Evangelical Christianity and Climate Change Policy in America

4031 words (16 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

02/04/19 Environmental Studies Reference this

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A SECOND OPINION: EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY AND CLIMATE CHANGE POLICY IN AMERICA

Introduction

As the largest historical contributor to climate change over the last two centuries (Matthews et al. 5), America has an exceptional responsibility to address this pressing global issue. However, it also faces an exceptional challenge to doing so from vocal religious segments of its population. This essay explores the connection between Evangelical Christianity and climate change policy in America, seeking to understand how religious beliefs manifest in the political sphere to support certain policy positions over others. It begins by examining evidence for the popular assumption that Evangelical Christian beliefs and climate change policies are fundamentally antithetical. Then, it considers the theological explanations for this position and wider links to economic and political interests. Lastly, it outlines the alternative narrative of an emerging Evangelical movement in support of environmental activism. This analysis will argue that contrary to conventional beliefs, Evangelical Christianity and climate change policy are not incompatible. Rather, interpretations of scripture can be effectively used to mobilize Evangelicals towards supporting environmental causes.

Evangelicalism and climate change policy as antithetical

In 2014, seven out of ten Americans identified as Christian, with Evangelicals in particular comprising approximately a quarter of the national population (Smith 3). These demographics make them a veritable voting force on any political issue. However, with respect to climate change policy, American Evangelicals have a reputation of taking positions against environmental regulation and are known for denying the existence of man-made climate change. These positions are observed amongst Evangelicals at the individual, congregational, elite, and national levels.

For instance, a 2015 Pew Report based on a survey of 2002 adults across the country found that white Evangelicals were the least likely to believe the Earth was getting warmer due to human activity compared to other religious affiliations (Funk and Alper 33). Only 28% of the group supported this belief, which is significantly lower than the overall average of 50% out of all adults surveyed (Funk and Alper 33). White Evangelicals were also the group with the highest proportion of respondents that felt there was no solid evidence of global warming (Funk and Alper 33). Interestingly, this group was the most supportive of environmentally destructive activities such as offshore oil drilling as well, with 70% of respondents supporting the practice (Funk and Alper 37). Importantly, even after “controlling for political and demographic factors,” evangelicals were more supportive of offshore drilling than the religiously unaffiliated (Funk and Alper 37). Statistically then, it appears individual Evangelical Americans tend to hold opinions positioning them in opposition to climate change policy.

At the congregational level, a study of two Evangelical churches in the American Southwest reinforces these findings. Comparing environmental views between a mostly white, middle-class Southern Baptist church and a lower socioeconomic status African American Baptist church, the study discovered consistent attitudes of apathy towards the environment (Peifer, Ecklund, and Fullerton 378). Interviews revealed reasons for this apathy as being theological in nature, but also tied to political affiliations and cynical perceptions of the climate issue as exclusively Democratic (Peifer, Ecklund, and Fullerton 388). Moreover, among members of the African-American Baptist church interviewed, leaders believed the apathy derived from “difficult material circumstances” of laity who did not have the economic means to make pro-environmental choices, while the laity often demonstrated “low levels of scientific knowledge” in general about the issue at hand (Peifer, Ecklund, and Fullerton 390). Regardless of these variations in reasons, racial and socioeconomic differences between the two congregations did not change overall negative opinions toward environmental protection.

As for Evangelical elites taking a similar position, the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation is a key case in point. The self-proclaimed “network of over 60 Christian theologians, natural scientists, economists, and other scholars” is led by Edward Calvin Beisner (Cornwall Alliance, “Who We Are”) and known for its anti-environmental work. For instance, its September 2015 petition entitled “Forget Climate Change, Energy Empowers the Poor” claimed that climate change policies “fight a non-problem” and divert resources away from “[helping] the world’s poor meet much more urgent needs” (Cornwall Alliance, “Petition”). A more recent publication by Beisner in March 2017 has also supported President Donald Trump’s “Executive Order on Energy Independence,” praising its enabling of more intense hydrocarbon fuel development, which will supposedly create jobs and reducing imports from countries supporting terrorism (“Trump’s Energy Independence Order”). As seen through its initiatives, this network of Evangelicals holding expert designations within their fields takes a vocal position against climate policies.

