The Social-gospel Roots of Environmentalism

William A. Murray

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Pollution is filth, filth is a sin, and the United States had defiled its own temple for far too long — at least that's how Americans came to see the nation's environment after 1969. Little did they know that cleaning up the mess would have devastating effects on Americans' vitality, material well-being, and sense of place for generations to come.

Three years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson — in search of additional tax revenue to help fund the "guns and butter" programs that constituted his expansive domestic agenda and the war in Vietnam — had poked and prodded government officials into fast-tracking the approval of oil-drilling leases off the coast of California. Interior secretary Stewart Udall had gone so far as to reassure the state's coastal residents that the risk to the environment from offshore drilling was quite low.

By September 1968, Union Oil had placed Platform A on lease No. 241 of the Dos Cuadras Oil Field and proceeded to drill four wells underneath the Santa Barbara Channel. To save money on a fifth well, Union Oil asked the U.S. Geological Survey to waive several well-casing requirements that were designed to help prevent oil and gas from leaking into the surrounding geological formations. In keeping with the Johnson administration's wishes, U.S. Geological Survey regional supervisor Donald Solanas granted the waiver. Almost immediately, the "unexpected" occurred.

According to congressional testimony, Platform A blew out at 11:00 A.M. on January 28, 1969, spilling some 100,000 barrels of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. Workers struggled to cap the well; shutting it down would only have put pressure on its sides, causing new fault lines to crack open under the sea floor and send even more oil to the ocean surface.

For days afterward, the oil slick swelled but stayed offshore. Then a change in the winds pushed it onto the beaches 60 miles north of Los Angeles. By early February, families were flipping between television channels to get away from the awful images of the ongoing catastrophe, but to no avail: The spill was all over the news. Its effect on the national consciousness was transformative.


The images taking over Americans' television sets featured pelicans, red-throated loons, gulls, bluebill ducks, and cormorants, all frozen to death or drowned. Birds that tried to escape would take flight only to fall dying out of the sky as their small bodies shut down. Oil congealed in the blowholes of dolphins, filling them like caulk and causing their lungs to swell with blood. Dozens of sea otters rolled over and drowned, their doleful eyes, wet noses, and stiff-whiskered mouths blinded and plugged by black gunk. In the following weeks, more than a hundred elephant seals and sea lions would lift themselves onto the sands and rocks of the uninhabited Channel Islands to die, creating macabrely picturesque boneyards for years to come.

Newly confirmed Interior secretary Walter Hickel arrived at the scene on February 3 to survey the damage. President Richard Nixon, a native Californian who had taken the oath of office eight days before disaster hit, visited in March. He strolled the dirty beaches in leather dress shoes and a formal suit — the first of several times he would demonstrate his unusual sartorial sense at the beach. Nixon was shaken, saying later that the incident had "touched the conscience of the American people."

The spill galvanized the community. Shopkeepers, surfers, students, and families pitched in to clean up the beaches. People volunteered to rescue and clean tarred seabirds at street-side animal-rescue stations. One society matron drove oily birds to rescue shelters in her Mercedes Benz. Long-time Santa Barbara journalist Thomas Storke found the experience gratifying: "Never in my long lifetime have I ever seen such an aroused populace at the grassroots level....[I]t has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause."

The response to the spill was unlike that of any previous environmental calamity, in large part because the country had reached a tipping point. By the end of the 1960s, more than 40% of public-water systems across America couldn't meet minimal health standards. Weeklong smog events in metropolises were commonplace. Two separate smog episodes in New York City — one in January 1963 and another over Thanksgiving weekend in 1966 — killed at least 200 people each. Central Park soil samples showed lead levels well above hazardous limits, a result of more than 30 industrial garbage incinerators spewing particulate matter into the air that blanketed the five boroughs.

