On January 30, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published as an op-ed the text of a speech by liberal commentator Bill Moyers. Moyers delivered the speech upon the occasion of his receiving an environmental award from a group at Harvard Medical School. Like pretty much everything Moyers writes, the article was an attack on the Bush administration. Specifically, he alleged that the Bush administration’s policies, as they relate to the environment, are “based on theology” and therefore “delusional.” Moyers’ theme was that the Bush administration, and Republicans in general, don’t care about the environment because they are crackpot Christians who believe that the world is about to come to an end. That being the case, why worry about future generations?
So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist Glenn Scherer — “The Road to Environmental Apocalypse.” Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed — even hastened — as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
As Grist makes clear, we’re not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election — 231 legislators in total and more since the election — are backed by the religious right.
In support of his startling claim that the religious right is deliberately trying to despoil the environment, Moyers offered three bits of “evidence.” One was the popularity of the “Left Behind” novels, which use the second coming of Jesus as a plot device. But Moyers offered not a shred of support for the proposition–dubious on its face–that these works of fiction have somehow influenced the Bush administration’s environmental policies.
The second bit of “evidence” offered by Moyers was, in a sense, even odder. He harkened back to the early 1980s, when James Watt was President Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior. Moyers painted Watt as a harbinger — sort of a John the Baptist, since we’re talking theology — of the “let’s destroy the environment” movement. Here is what Moyers said about Watt:
Remember James Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever-engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”
Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn’t know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious.
I read Moyers’ piece after several readers pointed out to us how over-the-top it was. I knew that Moyers’ claims about Watt couldn’t possibly be true, for two reasons. First, the concept of stewardship is so fundamental to Christian theology that the claim is laughable on its face. Second, I remember the Reagan administration. James Watt was a controversial figure; but one thing he was not controversial for was advocating environmental pillaging, on the theory that Jesus would be back any day now. That would have been quite a news story in the early 1980s, had it been true.
I did some quick Google searches without finding anything noteworthy; in particular, I couldn’t find Mr. Watt’s Congressional testimony online. I put the matter aside, not having time to pursue it further.
Friday morning, I was sitting in my office when my telephone rang. On the phone was a soft-spoken man who said, “I’m calling for Mr. John Hinderaker.”
“Speaking,” I responded, in the brusque tone I use when fielding cold calls.
The man said, “My name is James Watt.”
Mr. Watt is retired now, and has been out of public life for many years. He is a kindly gentleman who, with the aid of his grandson, enjoys surfing the web and keeping up on the news of the day. And he is understandably unhappy about being casually defamed by Bill Moyers.
Mr. Watt explained that the quote attributed to him by Moyers is fraudulent. As another blogger has written, and as Moyers’ favorite source, Grist, has now admitted in a correction, it originated in a book published in 1990 by one Austin Miles, an anti-religious tract titled Setting Free the Captives. Miles’ book does not, however, claim that Mr. Watt made the statement in question in testimony before Congress; that little embellishment was added by Grist, and repeated by Moyers with no effort on his part to check its veracity.
But the real issue here is not the quote, but what Moyers says about its context. Moyers claims that as Secretary of the Interior, James Watt “told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.” Moyers’ claim is false. Mr. Watt forwarded to me the transcript of his testimony before the House Interior Committee in February 1981, the only time he can recall the Second Coming ever arising in such a setting. In fact, the philosophy of environmental protection that Watt espoused in his testimony was the precise opposite of what Moyers and his friends at Grist claimed:
Mr. Weaver [D. Ore.]: Do you want to see on lands under your management, the sustained yield policies continued?
Secretary Watt: Absolutely.
Mr. Weaver: I am very pleased to hear that. Then I will make one final statement… I believe very strongly that we should not, for example, use up all the oil that took nature a billion years to make in one century.
We ought to leave a few drops of it for our children, their children. They are going to need it… I wonder if you agree, also, in the general statement that we should leave some of our resources–I am now talking about scenic areas or preservation, but scenic resources for our children? Not just gobble them up all at once?
Secretary Watt: Absolutely. That is the delicate balance the Secretary of the Interior must have, to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.
I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.
Mr. Weaver: Mr. Chairman, I want to conclude, if I might, seeing the Secretary brought up the Lord, with a story.
The Chairman: The conversation will be in order.
Mr. Weaver: In my district, Mr. Chairman, there are some who do not like wilderness. They do not like it at all. I would try to plead with them. I go around my district and say do you not believe–I would plead with their religious sensibilities–that we should leave some of our land the way we received it from the Creator?
I have said this frequently throughout my district. I got a letter from a constituent… He said, “Mr. Weaver, if the Lord wanted to leave his forest lands, some of them in the way that we got them from Him,” he said, “why did He send His only Son down to earth as a carpenter?”
Mr. Weaver: That stumped us. That stumped us until one of my aides, an absolute genius, said that the Lord Jesus before He determined His true mission spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.
So Secretary Watt made exactly the opposite point from that asserted by Bill Moyers: “we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” It is worth noting, too, the tone of Mr. Watt’s Biblical reference–not fire-breathing or apocalyptic, as suggested by Moyers, but rather part of a friendly, even jocular exchange with members of the Interior Committee.
