Smokey and the Sacred: Nature Religion,

Civil Religion, and American Paganism

Chas S. Clifton

Colorado State University-Pueblo

ABSTRACT:  In a land without surviving ancient Pagan practices and sites comparable to those in Europe, the "civil religion of nature" became a key element of the American Pagan movement. Pressed to account for themselves, American Pagans in the 1970s began to use the terms "nature religion" or "earth religion" to describe their practices. That they were able to do so, without challenge, is a tribute to the embededness of "nature religion" in the American psyche. In fact, nature religion may be viewed as an unacknowledged form of American civil religion, reinforced by government action and having as one of its central figures Smokey Bear, the cartoon mascot of the federal Forest Service.

            I invoke Smokey Bear in the title of this paper because he is the most successful iconic figure of public-lands management and, by extension, the voice of nature, in the United States. [1] Historians of religion should appreciate the fact that in Smokey"s case, myth definitely preceded ritual; that is to say, the mythic bear was created about five years before the incarnated bear, who suffered on a tree, saw what for a bear must have been a vision of hell, and later, metaphorically, "ascended" into an anthropomorphized heaven which, sadly, was only a zoo exhibit with its own ZIP (postal) code. For more than fifty years, Americans using national forest land have been conditioned to ask themselves, in other words, "What would Smokey do?"

            As mythic bear, Smokey was born during World War Two, when the Japanese sent balloons carying incendiary bombs over the forests of the western United States and Canada. Drawn by a commercial artist at government requiest, Smokey"s first incarnation was as a poster-bear to warn the public to watch for these fires set by enemy action. [2] As incarnated bear, however, he was a black bear cub found clinging to a scorched pine tree in 1950 after a forest fire on the Lincoln National Forest in southeastern New Mexico. Treated by a Santa Fe, New Mexico, veterinarian for his burns, he was eventually sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he remained until his death in 1976. During and after his life, the Forest Service"s largr anti-forest fire campaign employed Smokey as its chief symbol. His image appeared on posters, in propaganda comic books, on pins, T-shirts, and badges; and posthumously he acquired his own Web site. He remains a highly recognized symbol of forest preservation, and his distinctive hat (similar to the original Canadian Mounty"s hat), which had been known a century ago as the "Montana pinch" style, is now more frequently called in American slang a "Smokey Bear hat." [3]                                 

            Smokey also played a small role in American Buddhism, when the Beat Buddhist poet Gary Snyder invoked him as a bodhisattva in his "Smokey the Bear Sutra" during the late 1960s:

Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the True Path of beings on earth—all true paths lead through mountains.

            I offer Smokey as a government-sanctioned avatar, not so much a "spirit of wilderness" like the Green Man or Sasquatch (Bigfoot), but one imposed from above, a distinction that will become important later. Because of his wide recognition, Smokey Bear can stand for the institutionalization of "nature religion" and its quiet rise to become an alternative form of "civil religion." When we examine these two terms, we can see how several spiritual and intellectual currents flowed together, producing an environment that by the 1960s would be fertile and receptive to a new import, Wicca, the most widespread form of contemporary Paganism.

Nature Religion

            In her pioneering book of 1990, Nature Religion in America, Catherine Albanese defined nature religion as her own name for "a symbolic center and the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values that encircles it." [4] It represented a turning away from monotheism, she wrote, but was not a "cosmic" opposite to the Judeo-Christian religions of history." [5] She emphasized in her definition, however, that in her book, "nature religion" was a scholarly construction, a way of talking about a variety of topics, "a contemporary social construction of past and present American religion."

            Following on Roderick Nash"s earlier study, Wilderness and the American Mind, [6] Albanese divided Anglo-Americans" religious attitudes towards non-human nature into three temporal categories. The first was the Puritan position exemplified by the writings of the Boston clergyman Cotton Mather (1663-1728): the American wilderness belonged to Satan, the natives were his unwitting slaves, and both had to be conquered and tamed. To these settlers, the (inhabited) wilderness which they confronted had no moral value; yet, paradoxically, their reading of the Bible had also given them the idea that, under some circumstances, they might go into the wilderness for purification and to become closer to their god. Nevertheless, their more common view was that wilderness had to be "reclaimed" by being civilized, even as the human soul had to be reclaimed and saved. [7]

