This is another in my series on climate change and religion. I have already written about Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity, and Islam. I am not a religious scholar and I do not want to represent myself as an expert on any of these faiths and practices. Rather, I am applying a somewhat unusual focusing lens to the readily available information on each; how different religious traditions relate to climate change.
Religion is a major force in American culture and politics, as is true for many other countries (depending on the definition of “religion,” all countries might be said to depend on it, but that is another topic). Religion both influences personal belief and reflects it–and religious identity is often the most obvious clue to deeper cultural and ethnic rifts, the fault line across which people standing in the same room might as well be living in different universes because of the basic misunderstandings between them. We need to be able to communicate on climate change; we therefore need to consider climate change and religion.
Climate change is, of course, not a matter of belief–except for the fact that some people disbelieve in it, sometimes in accordance with their religious views. More importantly, science can only tell us that climate change is real. Science cannot tell us what climate change means in a moral or existential sense–that is what religion is for.
Mainline Protestant Christianity is best defined by what it is not–it is not evangelical or fundamentalist. These are churches with strong theological ties to the Protestant Reformation, not to the later religious movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In terms of doctrine, mainline churches tend to regard the Bible as requiring interpretation and many encourage the baptism of infants (evangelicals do not, maintaining that baptism is for those who already believe in Christ). But there is a great deal of overlap between the two groups; some denominations have both evangelical and mainline wings. Whether a person identifies as evangelical or mainline depends on the wording of the question.
According to polls, the population of the United States is anywhere from 13% to 18% mainline Protestant, fewer people than identify as either evangelical or Catholic. At one time, the mainline churches were the dominant form of Christianity in the United States, but they are now steadily losing ground to the evangelical churches. Overall, this means a conservative shift in American Protestantism.
Protestant Christianity is, in general, descriptive rather than proscriptive–there is no central authority able to define belief and practice, as there is in Catholicism, because the distinctions between denominations are fluid. That is, a particular denomination may have its own orthodoxy and regard other churches as apostate or simply not truly Christian, most individuals can switch denominations at will, without being perceived as changing religions. This freedom to vote with the feet on doctrine means that the only way to find out what Protestant beliefs are is to ask Protestants.
Mainline Protestants on Climate Change
According to polls, mainline Protestants tend not to be concerned about climate change—but they are more concerned, as a group, than other white Christians.
The poll I’m using subdivides both Protestants and Catholics by race, yielding five categories of Christian: Hispanic Catholic, white Catholic, black Protestant, white evangelical, and white mainline. This system is both curious and questionable for several reasons, most of which I will not explore here. For the most part, American Christianity is not organized along racial lines. There is only one Catholic Church and it does not have separate Anglo and Hispanic wings.
But the poll data is interesting. Taken as a whole, the Catholic Church is very climate aware, as I’ve written before. Not only is Pope Francis a powerful climate ally, but in polls American Catholics express more concern for climate than either evangelical or mainline Protestants. But when the pollsters separate Catholics by race, the white group ends up looking almost exactly like the evangelical and mainline Protestants–which are numerically and culturally dominated by white people. It appears that white Christians, regardless of denomination, drag their feet on climate in a way that no other group defined by the polls does. And I don’t know why.
(Before I get a lot of angry comments, I’m not saying ALL white Christians are climate deniers–my husband is a white Methodist and he bought a hybrid before it was cool. I’m saying that there is apparently a racial dimension to American attitudes on climate that transcends the religious dimension. And it could be important.)
Of course, there are leaders within the mainline Protestant community who are active environmentalists and who ground their environmental concern in their faith for much the same reasons that Catholic and evangelical environmentalists do.
It can be difficult to get more in-depth information on mainline Protestants as a whole, probably because few people really self-identify as such–the group is defined as those Protestants who do not self-identify as something else. I have therefore looked for information on several specific mainline denominations. This review is by no means exhaustive or even necessarily representational of the variety of belief and practice out there. It’s just some of the things some mainline Protestants are doing with respect to climate.
The Episcopal Church has published an official statement on climate change, acknowledging that it is real but that church members should not give in to despair because “God has not Abandoned His creation.” The language is heartfelt but somewhat ambiguous. Some of the Church’s leadership’s actions are much more straightforward, including backing conservation-related legislation and supporting emissions-reductions efforts in developing countries by donating money.
However, many Episcopalian congregations have not yet signed on to the denomination’s climate efforts and there has been substantial pushback from church members in some areas–interestingly, many of them complain that climate change does not seem like a religious issue or that it is too political to address in church. Some pastors report being told by congregants that church (defined as what they do and think about on Sundays while attending services) should be separate from the rest of life and that pastors should not tell them how to live. I do not know how widespread that attitude is among Episcopalians.
