This is the second part of a series on religion and climate change. The first part covered Catholicism. I’m going to cover all of the major–and some of the minor–religions in the United States. Feel free to comment if you know about how these issues play out in other countries.
It may seem strange to non-Christian readers, that I’m doing separate posts on different subtypes of Christianity. It seems strange to me that I have to, but Christians themselves often speak as though the different branches of Christianity were, in fact, separate religions. Notably, I have heard Protestants use constructions like “are you Christian or Catholic?” More important for our purposes, the different branches respond differently to the issue of climate change.
Talking about Protestant Christianity and climate change is difficult because, in contrast to Catholicism, there is no central authority on doctrine (except the Bible itself which, rightly or wrongly, is obviously subject to multiple interpretations). True, the leadership of an individual denomination can decide on a doctrine and treat it as orthodoxy–Protestant churches are not necessarily democracies on matters of faith. But if somebody disagrees they can go to a different Protestant church, or even found a new one, without dropping out of the larger Protestant continuum.
By “Protestant continuum” I mean the variety of beliefs and practices encompassed by all Protestant churches everywhere. Outsiders tend to treat variations within that cloud as mere details, so, sometimes, do Christians themselves. One of my brothers-in-law was raised Methodist, “saved” in an evangelical denomination (I don’t know which one), attended a Methodist seminary, and now teaches adult Bible study at a church of another denomination (the rest of the family can’t remember which). On Christmas and Easter he returns to his parents’ Methodist church for services. Nobody seems to care, and he is not the only Protestant I have met who shifts denominations so fluidly. While in theory some Protestant churches may indeed have an orthodoxy and by its lights define other Protestant churches as apostate or even just not Christian, in practice individual Protestants have a wide freedom of religious choice. To discover what Protestants do and believe, we must therefor look to polls, not encyclicals.
The polls I have found divide Protestants into three groups: mainline, evangelical, and black. To be clear, “black Protestants,” in this usage, does not mean Protestant who happen to be black. In fact, all three groups have at least some black members and all three have at least some white members. But, in the United States, at least, the traditionally black churches comprise a distinct body of both doctrine and practice. We’ll start, today, with the evangelical branch.
Evangelical by Any Other Name
Evangelical Christianity is not a denomination or even a distinct group of denominations–although some denominations are generally considered evangelical. More properly, the evangelicals comprise a movement, and, like all movements, its boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. Generally, evangelicals can be said to share a few key doctrines, such as conversionism or Biblicalism, but not everybody who has those beliefs calls themselves evangelicals. It is difficult to even say for sure how many American evangelicals there are, although a third of the total population is a reasonable guess.
The terms evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist are all used interchangeably by many outsiders. Indeed, the word fundamentalist is used by some writers, such as Karen Armstrong, to refer to common elements among religious movements of multiple religions, including Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. By this definition, evangelical Christians are often fundamentalists because they take the Bible literally. These terms are not interchangeable for believers themselves, however; the term fundamentalist originated in an American Christian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the term evangelical originated in a separate religious movement that arose in the Midwest in opposition to fundamentalism during World War II.
What the Polls Say
Among self-described white evangelicals, 64% are “somewhat” or “very” unconcerned about climate change, more than any other American religious grouping (Hispanic Catholics are most concerned). 77% attribute recent natural disasters to the “End Times,” while only 49% attribute such disasters to climate change (obviously, some attribute disasters to both causes). Only 31% say humans are causing climate change, a dramatically lower percentage than for all other groups polled.
While some obviously accept climate change and care about it, the evangelical voice is largely one of climate denial or climate skepticism (yes, there is a difference) and the voice of American climate denial is largely an evangelical Christian voice.
There is serious political importance to evangelical belief because they vote in large numbers and they care about the beliefs of the people they vote for. That is, while climate change and evolution are political non-issues for many other Americans, both are important indicators for evangelicals; many simply will not vote for anyone who believes in either. Evangelicals are hardly unusual among Americans for doubting evolution or climate change, but because they vote on these issues and most other people vote, their vote matters more. White evangelicals were the largest voting bloc in many districts at the recent midterm elections and they overwhelmingly voted for Republicans. They are why the Republicans took the Senate.
