The recent announcement by the Trump administration that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Accord, an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions signed by President Obama and leaders from 194 other countries in 2016, has produced a flurry of reactions. The legalities of the international pact are debatable, with strong opinions on both sides, but either way there is little clear guidance or precedent for withdrawal from such an agreement by the United States. The continued support among evangelicals for President Trump has caused some to wonder why evangelicals seem to be disinterested in environmental activism.
But there is a clear case to be made for ecological stewardship within the pages of Scripture. In the Garden of Eden, Adam was given the task of tending the garden (Gen. 2:15). God preserved both human and non-human creation while judging the earth through a cataclysmic flood and entered into a covenant with all living creatures not to destroy the earth again by a flood (Gen. 8–9). The Psalms bear witness that creation testifies to God’s character (e.g., Ps. 19:1–6). Paul tells us that Jesus came to reconcile “all things” to himself (Col. 1:15–20), which is a state for which creation is eagerly longing (Rom. 8:18–25). There is a biblical case for evangelical Christians to be actively engaged in environmental activism, but political polarization has put creation care among the issues that often divide the right and the left. It has not always been this way.
When the first Earth Day celebration was held in 1970 it was a bipartisan event with over 20 million Americans of various political views participating. The commemoration of this day came under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency and is still, despite his other public failures, considered to be a “green” president by some environmental ethicists. Earth Day was a response to the obvious environmental issues in the United States and around the world. Famously, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio “caught fire” when a large amount of surface debris and oil ignited, making national news. Acid rain caused a real and obvious threat to lakes and rivers in the Northeast United States, and the Great Lakes were dying. The consensus on these issues was broad and public response was warranted. Although the issues have changed, the greatest shift in environmental concerns has been the division between right and left on this issue, which, in religious communities, has often been driven by factors other than theology.
1. A Misguided Call to Action
One of the first major barriers to theologically conservative Christian engagement in the environment comes from Lynn White Jr.’s infamous essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White’s essay was published in Science in March 1967 and was based on a lecture given to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. White was a historian who specialized in documenting the cultural influence of technology, including a hotly debated theory about the role of the stirrup in the development of civilization.
White’s argument in his essay is that current environmental problems have been caused by the rise and abusive use of technology, and that technology was developed in the West because of Christian de-paganization of nature. Consequently, Western Christianity is at fault for the ecological crisis. White recommended modifying Christian orthodoxy to accommodate environmental concerns.