06/25/2010 04:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the Apocalypse: A Religious Response to the BP Oil Spill

As countless thousands of barrels of oil continue to spew into the Gulf of Mexico causing irrevocable damage to the ecosystem and the economy, most Americans are still trying to incorporate this unthinkable disaster into politics or business as usual. Some oil-dependent Americans are willing to accept our complicity in the devastation, but far more of us are facing the spectacular failures of our energy supply and our regulatory system with a familiar mixture of scapegoating and denial. Instead of seeing the connection between the gas in our cars and the oil in the ocean, we blame Obama or BP. A judge in New Orleans just blocked Obama's six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, and apparently most Americans would support his ruling: according to a recent Reuters poll, a solid majority of Americans still believe deepwater drilling is necessary; only 38 percent think it's a bad idea.

But even those of us who see the spill as a wake-up call about energy and the environment often lack a vocabulary that's up to the task of communicating the urgency we feel. In recent years, mainstream American environmentalism has come to rely on measured moral authority and understated suasion to get its message across. Al Gore's contribution to our environmental conversation is invaluable, but "an inconvenient truth" is surely the most low-key phrase possible for describing the impending end of life on earth. Americans already prefer to think about the environment on a comfortably small scale, focusing on an endangered species or a national park, and this kind of understatement can lull us into thinking that micro-solutions are enough. Prizing personal purity over cosmic results, eco-conscious Americans "go green" by buying hybrids, organic apples, or energy-saving lightbulbs. Such small-scale change is not nothing. But we are now faced with a disaster of truly biblical proportions, one that illustrates the ultimate unsustainability of our entire way of life.

Religious rhetoric might help us out here: it has the grand scope and moral urgency to match the problem. But so far, public religious responses to the spill have failed to satisfy. A particularly frustrating example is the Louisiana State Senate's Resolution declaring a Statewide Day of Prayer for the spill. A day of prayer might be called for in times like these, but the rationale given for this one seems dubious. In the words of sponsoring Senator Robert Adley, "Thus far the efforts made by mortals to try to solve the crisis have been to no avail. It is clearly time for a miracle." For Adley, religious faith is not a ground for ethical action. Instead it's a Hail Mary pass.

Obama's speech last week offered a similarly inadequate religious response. The President invoked the Gulf tradition of "the Blessing of the Fleet" at the beginning of shrimping season: every year, clergy pray for those who are heading out to fish. Quoting "a priest and former fisherman," Obama explained that "the blessing is not that God has promised to remove all obstacles and dangers. The blessing is that he is with us always ... even in the midst of the storm." Comparing the nation to a fishing boat, Obama concluded, "We pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day."

A prayer acknowledging human helplessness in the face of obstacles and dangers is well-suited for people who go out in small boats at the mercy of the ocean, but it is a bad prayer for people who go out on large rigs and hold the fate of the ocean in their hands. By using the metaphor of a storm, Obama collapses distinctions between natural and unnatural disasters and downplays human responsibility. This is reminiscent of the characterization of post-Katrina damage to the Gulf as a "natural disaster," a phrase that minimized the large element of human responsibility for the devastation. But in this case the natural disaster language is even more misleading. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was 100-percent man-made. Irreversible and lethal global warming -- when or if it comes -- will be man-made, too.

Politicians searching for better religious responses to the spill and the energy crisis need look no further than the Old Testament, where they will find a variety of stories and genres to help them out. America has a grand tradition of the "jeremiad," a form named after the prophet Jeremiah who was sent to tell a nation to repent before it was too late. Then there's the story of Noah, in which the earth is destroyed with water because of the sins of its people.

But my own recommendation would be that we turn to Exodus 7, when God uses tainted water as a warning of what lies in store if a corrupt society fails to change its ways. Moses and Aaron are trying to convince Pharaoh to let their people go. Acting on God's orders, Aaron "lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt."

This may not be the kind of miracle Senator Robert Adley is praying for, but it is the kind that he got: a dramatic sign of the consequences of ignoring what's right. In Exodus, the sin was slavery. Today, the sin is a willful disregard for the health of our planet and the well-being of future generations. Pharaoh ignored the water's warning, and things didn't go so well for him. But as we stare like Pharaoh at the darkened water, we have a chance to do things differently. Instead of praying that the storm will pass, we can pay attention to the signs and avert the apocalypse.