On Dec. 1, Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment gave its “Global Environmental Citizen Award” to the longtime leftist journalist Bill Moyers.
Accepting the award from the actress Meryl Streep — she praised Moyers’s “resourceful, intrepid reportage,” and he praised her “special kind of courage” and declared himself “in the front row of [her] fan club” — Moyers devoted his speech to the dangers that Christian fundamentalists allegedly pose to the environment.
“Remember James Watt, President Reagan’s first secretary of the interior?” Moyers said. “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,” Moyers continued. “The press corps didn’t know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious.”
And so was Bill Moyers.
The only problem was, James Watt never said what Moyers — and the ever-engaging Grist — said he said.
Watt himself got in touch with the conservative website Powerline to set the record straight. But by then, the “last tree is felled” quote had slowly begun to spread.
• On Dec. 11, The Miami Herald reprinted a portion of Moyers’ speech, including the quote.
• On Dec. 19, an Indianapolis Star columnist quoted Watt’s phantom statement.
• On Jan. 7, a Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist quoted Watt.
Then a few more small papers published the quote.
Finally, on Feb. 6, last Sunday, The Washington Post published a front-page story titled “The Greening of Evangelicals: Christian Right Turns, Sometimes Warily, to Environmentalism.”
The article included this passage:
“Even for green activists within the evangelical movement, there are landmines. 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.’”
Two days later, the Post published a correction saying, “A Feb. 6 article quoted James G. Watt, interior secretary under President Ronald Reagan, as telling Congress in 1981: ‘After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.’ Although that statement has been widely attributed to Watt, there is no historical record that he made it.”
Even though the paper admitted error on the major point, one might still quibble with the correction.
The article had said that Watt had “famously” made the statement in question. But a search of the Nexis database finds that the first-ever reference to Watt’s “quote” came in that Dec. 11 Miami Herald excerpt of Moyers’s speech. Watt left office in 1983, meaning that the “famous” quote somehow escaped attention for 21 years.
The Post correction said the phrase had been “widely attributed” to Watt. But according to Nexis, it has been cited a total of 10 times since Dec. 11 — and two of those were in the Post’s original story and in its correction.
The article from which Moyers got the Watt quote was titled “The Godly Must Be Crazy” and was posted on Grist last October. Moyers called it a “remarkable work.” And indeed, it is.
Writer Glenn Scherer reported that a large number of legislators — 45 in the Senate and 186 in the House, to be exact — either “hold are or beholden to” end-time beliefs. That is, they either agree with or depend on the support of people who “believe we are living in the End Time, when the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.”
The same lawmakers, Scherer continued, “may also believe, along with millions of other Christian fundamentalists, that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed — even hastened — as a sign of the coming Apocalypse.”
To flesh out his argument, Scherer cited the alleged quote from Watt. And then he added, “Today’s Christian fundamentalist politicians are more politically savvy than Reagan’s interior secretary was; you’re unlikely to catch them overtly attributing public-policy decisions to private religious views.
“But their words and actions suggest that many share Watt’s beliefs. Like him, many Christian fundamentalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it has no future.”
Now, Grist says it is “aggressively looking into the accuracy” of the Watt quotation. But it’s already out there, having gone, apparently without checking, from Grist to Moyers to The Washington Post.
In his Harvard speech, Moyers warned his audience about people blinded by their ideology and religious beliefs. The combination, he said, can make one “oblivious to the facts.”
Well, at least he was right about something.