At the national level, the current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, is a committed Evangelical Christian, having served as a deacon for the First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow in his home state of Oklahoma (Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General, “About Scott Pruitt”). His anti-climate policy position can be traced back to his time as Attorney General, when he was known for filing numerous challenges to the EPA on the behalf of the oil and gas industry (Pooley, “Donald Trump’s EPA Pick”). As head of the EPA, he has since publicly criticized the Paris Agreement as being “a bad deal,” (Johnson, “Paris Climate Change Agreement”) and claimed carbon emissions in America were down to acceptable pre-1994 levels due to energy sector innovations allowing for clean coal burning as opposed to government regulations (Lee, “EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt”). While Pruitt’s views on the environment and climate change are not necessarily representative of those of all Evangelicals, he nonetheless boasts support from a significant number of them. For instance, an open letter supporting his appointment to his current position was signed by 143 “expert signers”, as well as 355 citizens as of April 8, 2017 (Cornwall Alliance, “Sign Open Letter Supporting Scott Pruitt for EPA Administrator”).

Theological explanations for antithetical position

Analyzing interviews with and publications by these individuals, congregations, and organizations, there appear to be three main theological justifications against climate change policy and environmental regulation. These include the fear of pantheism, a specific interpretation of passages in the Book of Genesis to emphasize dominion, and eschatological beliefs. With respect to the first justification, Christianity is defined by monotheism distinct from early Pagan religions that personified nature into multiple gods (Zaleha and Szasz 21). As such, it considers the Creator as separate from its creation (Phillips 321), with humans occupying the hierarchical position “a little lower than God” but above the rest of his creations (Zaleha and Szasz 21). Environmental activism, according to some understandings of this hierarchy, constitutes an inversion of this hierarchy, with humans worshiping nature instead of the Creator. As a result, it is denounced by some Evangelicals as “pantheism” or “paganism” (Simmons 45).

With respect to the second justification, Evangelicals have interpreted passages in Genesis to underscore humanity’s rights as opposed to responsibilities over nature. They emphasize Genesis 1:28 and the God-given right to “rule” and “subdue” the earth and its resources, as opposed to Genesis 2:15 and the responsibility to “tend” and “keep” the Garden of Eden (Wilkinson 70).  Hence, groups such as Southern Baptists have understood the scripture as meriting their unimpeded ownership and access to natural resources for economic development (Zaleha and Szasz 24). Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance has gone further to superimpose the spirit of the first passage onto the second, suggesting that humans are meant to transform wilderness into garden without worrying about consequences of environmental deterioration (McCammack 648). Under this interpretation, stewardship is not about using natural resources in a sustainable manner but about “[exercising] active dominion” over them for the sole purpose of fulfilling human interests (McCammack 648).

As for the third justification, some Evangelicals use their eschatological beliefs to justify apathy towards the environment. This is in part due to the logic that since humanity is predisposed to “inevitable and imminent rapture,” with the world to be “completely annihilated,” it is meaningless to be concerned about the environment (Simmons 63). Instead, it is argued that Evangelicals should be focusing on more pressing matters in the time being, such as converting as many people as possible to the faith (Simmons 63). Eschatological beliefs also contribute to the assertion that compared to the scale of the “coming cosmic drama,” environmental issues are not significant and do not warrant much attention, despite the pressing reports of the secular media (Zaleha 25). This final category of theological justifications for environmental disregard appears the most extreme and difficult to challenge.

Political and economic connections

Nonetheless, theological explanations in isolation do not fully account for the position of Evangelicals who oppose action on climate change. Rather, these beliefs interact with a wider set of political and economic interests in the public sphere. For instance, they occur against the backdrop of a political polarization process whereby certain Evangelicals associate environmental protection with liberal politics and a package of other issues they do not support. One of these issues is a reluctance to see greater degrees of American involvement in international policy. In addition, they occur in a political arena marked by an increasing alliance between Evangelical premillennialists, Republicans, and the fossil fuel sector. Each of these wider political and economic elements will now be examined in turn.

The importance of Evangelicals’ political affiliations to their environmental positions is evident in Peifer, Eckland, and Fullerton’s study of two American congregations previously mentioned in this paper. In the study, White Southern Baptists demonstrated cynicism towards Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth because it primarily criticized prominent Republican leaders such as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and James Inhofe for contradicting the claims of scientists, leading them to discredit the issue of global warming as nothing more than anti-Republican politicking (Peifer, Eckland, and Fullerton 388). Yet, African American Baptists interviewed were more comfortable with liberal politics, and hence more receptive to the ideas of the film (Peifer, Eckland, and Fullerton 388). These findings demonstrate that in addition to theological beliefs, political ones impact Evangelical’s opinions about climate change as well.