Notice the implication here; if non-evangelicals tend not to care whether candidates accept global warming, that means that many people who do believe in climate change are voting for candidates who don’t. This is why the United States has a persistent climate denial Congress and why the long-hoped-for climate agreement to be finalized in Paris will not include a new, legally binding treaty. When Americans who do accept climate change do not vote about climate, or do not vote at all, the entire world sees its options narrow.
Why So Many Evangelicals Doubt Climate Science
There are important doctrinal reasons why evangelical Christians have trouble accepting the idea of human-caused environmental disaster. If God is omnipotent, then how could humans mess up Creation? Even the suggestion that we might seems sacrilegious to some. In this view, if the climate is changing than God must be changing it and He must have a good reason to do so. Further, if after the Resurrection the saved will live forever with Jesus Christ on a new and much-improved Earth where there is no suffering, then it doesn’t much matter what happens to this Earth. It’s temporary. Some evangelicals also believe that God gave the Earth to humans to use however they want–this being one interpretation of the concept of “dominion over the Earth.”
The problem is that other Christian groups share the same doctrinal underpinnings and yet have much higher rates of climate change acceptance. While evangelical climate skeptics and deniers may indeed list the above reasons for their doubt, something else is clearly going on.
The “something else” is culture and politics.
Basically, environmentalism and especially climate sanity have become identified in the popular American imagination with liberal politics and liberal values. Evangelicals are generally culturally conservative, so they are automatically suspicious of anything liberals espouse. It is simply not possible for everyone to become an expert in everything, so we all have to trust others to tell us what is right to some extent–everybody, liberals included, is inclined to believe the things that people they trust tell them. We also disbelieve people we dislike or distrust.
Part of the problem with the climate discussion in the United States is that this distrust-by-proxy is mutual. For every conservative who complains about Al Gore and the socially licentious, politically imperious liberal agenda, there is a liberal complaining about those racist, sexist red-necks who listen to Rush Limbaugh. Underneath the reflexive mud-slinging, both groups harbor–and sometimes share–entirely valid concerns about how the country is being run and how its culture is changing, neither group is willing to listen to the other. Climate change, as an issue, is a casualty of this breakdown in communications. It is not the only one–there are important concerns that liberals overlook, too.
Why Some Evangelicals Are Climate Activists
I am not myself evangelical (nor even Christian), but I have had many friends over the years who are. One of them was, at the time, the state ecologist of Delaware and he took climate change more seriously than the vast majority of my liberal friends (he accepted evolution as well, having heard of a pastor who claimed that the “days” in Genesis could have each encompassed millions of years). He took a lot of flak from his colleagues for being Christian and told me that he knew of Christians in the sciences who hide their religious identity for fear of professional discrimination and harassment.
He isn’t alone. Evangelical Christianity does not get much respect from the American mainstream. They are often wrongly assumed to be stupid or anti-intellectual because so many of them take the Bible literally. Evangelical environmentalists consequently often feel uncomfortable at best among liberal environmentalists and environmental scientists. They don’t feel welcome, and sometimes aren’t welcome. Many must also cope, simultaneously, with having their faith and their values questioned by other evangelicals, who suspect them of being turncoats.
Nevertheless, evangelical environmentalists do exist. Not only do they accept the science on the matter and feel concern for the same reasons other people do, but some see environmentalism as an important embodiment of their faith. The evangelical environmentalist groups I have encountered recently mostly describe responding to climate change as an extension of their Christian duty to other people, but I have, in the past, also heard environmental responsibility framed as another meaning of human dominion over the Earth. The idea is that God gave the Earth to humans to shepherd and take care of, not simply to use. A related concept is that God made the world, so for humans to wantonly damage it is disrespectful of God.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that American evangelical Christianity has a huge effect on environmental policy, both for good and for ill. Alongside evangelical climate skeptics–who are factually wrong on that one point but have much to say on other issues–there are scientists and activists who approach environmentalism as part of a sacred trust. Recently, self-described evangelicals have spoken up in support of the EPA’s new rules regulating carbon emissions, pressed Congress for legislative action on climate, and even encouraged President Obama to speak with the Pope on climate change.
We need these people.