Then in June 1969, mere months after the oil spill, a train passing through Cleveland tossed off a spark that landed in a noxious mixture of industrial waste floating on the surface of the Cuyahoga River, setting it on fire. Smoke and flames spiraled five stories into the air, jumping from bank to bank before being extinguished near the mouth of the river on Lake Erie.

Today, the Great Lake river fire and the Pacific oil spill are considered the twin harbingers of the modern environmental movement. The vision of a river burning — the irreconcilable contradiction of fire on water, like something out of the Book of Revelation — explains much of the event's narrative power. Congressman Louis Stokes put it best on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when he asserted that the Cuyahoga would "live in infamy as the only river in the world to be proclaimed a fire hazard."

But the river had caught fire before — at least a dozen times. As Cleveland transformed into America's first oil-refining center during the mid-19th century, the city witnessed its first ever river fire in 1868 — at the mouth of the Cuyahoga. A similar conflagration started in 1912 and ended "with terrible results," killing five employees of the Great Lakes Towing Company. The men were caulking a barge when gasoline from a neighboring vessel leaked onto the river and ignited, causing an explosion.

Having endured a century of heavy industry by the 1960s, the lower Cuyahoga had been denuded of flora and fauna: There were no colorful birds or puppy-eyed otters to rescue. These earlier fires had thus come and gone without much public attention. In fact, Time magazine's iconic river-fire picture, published in its August 1, 1969 edition, was not a snapshot of that summer's fire; it was taken of another fire that had engulfed the Cuyahoga River in 1952.

The event's timing dovetailed with a mass-media culture at its peak to change Americans' perspective on the environment for good. Time's August 1 edition happened to be one of its most read ever. Newsworthy topics like the Apollo 11 astronauts' return from the moon and Senator Edward Kennedy's deadly midnight car accident on Chappaquiddick Island filled its pages. The front-page photo of Kennedy leaving the funeral of his victim and likely paramour, Mary Jo Kopechne, showed the senator's massive, leonine head resting atop a medical neck-collar under the banner headline "A Girl Dead, A Career in Jeopardy." Time sold tens of thousands of copies of the edition at news kiosks and supermarkets across the country.

A second reason for the attention was Carl Stokes. Stokes had been elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967, becoming the first black mayor of a major American city. Unlike his predecessors in office, who had tried to downplay the city's river fires, Stokes — along with his brother Louis, the congressman — reacted to the fire not with embarrassment or defensiveness, but anger and resolve, demanding federal action on pollution. Mayor Stokes held a press conference the day of the fire, followed by additional conferences for several days afterward. Congressman Stokes noted bitterly that the fire had done far more reputational harm to Cleveland than the $100,000 in damage it had wrought on the two train trestles.

The plutonian language of dread used in Time magazine's editorial represented both an accelerant and an inflection point in the culture, signaling that what had been an outsider attitude was becoming an establishment view. The editorial's tales of "vanished" fish, raw sewage that had "cascaded" from an "archaic sanitary storm system," and Lake Erie "dying by suffocation" conjured up not just a physical crisis, but an existential one.

Cultural shifts are not triggered by events, but by ideas. The public response to the dual environmental crises of 1969 signaled a major shift in moral attention away from race relations and toward ecological consciousness.

That shift was later confirmed through the use of "content analysis." Developed during the First World War to interpret German propaganda, the technique was refined by academics like Yale's Harold Lasswell to better understand public opinion through print media. By the Second World War, U.S. intelligence agencies were monitoring daily newspapers in Germany and Japan, counting key words and concepts that could be aggregated into measurements of economic and social duress in their respective countries. During the following decades, advertising firms would use content analysis to great effect as a measure of collective attention — much the way internet-service providers use data mining, "cookie" trackers, and algorithms today to measure public sentiment.

Around mid-century, all American newspapers operated under a business model that remained largely unchanged for decades, with a standard page-use ratio of 65% advertising to 35% news reporting. This ratio made a paper's "news hole" — the space remaining after paid-advertisement slots were filled — a closed system that could serve as a mechanical representation of societal priorities. The power of this news hole was magnified in the case of American magazines like Time and Newsweek, which often acted as weekly digests of news from daily newspapers around the country.

