This is the fifth installment of my series on climate change and religion. I have already covered Catholicism, evangelical Protestant Christianity, mainline Protestant Christianity, and Islam. I am neither a member of any of these traditions nor a religious scholar. I write, not as an expert, but as an interested outsider who knows more than she used to and wants to share.
A Matter of Definitions
Pollsters who study religion in America sometimes subdivide each religion by race or ethnicity, writing about white and Hispanic Catholics as separate, for example. That is not what I mean by black Protestants–Protestants who happen to have some admixture of African heritage. Instead, I’m referring to the historically black churches, a group of interrelated religious traditions with close ties to the evangelical movement, yet distinct in its doctrine, its practice, and its culture. Generally, the black churches have a much stronger focus on social justice and a more community-based concept of salvation. There are black members of both evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but they are not what I’m talking about here. There are also white members of historically black churches.
The black churches do not derive their historical identity from segregation alone, the way the Negro Leagues or the historically black colleges did–as places black people could go because they were not welcome elsewhere. Instead, the black churches generally split off of their own volition, in part because white preachers tended to justify racism and even slavery from the pulpit. The fact that many traditionally white churches now welcome black members has not caused the black churches to evaporate because these religious traditions have developed a particular doctrinal viewpoint that reflects the African-American experience.
Green and Other Colors
While I’m specifically defining black Protestant in religious rather than racial terms, it seems disingenuous at best to avoid the subject of race in this article. Full disclosure; I am white and I grew up almost exclusively among white people. I was raised specifically by white liberals and sent to liberal private schools where our teachers diligently taught us about the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement–but never taught us to think about race in the present tense. Our student body was less than 10% black, half what our local public school system had, and I never heard anybody talk about why. I am gradually learning to leave such possibly willful ignorance behind.
I was always under the impression that environmentalism is a white-person thing, the kind of preoccupation that might turn up in one of those satirical “Stuff White People Like” books. I went hiking and saw only white people on the trail. I joined trail crews and met only white people there. I joined environmentalist organizations and got a degree in conservation biology and again–all white. Or, not all white, but in each of these cases, those brown faces I encountered usually belonged to Africans, Caribbeans, or otherwise not United States black people.
However, while researching for this series I found polls showing clearly that religious identity has much less to do with attitudes towards climate than does racial identity, at least among Christians. White Catholics, evangelicals, and mainline Protestants all show essentially identical numbers–none have much concern over climate. Black Protestants (apparently the pollsters did mean Protestants who are black) and Hispanic Catholics were both dramatically different–they believe in climate change and care about it. It seems as though climate denial is among the “stuff white people like.” I even found a serious article saying so.
Generally speaking, if the mainstream environmental movement has alienated non-whites, it is because of its persistent refusal to acknowledge social justice and racial justice issues. To a certain extent, that translates into a white environmentalist avoidance of environmental justice issues that are more relevant to many communities of color. But more insidiously, racism, both overt and systemic, exists within both environmental organizations and related government agencies such that is very hard for people of color to get higher level jobs in these industries–and the liberal white people who do get those higher level jobs tell each other that black people just don’t care about the environment.
Black Protestants and Climate Change
One reason why black Protestants tend to care so much more about climate change than other Protestant groups may be precisely that so many of them are black; environmental disasters are disproportionately likely to happen to black people. Partly, that is because disadvantaged people tend to be shuffled towards dangerous places, such as those parts of New Orleans that were below the water level of the adjacent canals. Everybody knew those canals were going to burst; as a child in Newark, Delaware, I knew virtually nothing about New Orleans–I could not have found it on a map–but I knew those canals were going to burst and flood the place. So why were people there? Second, when disasters happen, society tends to get a lot more honest, for better or worse. In New Orleans again, certain white residents used the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to go sport-hunting black people. Many of those murders were simply never investigated. Climate change shows its face to humans largely through an increased risk of natural disasters–that risk is personal for Black Americans in a way that it simply isn’t for most white Americans.
The black churches themselves, like other climate-conscious churches, discuss environmental responsibility as a religious duty in terms of both stewardship of God’s earth and the social justice component of Christian teachings–including the idea that “as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.”
Or, at least, so said one website on the subject. I have found lots of information on how climate-friendly the black churches are, but no sites on which self-identified black churches talk about climate. I imagine I would have to look up specific denominations, as I did for mainline Protestants. I’m not going to, because it seems very likely they would say much the same things that the mainline Protestant websites do. The entire Protestant continuum works with the same doctrinal raw material and therefore finds much the same reasons to care about climate. What makes the Black churches different is that more of their members actually do think climate is important.
It would be interesting to list climate action projects organized or sponsored by historically black churches. The numbers on climate attitudes among both parishioners and preachers suggest that these exist, and there are interdenominational climate action initiatives of various kinds. However, to do that story properly, I’d need to go considerably beyond the scope of this article. But there is a more obvious example of black Protestant climate concern in action.
President Obama is the first American President to make climate sanity a major part of his policy and the first to fight deniers on the subject as fiercely as he has. If the conference in Paris later this year does sign a politically binding agreement to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, the American most directly responsible will be Barack Obama. He’s also a Protestant. And he’s black. Is this a coincidence?
Whether the President is also a black Protestant in the sense I have used in this article is outside of the scope of this article–it may not even be a meaningful question, because of how fluid Protestant religious identity is. Mr. Obama did attend an African-American church in the past and caught serious political flake over certain comments by its preacher during his first campaign. As President, however, he invites spiritual council from a variety of sources.
But he is a deeply–and largely privately–spiritual man. It is difficult to believe that fighting Congress on climate as he has is not something he prayed over. Is it possible that the African-American religious tradition specifically supports his conviction that this issue matters?
The timeline of the climate crisis is such that meaningful greenhouse emissions reduction has to happen now. And global climate politics depends upon the leadership of the United States because everybody in the world knows we caused the problem in the first place. Is it possible that the world hinges now on the fact that America elected a black man?