One of the more interesting things I learned (thanks to Vanderbilt Earth & Environmental Sciences professor Jonathan Gilligan) at a very interesting conference on consumption and climate change at Vanderbilt Law School this weekend was a tidbit from Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign. In an NPR interview, Huckabee argued that creationists should be more concerned about the environment than Darwinists. For a Darwinist, Huckabee reasoned, there's no reason to fear global warming because it can be seen as the planet's natural adaptation to industrial civilization, whereas he sees the earth as God's creation---something we hold in stewardship and which is not ours to deface.
Equally interesting was a finding by Columbia sociologist Dana Fisher that more than 75% percent of environmental activists have college degrees, and more than 33% of them have advanced degrees, percentages much higher than among antiwar demonstrators and other protest groups. (Fisher’s website, with links to her work on activism, is here). These two data points seem to me to nicely illustrate both the likely growth of evangelical environmentalism, and its likely limits.
Start with those college degrees. They confirm the impression that environmentalists tend to come disproportionately from the intellectual elite, which is one reason evangelicals have long viewed environmentalism with suspicion. I suspect the widespread distrust among most evangelicals of the top-down governmental interventions that environmentalists usually propose will continue.
But the Huckabee comments suggest just how much things are changing. Even ten years ago, a prominent evangelical who held Huckabee’s creationist views and extremely literal interpretation of the Bible would be very unlikely to sympathize with environmentalism. Environmentalism is still quite contested among evangelicals, and evangelicals remain much more skeptical of the claims of the scientific community, and less likely to view global warming as a serious threat, than other groups, as this 2006 Pew report shows. But the importance of caring for the environment is increasingly taken as a given, especially among younger evangelicals.
My guess is that this shift will be most visible at the local level, perhaps in initiatives in churches and communities that focus on stewardship simply as one component of one’s walk with God. I’d be very interested to hear from evangelical readers about whether they see evidence of this, or whether I’m mistaken about the trend (not least, these thoughts will help as I work on my paper for the Vanderbilt conference).