            The second religious view of nature was "Deist" (Nash) or "republican" (Albanese). It reflected both the rise of Enlightenment science and the desire of citizens of this new nation, the United States of America, to find new objects of national pride. Americans knew that they were pitifully short on cathedrals, castles, and ruined temples compared with Europe; consequently, they dismissed those works as signs of superstition and despotism and exulted instead the New World"s rivers, mountains, and forests. The writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) contrasted "towers in which feudal oppression has fortified itself" with "deep forests which the eye of God has alone pervaded." [8] Since America had more deep forests than Europe, it was therefore more godly, more moral. Albanese speaks of an American playwright, Royall Tyler, who contrasted English "luxury" with "roughhewn . . . revolutionary innocence and simplicity." [9] And Thomas Jefferson more than once described a particular panoramic vista as "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." [10]

            "Republican nature" was Deistic in that it revealed the workings of God"s universe, whether in the heavenly bodies or the geologic strata of the mountains, which were longer obstacles to civilization but possibly "the handiwork of God if not his very image." [11] Associated with the upper classes (Jefferson, for example, owned much of the landscape about which he enthusiastically wrote), "republican nature" also reinforced an ethic of conquest, as Albanese pointed out. In order for American nature to be grander than the Old World version, it was necessary to acquire more of it.

            Inextricably mixed with these Deistic and expansionist ideas were the new favored aesthetic categories of the Romantic outlook developing during the late eighteenth century: the "sublime", the "picturesque", and the "primitive." Now such figures of the past as the witch, the Wild Man, and the Druid appear in literature as the embodiment of such values. For instance, the poet Philip Freneau, in a work titled "The Philosopher of the Forest", published in 1781, described how the tall trees of the Hudson Valley made him feel "Half Druid" and impelled to adore them. [12] Around 1815, a short-lived society in Newburgh, New York, that celebrated the ideals of the French Revolution was known as the Society of Druids. A former clergyman lecturer the members (merchants and prosperous farmers) on Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Rousseau and secret midnight ceremonies were said to have been performed. [13]

            Ronald Hutton has described how similar Romantic stirrings prepared the way for the growth of contemporary Paganism in Britain. One crucial element, however, was different. In Europe, the new science of geology produced a false analogy in folklore studies. Just as fossils were preserved in rock, so, early folklorists reasoned, the allegedly eternal, unchanging country people preserved "fossilized" customs from a pagan past. [14] In the United States, however, there was no peasant class, nor was there a pagan past except that of the native tribes. While these tribes would furnish inspiration for nineteenth-century fraternal orders such as the Improved Order of Red Men and the League of the Iroquois, "explicitly based upon Victorian concepts of primitive societies", [15] virtually all of the Romantic components of contemporary American Paganism (including valorization of sexuality, femininity, and the unconscious) would make the "voyage across the Atlantic." In most respects, American Paganism grew along the same lines as its British cousin: a combination of Renaissance high magic with folk or "low" magic (either part of a shared folk-magic tradition or combed from books, such as Vance Randolph"s Ozark Magic and Folklore [16] ), and in other cases, some attempt at reconstructing pre-Christian European Paganisms. What makes American Paganism unique, however, is its ability to draw upon Albanese"s third category of "nature religion", nature as source of sacred meaning. This category, I suggest, which unites Transcendentalists, practitioners of "natural" diets and healing, and deep ecologists, became in the twentieth century quasi-institutionalized under Smokey Bear"s broad hat.

             Most of what one encounters in contemporary American Paganism is rooted in Romanticism and the Renaissance, but the soil in which it has grown was enriched by a three-hundred year tradition of attempting to reconcile "this incomperable lande" [17] with European Christianity, an attempt which so often led to a rejection of orthodox dogma by philosophers, naturalists, and writers in favor of some variety of panenthistic personal belief. As Martin Marty noted in his foreword to Nature Religion in America, together with a biblical covenant and, by some definitions, a civil religion, both of them "masculine" and "productive", America also lives by a counter-covenant, which urges that we "keep contracts only with nature, produce only what harmonizes with it, achieve without grim competition, and live with a natural and human universe." [18] This counter-covenant, Marty suggests, matches Albanese"s "loosely constructed" nature religion.

