THIS Earth Day weekend, thousands of congregations in the United States will be celebrating the familiar Biblical declaration that ``the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof.''
But beyond the ``green'' sermons exhorting environmental protection is a growing movement among many faith groups that includes activism to protect nature and a deep examination of more profound issues.
``The environmental crisis invites us, once again, to ask the perennial religious question: Who are we, and what is our place in the universe?'' says Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
The partnership, which launched a three-year, $4.5 million campaign in October, is made up of four groups representing some 100 million worshipers: the US Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ (including mainline Protestant faiths), the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.
For today's Earth Day, the groups are sending to 53,000 congregations kits designed to prompt environmental action while explaining each group's understanding of God and the natural world.
There's practical advice here. The ``Guide to Jewish Environmental Study and Action'' suggests energy audits, car pooling, and tree planting to counter pollution and global warming. Roman Catholic parishes are given environmental quotes for newsletters. The National Council of Churches of Christ's packet includes a 12-session study program. Evangelical Environmental Network pamphlet ``Tools for Worship'' has sermon ideas.
There's also a list of ``model congregations'' already actively involved: the New Waverly Baptist Church in West Dallas, Texas, which convinced the city to open a clinic at the church in response to health problems caused by a nearby smelter; the rabbi at Temple Adath Joseph in St. Joseph, Mo., who installs energy-saving devices for the community; Grace Episcopal Church in North Attleboro, Mass., whose members have written a musical about the environment to be performed by children at this Sunday's service; and the nuns in Bath, Ohio, who bus inner-city children to the Crown Point Ecology Learning Center to do organic gardening.
In communicating with churches and synagogues, each of the groups also addresses serious theological questions that relate directly to one's treatment of the natural environment.
``We are God's appointed stewards of the Creation,'' states the Evangelical Environmental Network booklet ``Biblical Roots,'' now being sent to 20,000 congregations. ``Dominion as stewardship is a calling, a responsibility to serve and to enhance, even protect and replenish the earth.''
``The roots of environmental problems and their solutions are spiritual in nature,'' the booklet declares. Similarly, the US Catholic Conference, in its resource book for parishes ``Renewing the Face of the Earth,'' opens with the assertion that ``at its core, the environmental crisis is a moral challenge.''
The National Council of Churches of Christ ``Leader's Guide'' on environmental issues takes up the same issue: ``The Bible does not grant humans permission to take the Earth into their own hands and use it to suit their own destructive, selfish purposes. In fact, that is what the Bible prohibits and calls sin. Rather, the Bible defines the nature of humanity's dominion as service for the sake of all creation.''
Such linking of moral and spiritual values with public and political issues recalls civil rights and antiwar efforts by religious leaders and their followers.
The National Religious Partnership for the Environment has its roots in an ``Open Letter to the Religious Community'' sent in 1990 by 34 prominent scientists, including Hans Bethe, Freeman Dyson, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Henry Kendell, and Jerome Wiesner. Environmental problems, they wrote, ``must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension.''
A dialogue with senior religious leaders was begun, and a congressional committee - including then-Sen. Al Gore Jr. - became involved. As vice president, Mr. Gore has remained very active with the group. His 1992 book ``Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit'' includes many of the same concerns and theological viewpoints now expressed by partnership leaders.
While the partnership was set up to last three years, ``this is very much for the long term,'' says Mr. Gorman, the executive director. ``We want to ensure that there is a steady, enduring moral consensus rooted in institutional life and alive at the congregational level.''
``It's clear that this issue has irresistible resonance for many, many people of religious faith,'' he says, adding that it is not simply ``the environmental movement at prayer'' nor is it limited to existing congregations. ``There's a great deal of unaffiliated spirituality among environmentalists which this is calling up.''