Katharine Wilkinson has been interested in the environment and religion's role in culture since her undergraduate years at Sewanee: The University of the South. So when the Rhodes Scholar began studying for a Ph.D. in environmental studies at Oxford University, she paired the two to study the evangelical community's discussions of climate change.
Wilkinson's published dissertation, Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change (Oxford University Press), outlines the history of the climate change discussion within evangelicalism, centering around the Evangelical Climate Initiative's 2006 document, "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action." That document had a number of well-known evangelical signatories and, Wilkinson argues, served as a "watershed document" in setting the tone for current climate change discussions in the evangelical church.
Wilkinson, who was raised Episcopalian and now identifies as an agnostic, works with the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm. She spoke with CT about her book, the importance of the "Call to Action," and the future of the climate change discussion within evangelicalism.
How did you become interested in evangelicalism and its contribution to the creation care movement and its rhetoric?
When the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) was launched in the winter of 2006, I saw the ad they published in The New York Times and the media coverage around that launch. I thought, "Wow, there's something really interesting going on here." Just knowing the size, the cultural prominence, and the public influence of the evangelical community, I was particularly interested in what the emergence of the ECI and other creation care efforts might [mean] for public engagement in the political world generally in the United States.
Why did you choose to study evangelicals specifically, rather than mainline Protestants or the broader church?
When I started this research, the polling around environmental issues and climate change showed consistently that people who identified as evangelical were the least aware of these issues, the least concerned about them, the most skeptical. It was a very practical interest on my side. If you believe, as I do, that we need stronger public engagement and political will on sustainability issues generally and climate change issues in particular, then going to the place where you've got the greatest opportunity makes a lot of sense. The evangelical community is remarkably strong and has really powerful institutions and mechanisms of communication, so I think there are a lot of the right structures in place to be able to build that engagement and bring people on board.
You call the "Call to Action" a watershed document. At the time it came out, there was a lot of talk about how it could affect discussions on climate change. Has it had the impact you were expecting?
The significance of the document is really in the dynamics that surround it. The push to create it and to give it gravitas in the evangelical community and in the American public square generally was a catalyst to have these conversations with all these different evangelical leaders working in different spaces within the community. It was a powerful tool for building that network of people. It has also been glue that held them together. You've got geographically dispersed people working in fields from media to relief and development to university presidents and megachurch pastors and everything in between.