Civil Religion

            The term "civil religion", which Marty employs, was defined in 1967 by Robert Bellah as existing "alongside of and clearly differentiated from the churches" and forming another form of American public religious expression, which Bellah called "civil religion." Its scriptures were the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, its theology included a nonspecific belief in God and in America"s role in the world. [19] Bellah"s depiction of American civil religion has not gone unchallenged. Some observers point more to clash than to consensus, to particularity and plurality rather than to singularity. Some suggest that Bellah"s definition might have described nineteenth-century America"s Protestant cultural hegemony but not twentieth-century and certainly not twenty-first America. Still others retain the concept of "civil religion" but divide it into conservative and liberal varieties. [20]

            In her book From Civil to Political Religion, Marcela Cristi suggests that Bellah unquestioningly accepted Emile Durkheim"s notion of religion spontaneously emerging from within culture expressing that culture"s shared beliefs, beliefs which acquire transcendental meaning, and ""naturally" provide for the order, stability, and integration of the society as a whole. In Durkheim"s terms, civil religion acts upon the individual." [21] But, she continues, civil religion has a second definition, which was employed by the man who coined the term, the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract. Rousseau"s civil religion is imposed from the top down. Looking back on pre-Christian societies in which government and religion were essentially identical, Rousseau advocated abolishing the rivalry between Church and State by abolishing Church. Since humankind still required a religion, however, the government should create one, its dogmas laid down by the sovereign and consistent in all respects with good citizenship. Thus society would be strengthened, morality upheld, and divided loyalties reconciled. [22]

            Rousseau"s imposed civil religion, however, could not have the qualities that Bellah and Marty attribute to America"s—to be powerful and to be at times invoked by the powerful, yet never to be named precisely but only through circumlocution. As Cristi observes,

the pervasive hostility that Americans have towards centralized power combined with the moralistic component of American civil religion may help explain why the notion of power (or the idea that civil religion may be a powerful tool) has seldom been part of the debate over civil religion in America. American scholars have opted to render invisible the linkage between state power and civil religion. [23]

            Here let me connect several ideas. Smokey Bear, cartoon emblem of the U.S. Forest Service, also represents the power of federal managers that has often conflicted with both local communities, ethnic groups, and business interests in the ongoing struggle over the best use of public lands, timber, water, wildlife and other resources. Nevertheless, in a usually acknowledged way, the Forest Service and other federal agencies, such as the National Park Service, at times was motivated at both the highest and the rank-and-file levels by Albanese"s third classification of nature religion: nature as a source of eternal and transcendent value. By its nature as an agency that often speaks for "the American people" against parochial interests, the Forest Service might well embody a Roussean civil/nature religion that brooks no competition. But at the same time, as an agency subject to the winds blowing across the political landscape, the Forest Service must respond to a Durkheimian nature religion, one that began in the 1970s, under the influence of a growing popular environmental movement, a slow, painful transformation of the agency"s focus from rational resource extraction to, in many cases, a more protective role. It is no wonder that some evangelical Christians attacked environmentalism as a "false religion", for clearly a new version of civil religion that lacked the old familiar Protestant coloration had begun to show its head.

Nature Religion as Civil Religion

            If nature religion may be interpreted as a form of civil religion, then it enjoys the governmental protection that Bellah"s civil region receives. Some of its shrines, equivalent to the Statue of Liberty or the copy of the original Declaration of Independence displayed in Philadelphia, are protected and maintained by the same federal agency: the National Park Service: Yellowstone National Park (where management decisions—snowmobiles or no snowmobiles, putting out forest fires or letting them burn "naturally"—are politicized and fought out in the national news media), Grand Canyon (ditto), and all the others. As long ago as 1872, the civil religion of nature made its claims in the debate over preserving the Yellowstone region. It was not America"s first national park—the Yosemite Valley of California had already been designated—but it was larger and wilder, and the debate over its creation pitted advocates of large-scale commercial tourism against park advocates such as Senator George Vest of Missouri, who defended the proposed park on aesthetic grounds. Another senator, Samuel Cox of New York, declared that a protected park would protect "all that gives elevation and grace to human nature." [24]

            Pressing for more wilderness protection at the time was the indefatigable writer John Muir (1838-1914), who found divinity in wilderness in the best Transcendentalist manner, as a place where a visitor could "bathe in spirit beams [and] lose consciousness of your separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature." [25] The older Transcendentalism of Henry Thoreau was now widespread: Nash tellingly notes that although Thoreau"s books had piled up unsold in his lifetime, now—after fifty years had passed—Muir"s Mountains of California (1884) flew out the bookstores" doors. [26]