In his 1982 book Megatrends, author John Naisbitt applied content analysis to the nation's newspapers to track the transformation of American public opinion in the 1960s. "Societies, like individuals, can handle only so many concerns at one time," he explained. That decade, "as the column inches of environmental news increased, news about civil rights decreased, on a one-to-one, line-by-line basis." By 1973, the environment had become, for the first time, a more important preoccupation than civil rights.

The timing of this trend is key. By the 1970s, a transfer of allegiance in priorities had taken place — particularly among the young, the better educated, and the more secular members of the American populace. It was no coincidence that Henry Grunwald, Time magazine's managing editor, announced a new section dedicated to the environment via a "Letter from the Publisher" on August 1, 1969 — the day of the Cleveland fire coverage. The section promised to cover the near-weekly "warnings of impending ecological upsets within our planet's infinitely interdependent chain of life."

This wave of change in the conventional wisdom of cultural elites was not novel; it followed past patterns of social transformation in America. Politically accepted views, as defined by crusading moralistic social movements, have informed our intellectual and civic history from the arrival of religious dissidents at Plymouth Rock in 1620 through two Protestant "great awakenings" and the development of the Social Gospel in the late 1800s. Grunwald's decision to launch a section covering environmental news in 1969 was not random, nor was it made entirely by choice: Like most social change, the move toward environmental consciousness was shaped by the social pressures and expectations of American elites.

The main difference between this and other shifts in elite thinking was that in the 1960s, Americans were leaving behind their religious faith in ways never seen before in history, giving what remaining beliefs they held a secularized bent. Language used in previous awakenings was borrowed in secular documents like the Students for a Democratic Society's 1962 Port Huron Statement. The statement's co-author, socialist student activist Tom Hayden, argued that the left was starting to see itself as a "blessed community" — a "prophetic minority" that was becoming a people set apart. The transition effectively traded the transcendent faith of redemption in heaven for immanent moral authority on earth.

Given the importance of morality in building and governing a republic ruled by consent of the governed (especially one that maintains independence between church and state), the decline in mainline Protestant denominations starting in the 1960s was, according to religious historian Joseph Bottum, perhaps the most underappreciated "central historical fact of our time," one that "distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history."


The story of a post-Protestant shift from the pew to the social-justice barricades began nearly 100 years before the first Earth Day in 1970. It is a story tangled up with changes in American sociology that lie at the heart of the debate over Americans' quasi-religious status as what Lincoln called an "almost chosen people."

In his 2014 book An Anxious Age, Joseph Bottum showed how the current crop of social-justice and environmental warriors did not emerge from Marxist or European-leftist thought. Rather, they were the product of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century. Social Gospel theology, first influenced by the work of political economist Henry George, manifested in social movements like Jane Addams's settlement houses in Chicago and in politics by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. It would be taken to new heights through the works of New York City's Walter Rauschenbusch — one of America's least-well-known intellectual giants.

Today, Hell's Kitchen on Manhattan's West Side is an upscale, sophisticated part of the Big Apple, situated adjacent to Broadway theaters and just north of the opulent Hudson Yards. Little more than a century ago, however, the square-shaped neighborhood sandwiched between Sixth Avenue and the Hudson River represented poverty, danger, and suffering on a truly massive scale.

Wrapping one's head around the combination of filth and depravity that characterized Hell's Kitchen in Rauschenbusch's time is difficult for modern audiences. From the 1850s to at least the 1930s, the transient maritime workforce that labored on the neighborhood's piers provided human fuel for what pastor Adam Clayton Powell called "the most notorious red-light district" in the city. Organized street toughs with gang names like "the Gorillas," "the Parlor Mob," and "the Gophers" ran protection rackets throughout fetid, stacked, overpopulated immigrant tenements. And before the age of public health, block after block of Hell's Kitchen was a waking sanitary nightmare.

