of that book, he made a statement that resounds in my memory as setting the issues almost exactly right. Schaeffer wrote, “If God treats the tree like a tree, the machine like a machine, the man like a man, shouldn’t I, as a fellow-creature, do the same? Treating each thing in integrity in its own order? And for the highest reason because I love God, I love the one who has made it. Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the things he has made.” I have to admit, I just love that line, “Loving the Lover who has made it, I have respect for the thing he has made.”

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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