            Muir"s friend-turned-ideological-opponent was Gifford Pinchot (1865-1947), the first appointed chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and an advocate of sustained use of the nation"s new national forests for grazing and timber. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, as the young Forest Service worked to put extractive uses of the forests on a rational basis, other Americans increasingly described these public lands" value as sources of pilgrimage and spiritual renewal. The public feud between Muir and Pinchot over forest management personalized the still ongoing dispute between nature as source of spiritual values or "re-creation" and as source of timber and other extractable resources. Pinchot"s dictum, "Forestry is tree-farming" was being repeated by Forest Service staffers half a century later. [27] To Pinchot, recreation was an "incidental use", and he fought against the formation of national parks, such as Mt. Rainier and Crater Lake, from within forest reserves. [28] After Pinchot"s removal from his position by President Taft in 1910, the Forest Service hired its first landscape architect in 1917, Frank Waugh, who produced reports on recreational use of forest lands and advocating the hiring of more "landscape engineers." The first of those men, Arthur Carhart, started work in southern Colorado on the San Isabel National Forest in 1919. [29]

            To Carhart, recreational use was not incidental but "the most direct and personal use made by people who utilize the Forests." Carhart argued both for developed campgrounds—he was instrumental also in designing Denver"s mountain parks system—and for wilderness, fighting proposals for roads through what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His Forest Service career lasted only three years, but his legacy included the agency"s first official documents on wilderness preservation. [30]

            Granted, it may appear to be a leap from outdoor recreation, even "the whole movement of outdoor life", to use 1920s phraseology, [31] to religion or even "spirituality." In the case of early recreation planners such as Arthur Carhart, we can sometimes find more overtly spiritual language used in personal correspondence than in official papers. In one case, he spoke of outdoor recreation as a need "as primal, as fundamental as the demand for wood." In 1921, Carhart advocated wilderness preservation as "dedicated to the ideal of human service and to the purpose of making Americans of greater mind, body and soul . . . [preserving] our national life from disintegration because of its oppressing association with man-made, artificial life." [32] a formulation completely in line with Albanese"s picture of "nature religion" as a construction that celebrates "innocence, permanence, and purity" that celebrates a a ""natural freedom", a dominance over social forms." [33]

            In a paper delivered in 2000 to the American Academy of Religion on the religious dimension of deep ecology, Bron Taylor suggested that "it does not take the analytic tools of religious studies to discern [its] religious dimensions" even while many deep ecologists deny their "religious motivations." In a 1999 lawsuit which Taylor referenced, a loggers" association sued the Forest Service and two environmental groups, alleging that the Forest Service had violated the First Amendment of the US Constutition [34] by favoring the "religion" of deep ecology in its management plans, an assertion dismissed by a federal judge the following year. Taylor also cites writings of two recent Forest Service chiefs, Jack Ward Thomas and Michael Dombeck, as conveying a "civic earth religion" tone. [35]

Smokey and the Pagans

            It is unlikely in the foreseeable future that "nature religion" will receive the official recognition in those terms that American civil religion receives. Even Catherine Albanese, the historian of religion who advanced the term, admitted that she used it to collect a variety of ideas and practices not previously grouped together, as referenced above. However, if we can accept that a nature-based spirituality is both long-lived and widespread in the United States, then we have, for instance one explanation for the extraordinary growth of contemporary Pagan groups, most of which have claimed to be, interchangeably, "earth religion" or "nature religion." [36]   Wicca, in particular, arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s with a pair of British immigrants, Ray and Rosemary Buckland, although it was preceded by the written work of its most visible founder, Gerald Gardner, a few years earlier. (Gardner himself visited the US in 1947-48 but apparently only to visit his own immigrant  relatives, not to form covens. [37] ). When Wicca arrived from England, it came to a land where large cartoon bears with shovels were part of the psychic landscape. In America, nature had spoken with a holy voice for at least two hundred years. "Nature", however defined, had endorsed the new American republic.

            Poet Gary Snyder wrote the "Smokey the Bear Sutra" after studying Zen Buddhism in Japan in the 1960s. Its text includes a final note, "may be reproduced free forever", and I seem to recall his distributing it as a broadside at a poetry reading which I, as a teenager, attended in 1969. One Internet source, however, suggested it was first published in 1973 while another suggested "the early 1970s." Coincidentally, it was at Yule 1973 that a group of New York City Pagans, including the late Herman Slater, proprietor of the Magickal Childe bookstore, published a tabloid-size magazine called Earth Religion News, whose title marked just one of the Pagans" self-positionings as heirs of American nature religion.