As the largest meatpacking district in New York City, the streets of the neighborhood were lined with hog slaughter yards, manure fields, glue factories, cow- and horse-gut-cleaning establishments, and fat-boiling outfits, creating a charnel house of enormous proportions. "Gutters running with blood and filth, and the constant passage of offal and dead animals" assaulted the senses, wrote Dr. James Little in an 1865 report on the city's sanitary conditions. Offal, the oft-spoiled organ meat of hooved mammals, would mix with the blood, urine, and mucus of thousands of additional beasts as it flowed westward down the numbered streets for blocks until reaching the Hudson River. As a wretched byproduct of these sordid conditions, the streets teemed with thousands of homeless, malnourished, sickly, and vulnerable children — many dying of starvation.

"Cases of fever are constantly occurring in this neighborhood," Dr. Little wrote to the Citizens' Association of New York, "and cholera infantum and dysentery are by no means strangers to this vicinity." To make matters worse, the thousands of dairy cows that supplied Hell's Kitchen residents with milk were being fed hot whiskey mash — a cheap alternative feed that lacked the nutrients necessary for healthy cows. Over time, malnutrition instilled by this flawed feed would create festering sores on cows' skin and cause their tails to swell until they had to be amputated. Still, the cows would get milked, their blister-covered udders squeezing out a bluish, dingy-looking potion called "swill milk" that dairymen would then mix with additives to make look and smell potable.

Children were poisoned by the multitudes in the mid-1800s from this "swill milk." Up to 8,000 children died each year in New York City — an astonishing figure. With no modern food-safety laws and few legal consequences for vendors, families risked killing their children to save a few cents on food.

When viewed in this light, Marxist and socialist criticism of industrial-era capitalism becomes more understandable. To live in a world so cruel that naked profiteering and callous apathy toward abandoned children become commonplace would harden the heart of any man or woman, Christian or non-believer, living amid such misery. It was into this dark world that Rauschenbusch entered in 1886, a 24-year-old newly appointed minister of the Second German Baptist Church on West 45th Street near Ninth Avenue, where he preached to about 125 working-class German immigrant families in their native tongue.

To Rauschenbusch, who had grown up cocooned within the educated, middle-class environs of Rochester and the educational gymnasiums of Germany, the conditions in Hell's Kitchen came as more than a shock: The toxic mix of moral degeneracy, environmental degradation, and industrial destitution was so powerful, it likely induced in him something close to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Deaths from malnutrition and other childhood tragedies took their toll on the young minister. After officiating countless funerals for parishioner children, Rauschenbusch wrote to a cousin: "The world is hard and without feeling. Here I see so much of this that my heart bleeds for the victims." He went on to lament, "the children's funerals! They gripped my heart — that is one of the things I went away thinking about — why did the children have to die?"

Rauschenbusch eventually developed serious hearing problems — an ailment often caused by personal stress — and after just five years of ministering in Hell's Kitchen, took a sabbatical in Germany. There he began developing his life's work: a version of Christianity informed by German idealism, Hegelian historicism, and Social Darwinism — the voguish theory among social elites of the time.

Rauschenbusch soon became an important theorist in the burgeoning belief that sin could be transmitted "along the lines of a social tradition," building up collectively from generation to generation and creating "super-personal forces of evil" that belonged to the "Kingdom of Evil." Sin in this understanding was linked not to individual action, but to group behavior.

Returning to the United States in 1892 with his intellectual beliefs codified, Rauschenbusch joined leading religious thinkers, including Leighton Williams and Samuel Zane Batten, to start a new organization called the Brotherhood of the Kingdom. The group aggressively promoted the Social Gospel, using as its touchstone Matthew 6:10: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven."

