Names with Faces: Madison Daniels

The second installment in our series interviewing Utahans creating community.

We conceived of the series “Names With Faces” as a way to explore the variety of Utah life, understand our community leaders, and recognize individual contributions (both large and small) to our state—as it represents a community, both real and imagined. At its most primitive, a community is nothing more than a few individuals that live in rough proximity. To create something greater we need brave leaders, incisive philosophers, empowered workers, reflective theologians, conscientious entrepreneurs, and engaged citizens (to name only a few types of contributors). In this series we highlight the contributions of Utahans that are strengthening and creating community.

Madison Daniels is surely one of Jana Riess’ “Next Mormons.” A Utah native, Madison was curious from a young age about the natural world around him. This curiosity and wonder, along with a passion for reading and writing, came together in a degree in Environmental Humanities from BYU. Madison is now at the forefront of the movement to connect religion with environmental stewardship in the Beehive State. If and when institutional religion in Utah moves toward a more open embrace of environmentalism, Madison Daniels will have been a key part of that change. I was able to ask Madison a few questions earlier this week—the transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Adam Stevenson: What is your current job?

Madison Daniels: I’m a faith community organizer.

Stevenson: What sort of things do you do in this position?

Daniels: My responsibility is to organize within Utah’s communities of faith for the protection of wilderness lands and to advocate for environmental issues generally—the biggest religious community being the Mormon community. Part of my job is to get Mormons more involved in environmental issues, at both the grassroots and institutional levels.

Stevenson: At a grassroots level, what does that look like?

Daniels: A lot of my work moved online [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], the blog and the podcast are my efforts to connect people’s faith to the love of the earth. There are a couple of ways to go about enacting change. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) wants me to do long-term stuff; to work to inspire hearts and minds.

Stevenson: At an institutional level?

Daniels: I meet with faith leaders in the valley, whether it is Episcopalians, Unitarians, etc. I come with presentations, and try to help them find ways to be more environmentally conscious. I do the same things with the Mormon Church as well. 

Stevenson: What is the name of that blog you mentioned?

Daniels: It’s bristleconesfiresides.com, where you'll find 100+ essays and poetry connecting faith to environmental issues, and people’s relationship with the wild. The podcast is more casual and conversational. We recently did a cool episode focusing on the book Blossom As The Cliffrose: Mormon Legacies and the Beckoning Wild.

Stevenson: What has been your experience with environmental sustainability and the institutional Church?

Daniels: They are very interested in being more environmentally sustainable. I’ve met with members of the office of the presiding bishopric. They are sincerely interested in helping out.

Stevenson: What are some roadblocks for institutional change in the LDS Church?

Daniels: Pure internal momentum. Middle management is the enemy of progress. Even if there are orders from the top down, there is enough momentum in the institution—it's like turning an aircraft carrier around. Second, political issues. Environmental issues are typically a liberal talking-point. They need to figure out how to message these in ways that are more understandable for conservatives. Third, it’s a question of, “Whose responsibility is it?” They need to connect environmental issues to the core issues of the Church. They are trying to link this to make it a spiritual responsibility.

Stevenson: What is your favorite part of the job?

Daniels: That I get to work a job that is the perfect situational cross-roads of everything that I love. I love writing. I love essays and poetry. I love having conversations in the Mormon environmental world. I love to help connect people’s faith with environmental issues. I love people. I love being part of change, good change; I love being able to explain the larger climate issues and create those bridges of understanding.

Stevenson: How did you become interested in the environment? 

Daniels: I just came out of the womb that way. I was kind of a nerd for the earth. I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up. I had a subscription to the National Geographic magazine growing up; I watched Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, etc. It wasn’t until I got my degree in environmental humanities that I was able to connect all my passions. It was kind of a slow build. I grew up in Utah, hiking and swimming, and going camping. I was really fortunate to have a range of experiences. [During college] I participated in the “Parks of the World” study abroad program. I got to see how different countries have taken on the idea of land preservation. That study abroad was really formative for me; to experience the huge diversity of planet earth and humanity. I felt that I needed to be part of the solution, not the problem. 