            For the Pagans "nature religion" or "earth religion" would indeed describe a cosmic opposite to the religions of history; in fact, one weakness to Albanese"s book is that she apparently did not realize that these terms were already within use in that community. In a land without surviving (or believed to be surviving) ancient Pagan practices and sites comparable to those in Europe, the "civil religion of nature" became a key element of the American Pagan movement. Pressed to account for themselves, American Pagans early on began to use the terms "nature religion" or "earth religion", thus appropriating this real spiritual current which Albanese and others would later attempt to map intellectually. The claim to follow "nature religion", rarely examined deeply by its practitioners, gave them a legitimacy as deep as the roots of the American republic itself.

[1] [1] His success inspired creation of two other symbolic figures, Woodsy Owl, also created by the Forest Service, and Johnny Horizon for the Bureau of Land Management. Neither ever caught the public imagination.

[2] Holly Hartman, "Smokey Bear: A friend of our forests for more than half a century", Fact Monster., 9 November 2001. Before Smokey, the Wartime Advertising Council had built its campaign around Walt Disney"s cartoon deer Bambi, who appeared on American movie screens in 1944.

[3] Since highway patrol officers in some states wore the same style, they are sometimes referred to as "Smokies" or "bears."

[4] Catherine Albanese, Nature Religion in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990),  p. 7.

[5] Albanese, Nature Religion, p. 8.

[6] Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind , rev. ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2nd edn, 1973).

[7] Nash, Wilderness,  pp. 36-37

[8] Quoted in Nash, Wilderness,  p. 73.

[9] Albanese, Nature Religion,  p.  48.

[10] Albanese, Nature Religion, p.  67.

[11] Nash, Wilderness, p. 45.

[12] Quoted in Albanese,  Nature Religion, p.61.

[13] Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 40.

[14] Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 112.

[15] Carnes, Secret Ritual, p.104

[16] Vance Randolph, Ozark Magic and Folklore (New York: Dover Pubs., 1964). Originally published as Ozark Superstitions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947).

[17] A phrase used by the sailor Jean Ribaut in 1563, later the title of an anthology of American nature writing edited by Thomas J. Lyon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

[18] Albanese, Nature Religion, p.  xii.

[19] Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America", Daedalus,  96 Iwinter 1967), pp.1-21.

[20] Julia Mitchell Corbett, Religion in America  (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 4th edn, 2000), pp. 28-29.

[21] Marcela Cristi, From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier Press, 2001), p. 7.

[22] Cristi,  Political Religion, pp. 22-23.

[23] Cristi, Political religion, p. 120.

[24] Nash, Wilderness,  p. 114.

[25] Quoted in Nash, Wilderness,  p. 126.

[26] Nash, Wilderness, p. 160.

[27] Peter Wild, Pioneer Conservationists of Western America (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press, 1979), p. 45. The first "forest reserves" were created in 1891 but federal management languished for another decade.

[28] Donald N. Baldwin, The Quiet Revolution: Grass Roots of Today"s Wilderness Preservation Movement (Boulder: Pruett Publishing , 1972), p. 44.

[29] United States Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, A History of Outdoor Recreation Development in National Forests 1891-1942, prepared in conjunction with the Clemson University Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management (Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson University, n.d.) pp. 2, 5.

[30] Baldwin,  Quiet Revolution, p. 197.

[31] Baldwin, Quiet Revolution, p. 108.

[32] Baldwin, Quiet Revolution, p.  104

[33] Albanese, Nature Religion, pp. 8-9

[34] The First Amendment deals with freedom of speech and religion.

[35] Bron Taylor, "Envisioning Green Religion", paper delivered to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Nashville, Tennessee, 18 November 2000, 5. See also his "Earth and Nature-Based Spirituality: From Deep Ecology to Radical Environmentalism", Religion (2001)31, pp. 75-193; 225-245.

[36] These terms are used much less frequently by followers of reconstructed Pagan religions of the past, such as Ásatrú, which focus more on ethnic pantheons.

[37] Morgan Davis, "From Man to Witch: Gerald Gardner 1946-1949", available from; Internet; accessed 15 July 2002.