The most important Social Gospel practice revolved around the idea that salvation could only take place by redeeming the social order. This effort was open-ended and without completion — a permanent crusade to be fought against the collective sins of bigotry, ignorance, power, corruption, militarism, and above all, oppression of the poor, until Christ's Second Coming.

The redemption of the social order was a key element of the brotherhood's eschatology of post-millennialism — the idea that humankind must be perfected before Jesus chooses to return to earth. The belief in this particular version of the End Times, though present in previous generations of American religious tradition, was supercharged by the Social Gospel's collectivized notion of sin. It was not enough for a sinner to be saved through individual atonement; groups had to atone for human sin — and must be seen atoning.

The belief had many notable critics, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who, while acknowledging his debt to Rauschenbusch, expressed concern that the latter had come "perilously close to identifying the Kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system." Undermining the primacy of Christian concepts like personal redemption and forgiveness also borders on deterministic, ends-justify-means theology, and undermines the New Testament's goal of leaving behind tribal notions of collective guilt. Yet for Rauschenbusch, eliminating sin by the group, or even by the nation, was the only way to bring about a Kingdom of God on earth, leading to Jesus' incarnate and spiritual return to his worshippers.

This change in dogma was of great consequence. Salvation was now only achievable on a group scale; it was also a generations-long endeavor opening up the possibility of permanent social and cultural conflict. Sociologist Will Herberg wrote in the mid-1950s how this secularizing trend was replacing traditional faith with "a kind of secularized Puritanism," one "without transcendence, without a sense of sin or judgement." In 1952, political philosopher Eric Voegelin coined the phrase "immanentize the eschaton" to explain the motivation of such utopian beliefs. By the 1960s, conservative commentators like William F. Buckley, Jr., had made the term a pejorative shorthand for naïve left-wing attempts to improve the human condition that merely ended up making a hash of things.

Despite attempts to belittle Rauschenbusch's idealism, his influence on 20th-century social movements remains enormous. The trend away from personal salvation allowed for a secularization of faith, leaving a vacuum to be filled by religious-like forces — namely moral politics untethered to religious doctrine. For progressives, this force is often embodied by the state.


The Social Gospel movement rolled like a freight train through the first two decades of the 20th century, becoming a key driver of the progressive era. The movement's activist army, fueled by the desire to usher in God's Kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven," joined a general upswelling of political action that fought to grant women the right to vote, adopt food-safety standards, and end sweatshops and child labor.

To their credit, Social Gospel activists battled political corruption in city halls and sought to improve life in the squalid slums out of which so much misery and social pathology had grown. But the transition of political influence from the church pews to the felt seats of federal and state legislatures also led to perhaps the greatest single social-movement failure in American history.

The desire to "redeem" others in the name of a better society — a psychological need for many — periodically shows itself in both its best and worst lights in many parts of American culture. It's not a stretch to see the battle for control over policies like masks, climate change, and gender-based bathrooms as driven by the same basic desire to change the behavior of the larger society. This crusading spirit of the times operates best in the American context when it works to expand freedom and enlarge the public's understanding of its own rights under the Constitution. But it can do great damage when the desires of a narrow, highly motivated group work to constrain freedoms through new laws or social taboos — as was the case with Prohibition.

The Social Gospel was instrumental in the temperance movement that led to the nationwide ban on alcohol sales in 1919. Historian Paul Carter speculated that Prohibition was not just a "surrogate for the Social Gospel," but an inalienable part of it, as many of the leading lights of the movement — from Rauschenbusch to Addams to Bryan — all supported it.

Explanations vary greatly as to both the causes and effects of Prohibition. The movement gained ground slowly for decades after the Civil War before reaching its climax with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in January 1919. The axe-wielding, six-foot-tall avenging grandmother Carry Nation's attack on Kansas saloons certainly gripped the country's attention during the first decade of the 1900s, but Prohibition found its final champion in the Anti-Saloon League, which developed a political apparatus that perfected the system of single-issue lobbying that is now a commonplace in state capitals and in Washington, D.C.