And yet other congregants and the Church leadership keep pushing. The Episcopal Church has a long history of environmental leadership–it officially opposed drilling and mining in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in 1991. And if some of the pushback against environmentalism sounds a bit unusual, the Episcopal Church also has a theological justification for environmental concern that I have not encountered before–that Jesus said to love our neighbors and that some of our neighbors are animals and plants.
The United Methodist Church has, as a “global church community” issued a resolution that human-caused climate change is real and is a problem and that church members should do something about it and encourage others to act as well. Representatives of the UMC marched as an identifiable block within the People’s Climate March (I saw them there). United Methodist Women, a missionary organization associated with the Church, has written accurately and movingly about climate change on its website. The group describes the problem as a moral issue, tying it to both social justice and a sacramental understanding of nature as God’s creation.
The Lutheran World Federation is organizing a monthly fast leading up to the IPCC meeting in Paris later this year. The organization also called for increased climate advocacy on the part of Lutheran churches after the meeting in Lima, which the body criticized as not taking climate change seriously enough. A grassroots Lutheran environmental organization exists to support individuals and congregations with what it calls “earthkeeping.”
The Presbyterian Church (USA) published an accurate and serious position paper on climate change (and ozone depletion) in 1990. The paper called for the United States to take leadership on emissions reductions and for individual Americans to support that process through lifestyle change. The statement is not overtly theological or religious is nature. The Presbyterian Mission Agency provides support and information to Presbyterian faith-based activists on a number of environmental issues, including climate change–and its website does describe climate action in theological terms, as a way of “keeping the garden” as God asked. In 2006, the Church’s representative General Assembly voted for the Church as a whole to become carbon-neutral. Not surprisingly, such assertive environmentalism is not without controversy–some church members see economic and social benefit from continuing to exploit coal, for example. But such arguments sound distinctly secular and not different from the ways that any other group of people might disagree on how to handle worldly problems.
I can’t find any word on whether the Church (meaning not just its institutions but also its entire membership) has gone carbon neutral, or any report on their progress thus far, but the Church website does have a guide members can use in their efforts to achieving that goal.
“Quaker” is the nickname for a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I have heard that it was originally coined as an insult, but the Quakers themselves have appropriated the term and use it freely. In fact, although a Quaker congregation or a Quaker service is properly called a Friends Meeting, I am aware of no other way to refer to a member of such a group besides “a Quaker.” I know and have known several Quakers, and while I do not know if they are representative of their faith, I have always been impressed by them as individuals.
The Quakers have a long history of activism in social justice–they were very active in the anti-slavery movement, for example, and in various peace movements. During the Civil War, some Quaker men were imprisoned and abused by the United States government for their principled refusal to bear arms (or to pay for anyone to take their place). It is therefore not especially surprising that the Religious Society of Friends would get involved in climate sanity–I saw a contingent of them at the People’s Climate March, and finding articles and blogs on climate issues by Quakers is easy. Oddly enough, I have not been able to find an actual statement of policy on the subject by American Quakers. I did find a moving statement on the Quakers in Britain site, which described the issue in social justice terms and describes the environmental problem as a symptom of larger economic and social issues.
Bringing It All Together
So, I set out to read up on the responses of five mainline Protestant denominations and find that all five are more or less on it. I did not find a single climate-denial site identified with any of these denominations (doesn’t mean there aren’t any, only that they don’t rank well in search results). Nor did I encounter any reports of mainline climate activists having their faith questioned by their co-religionists (as does happen to evangelical climate activists and scientists). Only among Episcopalians did I encounter any stories of pushback, and those frankly sounded more like grumpy apathy than any kind of religiously motivated resistance.
So, where are all those white Protestants who disavow climate concern in polls?
Logically we might assume that these five denominations are dominated by black people, since the polls report a lot of environmental concern among black Protestants, except that they aren’t–these are majority white groups (there are also historically black Methodist denominations, but that isn’t the same organization). It’s also possible that since I only covered five denominations, I happened not to pick the churches where the deniers are. That, too, seems unlikely.
I am guessing that, as with the Episcopalians, the pro-climate sanity leadership of each denomination is encountering some degree of foot-dragging and pushback from among their followers. I am further guessing that I saw no direct evidence of that for some combination of three reasons: the dissenters could be disorganized, without leaders of their own inclined to speak and write publicly; climate deniers in mainline congregations could be in the process of migrating to evangelical churches; or maybe the lack of concern is fundamentally not religious or even not ideologically based at all. The people who register lack of concern in those polls might be unconcerned either way and just interested in going about their lives.
But guesswork aside, what we know is that a lot of white mainline Protestants do not care about climate, even though the leadership of their churches say otherwise. Why not? What message isn’t getting through? Can we help?