The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Climate Change and Black Protestants

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.

Into Action

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?


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Climate Change and Mainline Protestants

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.

Some Definitions

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 changebut 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.

Episcopalians

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.

Methodists

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.

Lutherans

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.”

Presbyterians

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.

Quakers

“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?

 

 


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Climate Change and Evangelicals

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.

Some Definitions

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.