Anti-Saloon organizers Wayne Wheeler and William Johnson were the first to use the power of mass media to exert pressure on politicians. The pair flooded telegraph lines to Congress with prohibitionist messages, convincing elected leaders that the issue had greater salience among the American public than it actually did. In reality, the issue was important only to certain evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations that were heavily engaged in American politics. This voting block overlapped with portions of the small-town electorate that dominated the Midwest, whose political and social status were most at risk from rising urban electorates.

With its increased focus on electoral politics, Prohibition became a symbolic crusade for political dominance by the small-town and rural, Protestant, middle-class "drys" over the urban and immigrant "wets." For the latter — including millions of recently arrived Catholic and Jewish immigrants — alcohol was an important cultural totem, often used in religious sacraments and rituals as well as at family gatherings. "Whether the ban was on wine (for the Italians and Jews), beer (for the Germans and Central Europeans), or whiskey (for the Irish)," it represented an "unexpected pothole in the golden pavement" of the American immigrant road, wrote historian Samuel McCracken.

The urban-focused xenophobia of the movement led to its quick fall from grace in only 13 years as the growing demographics of wets began to overwhelm dry arguments. The mounting examples of lawlessness created by the policy didn't help matters: Illicit alcohol use became so routine that, during a visit to New York City in the fall of 1929, Berlin mayor Gustav Boess of Berlin asked his host, New York mayor James Walker, when the Prohibition law was going to take effect.

Finally, a new Democratic Party coalition of Southerners and Northern urban immigrants united around the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, who supported the amendment's repeal. Roosevelt's election and Democrats' concurrent landslide win in Congress ushered in the most durable political majority in U.S. history — an outcome that would have been less likely without Prohibition's failed attempt at social engineering. The most consequential political lesson of the era for social engineers in Washington would be the following: Future influence on private behavior by the federal government must be made through the administrative state, not through amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Americans now look back on Prohibition and see the enormous unintended consequences borne of what could be argued were good intentions. But representative democracies do not, as a rule, reward elected officials for good intentions. Moral authority and political capital are earned in a democracy through successful political outcomes — and Prohibition was nothing if not an unsuccessful outcome.

By allowing status anxiety and cultural superiority to alienate them from their fellow citizens, the organizers of Prohibition are now remembered, if at all, in infamy. The passage of laws so widely broken became a transgression against society itself. "The same God that laughs at the folly of Prohibition" also wanted people to keep trying to improve America, said theologian Martin Marty in a 2011 PBS documentary. "But without so much pride, arrogance, and self-assurance as the Prohibitionists had."


Standing a bit off-kilter with an unartful look on his face, a 15-foot statue of Joe Magarac stares out over Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the lower Monongahela River Valley. Originally displayed in front of an amusement-park ride, the statue was nearly melted down before being rescued and repurposed.

Joe now greets shift workers in front of the Edgar Thomson Works — one of the few remaining steel mills operating in western Pennsylvania. The statue is caught in mid-act, with Magarac using his two hands to bend a steel bar above his head. But his countenance is gentle — a combination of pensiveness, authority, and simple confusion. His orange work pants are faded; his hairless chest carries proudly a medallion emblazoned with the letters "USS" to show his allegiance to U.S. Steel.

Magarac was the Paul Bunyan of the steel industry, a mythical figure with roots in the oral tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose migrants crossed the Atlantic to staff the mills throughout the Valley of Steel as America's industrial economy exploded after the Civil War. Among the great traits attributed to Magarac — which means "donkey" in Croatian — were a generous spirit, selflessness, courage, and an immense work ethic. It was said he could do the work of 29 normal men, never slept, and would appear out of nowhere to stop falling cranes from crushing steelworkers to death. Thankfully for steel-mill owners, he was a company man — he never went on strike.

