Blue Hawaii: How Old-Time Religion is Sinking Paradise on Earth

03/08/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"My friends think just because we live in Hawaii, we live in paradise. ... Are they insane?"

Those lines, as spoken by actor nonpareil George Clooney, helped my fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne collect another Oscar this year, for the screenplay of his film "The Descendants."

Clooney's character, Matt King, goes on to list the everyday ills that beset Hawaii, which, he tells us, are much the same as those afflicting people on the mainland: cancer, infidelity, homelessness and the rest. That is doubtless true. But, oddly for a shrewd lawyer and landowner who has lived his whole life in the ambrosial isles, he fails to mention that Hawaii is crumbling under the blows of cultural and environmental devastation.

Don't worry: this is not a late-breaking film review. I liked the movie, and I have no quarrel with its focus on family conflict. But all the same, having just returned from Hawaii, I'm here to tell you that it's shocking to see how how science and religion are playing out in "paradise."

The science is simple: climate change and development are killing the islands by inches. Warming, acidifying seas are bleaching the coral. Ever-stronger storms and foolishly placed seawalls are eating the beaches. More than two-thirds of Kauai's beaches are under threat. On Oahu, a quarter of them, gone. Near my brother's home in Kailua lies one of the most beautiful stretches of beach on Earth, but in the five years since I last visited him, half of it has sunk beneath the waves.

Ah well, you may sigh with a Gallic shrug, beaches are for the pampered bourgeoisie. But there's more: Rising seas are swallowing low-lying islands. Untrammeled development and invasive species have made Hawaii the epicenter of the world's unfolding ecological disaster. Only two of every 10,000 acres of American soil lies in Hawaii, yet one-third of all our endangered species struggle for survival there.

You might think that if the very land under your feet were threatened with catastrophe, rescuing it would be your most urgent concern. And so it is, for some Hawaiians. In 2007, a state-commissioned panel released a high-minded plan for sustainability. Some nods to self-preservation have since been nodded: free charging stations for electric vehicles, for example, along with a few wind turbines, are now emplaced. But the fact remains that the vast majority of Hawaii's electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, so the gesture is, well, a gesture.

Where does religion enter in? At the very heart of the matter. Traditional polytheistic, animist Hawaiian religion had everything to do with sustaining life on the slender arc of land that was home to the kānaka maoli, or Hawaiian people. Of course, like all religions, it was multidimensional and more, but there can be no gainsaying that it conferred on the chief a responsibility to negotiate favorable terms with the forces of nature so as to assure prosperity of his people. In return, the chief got to live in comparative luxury. Unlike the pope or president of the Latter Day Saints, however, he was liable to be overthrown if the forces of nature did not cooperate. It was faith with accountability.

Then, the missionaries showed up. As Mark Twain wryly observed, these sanctimonious busybodies labored hard to make the Hawaiian people "permanently miserable" by stamping out their religious culture, traditions and beliefs, and by "telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there."

Since then, Christianity has crushed the remnants of polytheism. Those who have the deepest roots in Hawaii have succumbed to the missionaries in far greater numbers than the newcomers. All over Oahu, I saw "HE>i" bumper stickers on old pickups. (Decoded, it reads, "He is greater than I.") On the Big Island, a native street preacher on a corner in Hilo hollered and shook his Bible at passers by. To find native Hawaiian religion (safely tucked away in the arms of history), you have to go to the Polynesian Cultural Center -- owned and operated by the Mormon church.

What native Hawaiians have traded in for is a religion that, though it varies in its particulars from Catholic to Protestant to Mormon, unites in its focus on the hereafter. Who cares if this world goes to hell, so long as you go to heaven?

In fairness, I must add that the churches to which native Hawaiians today belong aren't entirely indifferent to this world. But for the past two decades right up to the present day, their number one earthly priority is to fight gay marriage.

It's a losing effort in the wrong fight. For if old-time religion continues to share a political bed with the Denier Industry, future Hawaiian beach weddings will have to be conducted underwater. That'll confound the Holy Controllers: Who can tell the sexes of a couple dressed in wet suits?