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The religious significance of America’s national parks

Early advocates of the national park system often offered faith-based arguments in favor of preservation

The sun sets as a rainstorm blows over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
The sun sets as a rainstorm blows over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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Each time I visit a national park, I’m newly delighted by their very existence. It’s remarkable to me that policymakers were once so besotted by America’s natural beauty that they took steps to ensure vulnerable wonders like Utah’s Delicate Arch would be around for generations to come.

After being struck by this thought again last week during a family trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, I did some research into the factors that made this preservation possible. I was surprised — although I probably shouldn’t have been — that religion played a notable role.

To be clear, not all those who fought for the creation of national parks saw their work as spiritually significant. But many did, which is why early arguments in favor of land preservation were often made in religious terms.

Advocates for the establishment of the National Park Service would say things like, “We have to protect the Grand Canyon. The Creator only made one,” Mark Stoll, a professor of environmental history, told me in 2017.

John Muir, a famous author and naturalist who is often referred to as the “father of the national parks,” included the importance of providing space to pray in his list of reasons why the government should protect America’s most beautiful places, according to National Catholic Reporter.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike,” he wrote in his book, “Yosemite.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who agrees with Muir’s words. One of the things I love about visiting national parks is how the time in nature, often without cell service, prompts me to reflect on big questions related to faith, spirituality and God.

A few years ago, I spent a weekend in Bryce Canyon National Park reporting on a religious organization called A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. It sends people to national parks across the country to lead worship services and Bible studies for workers and guests.

The men and women I spoke with as I worked on that story helped me recognize that past champions of the national park system were giving the rest of us a spiritual gift. As I drove through the Rocky Mountains last week with my family, the phrase, “Thank you,” kept popping into my mind.


Fresh off the press


Term of the week: Senate parliamentarian

As I’ve noted in my past coverage of proposed federal LGBTQ rights legislation, it’s not easy to get a bill through the Senate these days. In order to overcome a potential filibuster, policies need the support of at least 60 senators, and neither party has more than 50 senators to call its own right now.

One way the Democratic Party tries to circumvent this roadblock is by tucking otherwise controversial policy proposals into pieces of legislation that aren’t vulnerable to filibusters, including the budget reconciliation package. These policy proposals can sometimes make it through the Senate even after a 50-50 tie, since Vice President Kamala Harris has the power to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of the Democrats.

However, there are limits on what types of proposals can pass through this policymaking shortcut, and a person called the Senate parliamentarian is an expert on what those are. Just this weekend, the parliamentarian, who is an unelected, nonpartisan referee overseeing Senate business, determined that Democrats cannot include immigration reform measures within its budget plan. “The parliamentarian’s rulings can be ignored by lawmakers,” though they rarely are, USA Today noted.


What I’m reading ...

Amid a heartbreaking and confusing pandemic, congregations are clashing over what it means to live by faith rather than fear. Some Christians refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks because they want to put their trust in God to keep them safe, while others describe these same precautions as an act of love, not fear, according to Lifeway Research. These tensions further complicate the already messy process of putting safety measures in place for in-person worship services, the article notes.

Jewish rabbis are among the religious leaders pushing back against Texas’ restrictive abortion policies. Some have described efforts to ban abortion procedures as a violation of religious freedom, since Jewish law “not only allows for abortion ... but in some cases requires it,” The Christian Century reports.

The Washington Post recently took a look at a start-up incubator serving Catholic entrepreneurs.


Odds and ends

To learn more about the link between religion and environmentalism, check out “Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism” by Mark Stoll and “Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism” by Evan Berry.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the new movie “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which is about infamous evangelical leader Tammy Faye Bakker and the televangelism empire she created with her husband, Jim.