Magarac's mythical nature meant he could not be injured, which was good for everyone. With human lungs, he would have suffered a chronic respiratory disease in short order.

The air that hovered over western Pennsylvania during Magarac's heyday was nothing short of deadly. The most penetrating insight on Pittsburgh's pollution came from writer James Parton in 1868 — the same year Cleveland's Cuyahoga River was first set ablaze. He observed that, when looking over the bluff into downtown Pittsburgh, "the entire space lying between the hills was filled with the blackest smoke, from out of which the hidden chimneys sent forth tongues of flame, while from the depths of the abyss came up the noise of hundreds of steam-hammers." Parton equated the experience to that of "looking over into...hell with the lid taken off."

As bad as Pittsburgh's pollution was, it was even worse upriver. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children worked, played, and raised families in the string of river towns to the west and south of the city. In the absence of strong environmental laws, the enormous industrial plants — the Edgar Thomson Works, the Homestead Works, the Carrie Furnace at Rankin and Braddock, and the Duquesne, Irvin, and National Tube works at McKeesport — all emitted thousands of pounds of sulfur, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter every day for decades. The same was true even farther upriver at Donora, where a five-day weather inversion caused the worst single air-pollution disaster in U.S. history, killing more than 20 people in 1948 before heavy rainfall likely spared dozens of lives.

In some ways, the Donora disaster started sliding the lid back over hell. The broader American populace was coming to a better understanding of the health science behind pollution, while the voting public was becoming conscious of the negative consequences of industrial emissions. It was a long time coming.

The Donora tragedy would not be the last by any means, but it was the first to launch an enduring conversation about chronic exposure to pollution. By the 1970s — in the wake of the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Great Lake river fire — the conversation would lead to the comprehensive environmental legislation that Americans badly needed.

Yet amid the smoke and dust, something more consequential was happening in Donora, and in several thousand other industrial towns and suburbs across the country. Communities were being built — usually through churches. Men labored 12 hours a day with one day off a week. Women with children worked longer hours, with no days off, for a lifetime. They built houses and turned them into homes. Row houses by the mile, with two to four stories of narrow interiors and basements that could house many tenants at a time, were constructed with sandy foundations and low-sloped, parapet roofs.

Later on, individual homes were built in the cottage style for growing families. These families were quite large, typically with five or more surviving children per couple. Cottage-style houses were tall and narrow, with double-hung windows. They often had a half-basement and were finished with either clapboard siding or a greyish-brown brick exterior.

There were few modern conveniences in these towns at first. But as electricity became more common, so did indoor plumbing. Expanded schooling — the earliest and most significant policy of the progressive movement — offered English literacy to nearly all adults by the 1940s. And the inescapable success of the labor movement through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 brought wage fairness and relative social peace to unionized industries.

By the Second World War, middle-class incomes had moved down the skill ladder to include auto workers, smelters, aluminum workers, dock and glass workers, and, later on, hospital staff and food and retail personnel. By mid-century, cultural integration into the American mainstream took place. Lower Monongahela communities felt a pride of place coming from the knowledge that their hands and backs had built the ships and tanks that defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and forged the steel that erected the Empire State Building.

The benefits of the new environmental laws can be seen in the data; the harms became evident more slowly. Pollution in the Monongahela Valley — and nearly everywhere else — fell dramatically. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1980 and 2005, lead levels in the air fell 98% nationwide, sulfur dioxide fell 94%, carbon monoxide fell 88%, and ozone fell 29%.

What was not so easily seen in the environmental data was the slow, steady erosion of working-class communities everywhere. This reality caught up to cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland in the 1970s and 1980s as federal air-quality permits began to force plants to shut down in urban areas and move to cheaper rural areas or overseas.

The American immigrant upward-mobility machine, so effective for so long, couldn't be sustained in the face of the environmental regulation required to reverse the damage from industrial pollution. The problem of what to do with the economy's "makers" — the miners, carpenters, lumbermen, masons, shipbuilders, teamsters, machinists, printers, and boilermakers — was never genuinely addressed by political leaders.

