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Evangelicals and Climate Change--Skeel

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).

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Comments ( 10 )

The Christian understanding of Creation leads to improvement, not preservation. God gave man to labor in the world and improve it, to multiply and fill the earth, not to preserve it. The environmentalist movement, righty viewed with suspicion by Christians, views an uninhabitated wilderness as a standard. Furthermore, the environmentalist movement, is not a movement to protect Creation simpliciter; it is a movement to increase the power of states to regulate uses of property. Because it allies with lefist statism, it is rightly viewed with suspicion by Christians who are necessarily arrayed against leftist statism on a number of fronts. If leftist environmentalist statists want to engage Christians, they should disentangle their movement from statism and leftism. Figures like Wendell Berry are a model in this regard -- pointing to the muligeneratioanl family farm as a model of creational stewardship through wise use of property, rather than the state-controlled collective.

There has certainly been a shift in the way that the environmental movement is approached, from creation worship to creation stewardship. I have often wondered if this happened only on the Christian side of the equation as so many have tried to absorb the environmentalist viewpoint, or if the entire environmentalist movement made this shift as it moved towards the center in an essentially Judeo-Christian nation.

When I was a kid during the 1970s, the rhetoric from the environmentalists was that by the year 2000, there wouldn't be enough places on the planets for all of the people to live due to overpopulation plus, even if they was, there wouldn't be enough drinkable water. We had to do 'something' or we'd all perish.

The year 2000 came and went without an end to the world.

Today's environmentalists say that the world will end because of global warming. Those who disagree are "deniers" - the rhetoric is the same, only the subject has changed. Everything is a crisis. This is why I'm skeptical about GW.

But evangelicalism to many is about the impending end of our world. And this, I think, is part of the nexus between environmentalism and evangelicalism.

I found your post quite helpful. As a youth director in the NYC metro area, we have less of the natural environment than others in the country, yet every student I teach is concerned with doing what they can in this place (recycling, etc.). Surely, this is partly societal: they live in a time as teens when it is expected you will do so; to be careless about your environment means you're a bad person, and who wants that?

However, a far more important part of this growing trend among the Reformed communities (my context) is the theological commitment to recognizing the Gospel's advancement not only individually ("my personal savior" factor of the Church, often baptists like Huckabee), but also corporately ("Our father"). From that small hill of corporate vision, it is easy to see the overall need to take care of everything we touch.

Integral to this concept, for us, is God's absolute claim over every speck of dust in the cosmos. The cue from Kuyper is relevant (and I summarize), "There is no part of creation over which Christ does not scream, "MINE!" This is basic to our worldview and so demands our action--and at times, inaction--to environmental protection. It saddens me that the rampant individualism of some sections of the Church have lost site of this collective aspect of the Gospel and coming Kingdom.

Jonathan,

Why would you say that NYC has less "natural" environment than other parts of the U.S. A city is as natural as a beehive or beaver dam or trout stream. We are part of God's creation not alien to it.

I hope that when you teach children to be good to their environment you teach them the traditional way of doing so: creating an intergenerational familial community of consanguinity and common ownership. That, rather than state-mandated and funded recycling, should be the Christian paradigm of stewardship. Families, rather than further cessions to the government of control beyond its proper sphere, is the hope for continuing to effectively improve creation. Just look at the wild mess that government biofuel projects have created.

Pensans, I use the term "natural environment" as it is used normally: in reference to the organic rather than steel and concrete. NYC certainly has less open fields, less of the "natural" and more of the "man-made."

I am skeptical of the "intergenerational familial community of consanguinity and common ownership" making any sense to New Yorkers, most of whom are transplants (in our congregation) rather than second generation New Yorkers. In our congregation of 250+, I know of only 15 people who are at least second generation. We have grammy winners and factory workers, musicians, famous artists, and whacky hockey fans who couldn't tell Monet from Manet. But 95% will not see their children living near them, nor do they themselves live near their family, scattered across the country. That is the norm of city life, and as such, it is extremely difficult to do what you are proposing.

In these situations, why should the God-established government be seen as an enemy or a roadblock? It has resources a family in a City never will. It is in this context that we are learning the Gospel's say in stewardship for Central Park. Rather than overreaching, in this case I believe the government is fulfilling its role: protecting what it can for its people, and those who will be born.

To be sure, I believe the local Church becomes the intergenerational family of which you speak. And we do teach this.

Jonathan,

First, I am not sure that natural commonly refers only to living or organic substances, e.g. a mountain, inorganic, would be called natural; iron is an inorganic but naturally occurring substance. In any case, it is precisely your renewed contrast between “man-made” and “natural” that I was suggesting a Christian environmentalism should pause over. I know you agree that man is as much a part of Creation as other organisms. If so, why should the habitat of man be excluded from the natural when we accept the habitat of the beaver or bee or wasp’s nest? The fact that we transform iron and sand into steel and concrete does not make us so different from the bee who makes his wax, the wasp who makes his paper, the beaver that fells timber and makes his dam. Viewing man as alien to the natural environment is anti-Creational in the sense that it denies that man is a part of the same Creational order as the animals and substances around him.

Second, families that expect to live both on and by means of the cultivation of one piece of land across many generations are exceptional stewards of the land against waste and destruction. Their interests are aligned strictly with stewardship. The government of a city, as you describe NYC, composed of people who do not plan for their children to live in the same environment is unlikely to be a good steward of its environment – at least not in terms that will matter beyond the life of current residents. This is why cosmetic and immediate issues, like parks, are important to city governments. But real changes necessary to create sustainable and stable environments – like limiting immigration and maintaining stable multi-generational populations – are ignored. Strong property rights held by those with an interest to protect land indefinitely for those they love intimately has been and will always be the best environmental protection. Large, transient grazing populations moving without roots from place to place will always lead to environmental destruction.

What's the point in taking care of the earth? Preserving it for what? Future generations? There will be no future generations. At least, not more than one. Because Christ is returning to make all things new and set up the perfect kingdom, and it's happening very soon.

At least, this is what I have heard. I personally would rather do what I can to make this world a better place for my children. I too think it would be great if Christ would return soon. But I'm not inclined to engage in wishful thinking. So far, predictions of the second coming have had a success rate of zero.

"What's the point in taking care of the earth? Preserving it for what? Future generations? There will be no future generations. At least, not more than one. Because Christ is returning to make all things new and set up the perfect kingdom, and it's happening very soon."

You really hear that? Alot?

I think we should point and laugh at that more.

I think views of divine sovereignty are behind our visions of global climate change. if we think that God is sovereign and in charge then there is a kind of passivity about our relationship to the environment. But if we believe that sovereignty means we are participating with God in creation then we will engage the environment and are more willing to admit that we are affecting it.
Check out my article online: http://commons.pacificu.edu/eip/vol11/iss1/3/