Stevenson: How have your religious practices shaped your environmentalism, and how has your environmentalism shaped your religious practices?

Daniels: A lot. I’m just like every other millennial who has had a faith crisis and then looked for ways to stay engaged in their faith community. [As a result of] engaging with Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, I have come to love the earthiness of Mormonism. This may be counter-intuitive, but my membership in the larger world-community is more important than my [narrower] faith-community—but my faith-community led me there. 

Stevenson: What do you mean by the earthiness of Mormonism?

Daniels: Of all the versions of Christianity (with the possible exception of the Franciscans) it is the earthiest version. The First Vision was in a grove of trees, Joseph Smith got the gold plates from the ground and then translated them with the assistance of rocks [seer stones], the restoration of the priesthood came on the banks of the Susquehanna River, and we have temples—symbolic representations of mountains. If you read through [the Doctrine & Covenants] there are some fantastic verses on the light of Christ, that soaks and saturates all of reality. Even in the Book of Mormon, the idea of wilderness and wildness highlights the salvific power of wild things. And we believe that God has a body. It’s all material stuff. There is no separation between the sacred and the profane. 

Stevenson: Do you think that we acknowledge this earthiness enough?

Daniels: No. But this is the path forward for the Church. We are hemorrhaging members, and I think this path of earthiness is part of the path forward for the next century. And this is a general Christian problem. But the question is how we can be “in the world but not of the world.” We act like we don’t belong here, like we are [only] looking for our future celestial glory. [And] we have done this to the detriment of our relationship with everything here right now.

Stevenson: What hopes do you have for Mormonism in its approach to environmental issues?

Daniels: This is just pie in the sky stuff. I would love to see the Church championing local environmental issues—throwing their weight and power behind these environmental issues. The renewal of the Second Coming will require us rolling up our sleeves and restoring the earth. I would love to see that. I would like to see the Church become more relevant…[and acknowledge] that climate issues are not divorced from social justice issues, that these are pieces of the same beast.

Stevenson: What are a few of your favorite works of environmental literature?

Daniels: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. That book is scriptural, it has the weight and feeling of inspired text—it is so good. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, which also feels like a sacred text. George Handley has a book called The Hope of Nature, which is also really good. I highly recommend it. [And] Laudato Si by Pope Francis, the papal encyclical which set the standard for religious involvement in environmental issues. 

Stevenson: What can the averagely busy, median Utahan do to either become more environmentally conscious or involved in advocating for sustainable environmental policies?

Daniels: Show up and vote. Voting for the right people is worth its weight in gold. Granted, Utah’s delegation isn’t super environmentally minded. [But] letters to Sen. Romney or Rep. Curtis advocating for sensible environmental policies would go a long way. Lots of good groups like SUWA, Save Our Rivers, LDS Earth Stewardship, [there are] so many options to donate time or resources. Climate change is a gigantic [global] issue, but it is the combination of millions of local issues. If you want to get involved, get involved at the local level. There are a lot of ways to get involved. 

Stevenson: What motivates you in your job and your work to increase environmental consciousness in Mormonism?

Daniels: A couple things. One, this is it. Climate change is the issue of our times. There is a sense of urgency and responsibility. We need to all stand under this. I’m someone lucky enough to be engaged in these issues professionally; this is the issue of our times. I can’t sit on the sidelines. Over the past decade, the development of my relationship with the earth has been critical to the enjoyment of my life. The more I can connect people to this, the better. So people can live simply and more contentedly.

Stevenson: Who are some personal role models for you?

Daniels: George Handley at BYU, he was one of my mentor professors. He has been extremely helpful in my development. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest (from one of the few spiritual traditions that rival Mormonism in earthiness), has been a role model in terms of his spiritual mysticism.

Stevenson: What do you most enjoy about living in Utah?

Daniels: That I have access to literally every ecosystem (except for the ocean), red-rock deserts, streams, mountains, lakes. People come from other countries to visit Utah. You could spend your entire life exploring Utah and not see everything.