In outward appearance, the streets and avenues in the industrial towns didn't change; the row houses and cottages, with their clapboard siding and parapet roofs, looked the same from the outside. But property values in those towns began to decline and then stagnate in the 1970s, and those living inside the dwellings simply moldered, either on unemployment checks, retirement, or lower-wage jobs. Many younger people abandoned the towns. For those without resources or family safety nets to support them, poverty and welfare checks awaited.

Other countries faced with similar tensions did not succumb to the same capitulation: Cleaner air and water did not diminish the industrial vitality of nations like South Korea or Germany. Only in America, with its unlucky combination of Social Gospel moralism, labor-union corruption, and anti-labor corporate culture did the breakdown occur. To truly understand what happened to the American working class is to pass the test described by writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (probably influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) in 1936: The truest sign of intelligence is "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

In coming generations, a cleaner, physically healthier country would take note of a disastrous degradation in working-class Americans' health and sense of purpose. Unlike Prohibition, which only directly affected the fifth-largest industry in the country, 1970s environmental regulation mandated air- and water-pollution restrictions so stringent that a permanent decline in roughly a quarter of the U.S. economy took place.

After decades of positive trends in environmental cleanup, the low-hanging fruit has been picked. An inability to appreciate the second- and third-order effects of such policies over the long term has done more damage to parts of America than might a terrible war.


In terms of judging policy outcomes, the public-accommodations, employment, and fair-housing sections of the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights acts were more successful at enfranchising black Americans than even their supporters had expected. Collectively, Great Society legislation also dramatically lowered the threat of extreme poverty and starvation among children — one of the chief inspirations of the Social Gospel.

Enforcement of civil-rights laws, combined with the Great Society's economic redistribution programs, answered in material terms the call made by Rauschenbusch in the 1880s as he prayed for the souls of dead children being lowered into the ground at cemeteries around Manhattan. But ending physical hunger in children is easier than ending spiritual hunger in adults.

As political scientist Ronald Inglehart, working off earlier insights from psychologist Abraham Maslow, explained, post-war affluence freed the West's young adults — for the first time in human history — from the burden of focusing one's life on economic security. "In the decades following World War II," wrote Inglehart in his 2018 book Cultural Evolution, "something unprecedented occurred in economically advanced countries: much of the postwar generation grew up taking survival for granted...bringing a shift from Materialist to Postmaterialist values."

This exceptional prosperity, created by the very fossil fuels that progressives would come to despise, allowed the American youth of the mid-1960s to prioritize self-expression, cultural autonomy, and self-actualization in ways that were unimaginable to previous generations. These "poster children" would have an immediate impact on American politics. As political scientist George McKenna, summarizing the insights of Kevin Phillips, wrote of the 1968 presidential election:

[T]he leadership of the Democratic Party had been taken over by patronizing do-gooders, affluent liberals no less hostile to the working class than were their conservative counterparts a generation earlier, only more disposed to hide their hostility behind a façade of social radicalism.

This shift, while subtle, can be seen in the swing of attention in newspaper coverage during this time. A parallel movement by federal appellate courts during the 1960s would extend the legal logic of civil rights to environmental rights. This helped create a cadre of men and women with graduate degrees who could satisfy their spiritual hunger while maintaining their status of social emancipators.

Having pocketed the moral-authority gains of the civil-rights movement but with no future role to play, post-Protestants began to slowly undermine the underlying purpose of that movement over the next half-century through environmental overregulation. By fetishizing and sanctifying environmental law as a means of economic and social control, the movement has not only perpetuated, but deepened divisions along educational, class, and racial lines. In this way, "the sixties [have] lived on, long past their time on the calendar," wrote McKenna in The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. And America is still under judgment.

William A. Murray is a principal with Windy Oak Group and a former senior speechwriter at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


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