Did Evangelicals Change the Climate Change Conversation?
Did Evangelicals Change the Climate Change Conversation?
Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change
Oxford University Press, USA
June 25, 2012
256 pp., $23.93
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.
Having that document that they had all committed to was important in holding that network together. It did create an important splash in public discourse that opened people's eyes to this engagement in a way they wouldn't have otherwise. These political documents that emerge in a specific period of time don't have a power that lives on and on and on. What's really important is the advocacy that surrounds them. You can get that first public awareness and media attention, but the reality of the kind of advocacy work that has to be done is that a lot of it is much less visible, less dramatic. There's the long, hard slog that also has to happen at the same time.
In the book, you say a lot of the churchgoers you talked with in 2007 were discussing the "Call to Action" for the first time, a year after the document came out. Did that surprise you? Were you expecting a broader discussion of the issues at that point?
People were certainly familiar with the concepts and theology of creation care. The lay public is busy and involved in their lives. The focus of the ECI was more on Capitol Hill and political leaders and generating media attention. With any very specific, advocacy-oriented initiative that leaders are championing and pioneering, it takes a while to drive it into the grassroots, especially in a religious community that's structured like the evangelical community. You don't have the formal hierarchy that you have in some other faith traditions that would make it a much more streamlined process. It didn't so much surprise me—I think it speaks to the very real challenges of this kind of work.
And you would see an evangelical venture like Flourish as an example of a group that's starting at the grassroots end?
Exactly. At the time that I was doing these focus groups at churches and encountering the challenges around the issue of climate change, in particular, versus creation care or stewardship more generally, Rusty Pritchard and Jonathan Merritt and other leaders were also encountering them in their advocacy. They were trying to figure out, "Okay, if what we think we need is a groundswell of support and interest from the evangelical grassroots, how do we go about creating that? Maybe we need to create a much less explicitly political or policy-oriented approach and do something like Flourish." Flourish is something that emerged towards the end of my work on my Ph.D. It was interesting that the things that I was discovering were also shaping the reality of this advocacy on the ground.
Will the evangelical creation care movement and the secular environmentalist movement join forces in the future or stay separate?
They're wrestling with similar questions, so there is a lot of overlap. That overlap becomes a source of partnership and alliance building. If other issues are any indication we'll see more of it—the kind of partnership and alliances that have occurred around human trafficking and HIV/AIDS. They don't have to be permanent and everlasting alliances, but there's much more willingness to form periodic, temporary alliances that come together because there's a mutual interest in a particular issue or piece of policy or concern. There's a lot of power in a strange-bedfellow partnership, in terms of both capturing public attention and generating media, but also in terms of actually building power blocs across different stakeholder groups across the aisle. I think we'll continue to see that happening. I hear often from secular environmental groups that are very interested in how to do that, so I think there's a lot of interest there. Hopefully Between God and Green and other pieces of work and experiences will help these groups better understand whether those alliances will be feasible and fruitful, and where they could be trickier, more complicated, and less fruitful.
Do you think it's more effective for secular and evangelical groups to operate separately and join once in a while as opposed to uniting more broadly?
I do. There are unique roles for them to play in building up public engagement, particularly in communities where someone's religious identity is an important credential and driver of trust. It helps groups like Flourish for them to be definitively evangelical efforts versus a kind of more muddled partnership.
What's going to happen next with the evangelical climate change and environmental care movement?
The engagement of young evangelicals in creation care issues and climate care specifically will continue to grow and be a really important driver of the future of the movement and growing passion and concern around it. There's also a lot of effort to provide resources to general pastors in the community—not prominent megachurch pastors, but just your average Joe pastor—to enable them with resources to think about and talk about these issues in their own congregations. They will be really important ambassadors of the issue. If they're not, it will be fundamentally difficult to grow grassroots engagement.
On evangelical college campuses, in relief and development organizations, and in certain church communities, there has been a lot of traction. You've got these little hot spots, and the question is whether or not it will be possible to connect across the space between those hot spots.
What audience are you addressing with Between God and Green, and what do you want the book to accomplish?
I wanted it to be a useful book for people working in this space in some way or another, both from faith-based and from secular points of view. There's a lot to be learned on both sides, and one of the things that's really important if you're going to work together is to understand who you're partnering with and where they're coming from. I am ultimately hopeful that the book can foster conversation across typical stereotypes and boundaries that we think of—secular/religious; liberal/conservative; economy/environment. A lot of those dichotomies are false, so I'm hopeful that a book like this will bring generally interested people into conversation and maybe even collaboration. There are really important ethical questions to wrestle with on the issue of climate change, and opening up more space for discourse about those dimensions of the issue is really important. We talk so much more about science and policy than we do about these really profound questions of meaning. I'm hopeful that Between God and Green will be a catalyst to spark more of these conversations.