Mr. Watt’s Congressional testimony is consistent with the approach toward environmental policy that he followed throughout his career. In a letter to President Reagan written in October 1983, Watt said:
Because we have cared and exercised stewardship, the parks, refuges, forests, coastal barriers, wetlands and deserts are being better managed. This is also true for the wildlife living on these lands.
[B]ecause of our commitment to good conservation practices, we have set a remarkable record of increasing protection for the fragile and ecologically important conservation lands of the Nation…. In 1983 alone, we have, through trade, donations and purchase, added more park and wildlife land to the federal estate than any previous Administration added in a single year since Alaska was purchased in 1867.
Our stewardship commitment extends to preserving for future generations those historic sites and structures that pay tribute to America’s past and the principles upon which our Nation was founded.
Because of our concern for and commitment to stewardship, we have accelerated the efforts to bring about the recovery of …endangered plants and animals. By the end of this year, we will have approved or reviewed nearly three times as many recovery plans as were developed in the four-year period 1977 to 1980.
There’s lots more, but you get the drift. For Bill Moyers, Grist, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune to allege that James Watt, as Secretary of the Interior, argued that “protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ” is an outrageous libel.
It’s revealing, too, to trace the course of the libel over time. The Star Tribune relied on Bill Moyers, and printed a charge by him that, had the editors thought about the matter, they should have realized was ridiculous on its face. Moyers relied on his “favorite online environmental journal,” Grist, which in turn relied on (and apparently embellished) a book by Austin Miles, a former circus ringmaster who became disillusioned with Christianity after an encounter with James Bakker. At no stage did any of these worthies think it necessary to do some fact-checking before besmirching the reputation of a former cabinet officer.
James Watt wasn’t the only person whose words were twisted by Moyers. In addition to Mr. Watt and the “Left Behind” novels, Moyers brought forward as a third item of evidence for his thesis a quote from former Democratic Senator Zell Miller:
The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian coalition was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who recently quoted from the biblical book of Amos on the Senate floor: “The days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land.” He seemed to be relishing the thought.
And why not? There’s a constituency for it. A 2002 Time-CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the book of Revelations are going to come true…. Drive across the country with your radio tuned to the more than 1,600 Christian radio stations, or in the motel turn on some of the 250 Christian TV stations, and you can hear some of this end-time gospel. And you will come to understand why people under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected, as Grist puts it, “to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth, when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?
But the quote attributed to Senator Miller had nothing whatever to do with the environment. Here is the full quote, as recited by Senator Miller: “The days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the word of the Lord.” The subject of Miller’s speech was not environmental policy, but Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.
It would be possible, I suppose, for Bill Moyers to distort the truth and mischaracterize the words of others more baldly than he did in his Star Tribune op-ed, but it wouldn’t be easy. One can only wonder what made Moyers think he could get away with such blatant misrepresentations. No, wait. It isn’t hard to figure out after all. Moyers is just a year or two behind the times; he doesn’t know about the blogosphere. Throughout Moyers’ career, he was free to slander conservatives with impunity, knowing that there was no forum in thich their responses would ever be heard.
James Watt has written to Bill Moyers, asking him to apologize for the lies in his Star Tribune article. After quoting Moyers’ statements about him, Watt wrote:
I have never thought, believed or said such words. Nor have I ever said anything similar to that thought which could be interpreted by a reasonable person to mean anything similar to the quote attributed to me.
Because you are at least average in intelligence and have a basic understanding of Christian beliefs, you know that no Christian would believe what you attributed to me.
Because you have had the privilege of serving in the White House under President Johnson, you know that no person believing such a thing would be qualified for a Presidential appointment, nor would he be confirmed by the United States Senate, and if confirmed and said such a thing would he be allowed to continue in service.
Since you must have known such a statement would not have been made and you refused or failed to do any primary research on this supposed quote, what was your motive in printing such a damnable lie?
Before the advent of the blogosphere, Bill Moyers–arrogant, rich, powerful and well-connected–would merely have thrown Mr. Watt’s letter into the trash. Today, he may still do so. But he and his friends in the liberal media no longer have a monopoly on information, and those who have been defamed by them, like James Watt, now have the means to make their voices heard.
UPDATE: Coincidentally, the Washington Post repeated the old smear against James Watt yesterday morning, in an article about how some evangelicals are pro-environment:
One faction in the movement, called dispensationalism, argues that the return of Jesus and the end of the world are near, so it is pointless to fret about environmental degradation.
James G. Watt, President Ronald Reagan’s first interior secretary, famously made this argument before Congress in 1981, saying: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” The enduring appeal of End Time musings among evangelicals is reflected in the phenomenal success of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic potboilers, which have sold more than 60 million copies and are the best-selling novels in the country.
Sounds like the Post reporter, Blaine Harden, read Moyers’ speech and cribbed from it without doing any fact-checking. We’ve written the Post to request a correction.
UPDATE: As noted above, the Post ran a correction on Feb. 8.
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