The tendency of environmentalists drifting leftward is worth noting, but a robust theological framework should be able to support both a love of God and a concern to care for creation without compromise. If Scripture does call for environmental activism, evangelicals have an obligation to balance the two.
Faithfulness and a Robust Environmental Ethic
As Katherine Wilkinson shows in her 2012 volume, Between God and Green: How Evangelicals are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change, there have been recent efforts among evangelicals to work for the common good through environmental activism. However, many of those actions were met with resistance from other conservatives, often followed by the accusation of theological compromise. In some key cases, time has shown some of those criticisms to be warranted, though the continued association of environmentalism with theological liberalism is both unwarranted and unhelpful.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of concern over sexual revisionism within Christianity has largely pushed environmentalism to the backburner of conservative Christian social concern. However, the path for an orthodox environmental ethics has been laid by Francis Schaeffer. Whatever imperfections in his cultural analysis, his 1970 volume, Pollution and the Death of Man, makes a compelling case for a robust environmental ethic while holding tight to the fundamentals of the faith. The same man was a vocal opponent of abortion, which later dominated his discourse and crowded out other themes like the environment. Schaeffer’s theology provides an exemplary foundation for evangelical environmental activism.
Vitriolic rhetoric about the environment increases the difficulty in getting some concerned Christians engaged. The all-or-nothing approach to party platforms by both sides continues the association between abortion and the environment. The common cause of stewarding creation for future generations requires coalition building and acceptance of a middle ground, while the current political climate seems to have people on both sides interested in domination of the opposition.
Although there are some proposals from environmentalists that Christians must oppose if they are to remain consistent with historical Christian ethics, the basis of the instinctive resistance of some conservative Christians to environmental activism is often rooted in historical, political concerns rather than theological concerns. Conservative Christians would do better to argue about the theological basis for concern for God’s creation and the ethics that flow from that rather than making economic concerns or political associations the primary influence in environmental decision-making.
Andrew Spencer is associate vice president for institutional effectiveness at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He holds a PhD in theological studies with an emphasis in Christian Ethics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation was an analysis of Christian approaches to environmental ethics.