Moreover, Sabrina Danielsen’s study of Evangelical beliefs between 1984 to 2010 suggests that environmental issues have become increasingly politicized over time. Specifically, her content analysis of three popular Evangelical periodicals found that earlier discussions about the environment between 1988-95 were mostly theological, while those in 2004-10 were more political, “with an awareness of Republican versus Democrat political fights in the United States” (Danielsen 209). World, for instance, claimed that “the current environmental movement has been hijacked by the far left” alongside “the whole agenda of today’s socialists, feminists, gays, abortionists, and pacifists” (Danielsen 209). Hence, Evangelical aversion to environmental issues must be understood in terms of wider political polarization between packages of conservative and liberal values.

This phenomenon is especially evident in the Evangelical opposition to international climate change measures. An analysis of the 2011 Faith and Global Challenges survey and the 2010 Chicago Council Global View survey found that Evangelicals consistently opposed actions on climate change that were international in nature, but only actions that were domestic in nature if they were explicitly related to carbon taxation (Chaudoin, Smith, and Urpelainen). Chaudoin, Smith, and Urpelainen consider a theological explanation for this finding, drawing from the premillennial idea that global cooperation and world government would “fulfill biblical prophesy, paving the way for the Antichrist as the world dictator” (447). However, they also consider this finding in the historical tradition of Evangelical criticism of the United Nations as a tool of the “New Age Movement” aimed at promoting issues such as abortion and contraception and destroying “national sovereignty and the traditional family” (Chaudoin, Smith, and Urpelainen 448). This second explanation coincides well with trends of political polarization of the issue. It suggests that Evangelicals perceive an alignment of environmental causes with internationalism and a series of other liberal causes they do not support, forming the basis of their rejection of environmental policies.

Simultaneously, there is also evidence of an increasing alliance of Evangelical elites, Republican Party elites, and fossil fuel interests in a coalition of convenience. As alluded to through earlier mention of Scott Pruitt’s contentious record as Attorney General, Evangelical opponents of climate change policy have been a natural partner for the energy sector, especially as they have climbed the ranks within the Republican Party and the American government. This is not just an emerging coalition. As early as 2003, for instance, President George W. Bush’s budget provided “billions in subsidies for oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy” and reduced funds for research on alternative forms of energy, trends which continued with his 2005 Energy Bill (Leduc 258). Moreover, his administration actively worked with the industry to discredit climate change research, “[watering] down the 2003 State of the Environment Report” with material derived from a report “commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute” (Leduc 262). As a staunch self-professed Christian and member of the Republican Party, Bush’s presidency epitomizes the right-wing coalition of anti-environmental actors.

Ties between the Cornwall Alliance, the Republican Party, and large energy companies further indicate the strength of this coalition. A recent investigation found that the group was registered under a larger non-profit organization known as the James Partnership run by Republican Chris Rogers, whose public relations firm is associated with a host of other right-wing groups (Wilkinson 71). Interestingly, he is known for his collaboration with David Rothbard, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) which “actively works to discredit climate change and mitigation strategies” (Wilkinson 71). CFACT, in turn, receives significant funding from companies including ExxonMobil and Chevron, as well as Scaife family foundations which is “rooted in wealth from Gulf and oil and steel interests” (Fang, “Exclusive: The Oily Operators”. This nebulous web of relations corresponds to what William Connolly calls a “powerful machine as evangelical and corporate sensibilities resonate together, drawing each into a larger movement that dampens the importance of differences between them” (871). Within this machine, Evangelicals fearing a left-wing coalition of causes antithetical to their beliefs are actively drawn into an opposing right-wing coalition, positioned directly in opposition to environmental causes.

An alternative narrative

Thus far, this essay has painted a harrowing picture of American Evangelical attitudes towards climate change, reinforced by an entrenched political-economic alliance promoting fossil fuel interests. However, the reality is the Cornwall Alliance and its affiliates do not represent all Evangelical views about the environment. Instead, there exists an alternative group of Americans challenging the conservative Evangelical narrative. They are known as the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), and accept the idea of climate change, as well as interpret bible scripture as necessitating action to reduce carbon emissions (McCammack 467). In 2006, the EEN launched its landmark Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), with a statement affirming the reality of man-made global warming, the particularly detrimental consequences of climate change for the poor, the relation of climate change activism to Christian beliefs, and the urgency for action (Gushee 195-196). The same year, this initiative was approved by the National Evangelical Association (Billings and Samson 2). The work of the EEN and its resulting support indicates that there is a legitimate Evangelical basis for environmental protection and policies to address global warming.

