Religion in the National Parks
Religion has been an implied value in America’s national park idea from the time of the earliest nineteenth-century parks to the present. But the religious element usually remains buried in visitors’ private aesthetic responses to park experiences and attractions. Rarely do specific theological views appear in the parks, even in unofficial activities or park uses.
Certainly, the National Park Service is careful to never promote or even acknowledge a particular religious interpretation of park features. Such religious favoritism would violate the deepest values of the park service as an official representative of America’s pluralist democracy. American public culture supports religion by remaining neutral; freedom of religion flourishes in America precisely because government stays out of it.
On the other hand, where there is demand, entrepreneurial suppliers will soon set up shop. This includes purveyors of religion. And since national parks have been lucrative profit centers even before they were parks (in fact, many of them became parks precisely because of their profitable potential, but that’s a story for another day), it is not surprising to learn that religious folks have discovered national parks as rich resources for pursuing a lively evangelical trade. I am thinking in particular of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP), an organization with beginnings in Yellowstone National Park in 1950 that today, according to its website, “lives its mission by sending roughly 200 ministry team members into 75 locations in 25 national parks from Alaska to the Virgin Islands. Over 30,000 people worship together in ACMNP services every year, experiencing the glory of God by seeing it first-hand.”
As I have researched and written about ACMNP, I have come to think of them less as a religious group and more of an entrepreneurial enterprise. They are in many respects not unlike park concessionaires that provide goods and services to the millions of visitors who vacation in America’s national parks. This is not to ignore their religious motives and purposes, but it is a helpful perspective for understanding how they achieved a significant presence in the public spaces of America’s most valued vacation destinations.
In a legal dispute with ACMNP in the 1990s, Karl and Rita Girshman asked, “Do The National Parks Need A Christian Ministry?” This elderly Jewish couple who had been assailed by a young ACMNP representative in their room in Big Bend National Park were adamant that there is no place for Christian missionaries in our parks. But maybe a better question might be whether it is even possible to exclude religion, especially the Christian evangelical brand, from the commodified spaces of parks that attract millions of visitors each year. Wherever crowds gather, we can expect to find preachers alongside the other profiteers. After all, more so than the national park idea itself, profitable opportunity seems to be America’s best idea. ♨