Notably, this movement provides distinct rebuttals to the theological positions of Evangelical Americans denouncing environmental activism. With respect to pantheism, a decade ago the EEN focused on drawing attention to the plight of endangered species (McCammack 650), giving credence to accusations of paganism and nature worship. However, its ECI has since made the consequences of climate on the poor a central focus of its campaign, acknowledging the important place of humans in the Christian hierarchy. While the conservative bloc of Evangelicals has traditionally used the cost of implementing policies on the poor to support its opposition to environmental activism (Phillips 322), the liberal bloc has shifted the terms of this debate by emphasizing the larger costs of inaction on the poor in the medium and long term. They have also reconceptualized the notion of “idolatrous loyalty” to denounce libertarianism and capitalism as ideologies distracting Christians from their moral responsibilities (Gushee 196). These arguments effectively challenge the notion of a singular scriptural “truth” against environmental protection, and call into question the Cornwall Alliance’s convenient ties to political and economic interests under the guise of Evangelical beliefs.

In response to interpretations of the bible emphasizing dominion, Evangelical environmentalists have also responded with passages like Job 39-41, suggesting that God “delights in creatures which have no human-apparent usefulness” (Evangelical Environmental Network, “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation”). Hence, despite humanity’s position above nature, they purport that it still has a responsibility to respect and care for nature in a similar vein to the Creator. Yet, they argue that humans have “perverted” the notion of stewardship through their greed, with detrimental effects not only on the environment but on other humans (Evangelical Environmental Network, “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation”). To address these sins, Evangelical environmentalists refer to Jesus’s teachings which emphasize that life is not solely about seeking abundance, instead advocating for lifestyles of “humility, forbearance, self-restraint, and frugality” (Evangelical Environmental Network, “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation”. These interpretations of the scripture understand stewardship as distinct from uninhibited dominion, creating a theological foundation for the support of environmental regulation.

Finally, Evangelical environmentalists have challenged any fundamental incompatibility between holding eschatological beliefs and caring for the physical world. Conversely, they have demonstrated a recognition that “belief in a literal rapture, Christ’s return, and even the eventual recreation of the earth itself do not in any way really theologically entail environmental apathy and disregard” (Simmons 64), since no part of the bible directly instructs such apathy. Following this logic, they insist that the bible should not be held as an excuse to escape earthly tasks such as stewardship, but rather an affirmation of the need to faithfully continue these tasks until Christ’s return. Therefore, even without abandoning beliefs about the end times, there are literalistic interpretations of scripture that support a continued role for environmental protection and addressing climate change.

The case study of the Christians for the Mountains (CFTM) movement demonstrates these principles and the alternative narrative of Evangelical environmentalism in action. According to its website, CFTM is a “network of persons advocating that Christians and their churches recognize their God-given responsibility to live compatibly, sustainably, and gratefully joyous upon this God’s earth” (Christians for the Mountains, “Our Mission”. Moreover, it is a grassroots organization, which began with a pure volunteer base as opposed to through support from corporate interests like the Cornwall Alliance. Billings and Samson highlight how CFTM produces videos that bring attention to the negative consequences of mountaintop removal coal mining while “indirectly asserting . . . theology and ethics through background hymns and the superimposition of printed but unspoken Biblical captions” (Billings and Samson 16). As such, their messages reach other Evangelicals in a powerful but non-overbearing manner. In this way, CFTM exemplifies pro-environmental activism that effectively communicates its message, in spite of its Evangelical roots.

Conclusion

Initially, this essay revealed substantial evidence of Evangelical opposition to climate policy in America. However, it has also suggested that much of this opposition is likely due to political polarization of the issue as opposed to purely theological prescriptions against environmental protection. Ultimately, the conflicting interpretations of scripture on this topic may confirm the cynical view that there is no biblical truth as to whether or not Evangelicals should support climate policies. Nonetheless, it means that at the very least, there is room for debate and the opportunity to appeal to interpretations that support more sustainable forms of economy, politics, and life. There is also a precedent for this at the grassroots level, as demonstrated by the work of Christians for the Mountains. For environmental groups hoping to bolster their bases, then, Evangelical Americans are not a lost cause. By exposing the ulterior interests of political and economic elites tied to groups like the Cornwall Alliance, and supporting the work of Christian environmental groups, more Evangelical Christians may be persuaded yet to change their views and join the green movement.

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