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Three Reasons Why Evangelicals Stopped Advocating for the Environment
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.
Sociologist Sabrina Danielson, in a study of conservative Christian responses to the ecological crisis, notes that the debate over the Lynn White thesis has held back legitimate engagement by conservative Christians on the environment as they attempt to defend Christianity from his accusations. Nearly every major Christian discussion of environmental ethics written since that essay introduced White’s thesis and reacted to it within the first few pages. Responses to White’s proposal of renovating Christian doctrine have been predictable. Theological conservatives have rejected White’s claims that Christianity has been responsible; more liberal commentators have tended to accept White’s claims and encourage doctrinal adaptations or, at least, a shift in emphasis.
In reality, however, White’s essay has been promoted beyond its value. Critiques of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” tend to focus on the ends of White’s essay and miss the weakness, which resides at the heart of his accusation. White’s argument fails because he places blame for the loss of wonder at nature on Christianity. As Alister McGrath argues in The Reenchantment of Nature, however, it was naturalistic influences of modernist philosophies that reduced the universe to its instrumental value for humans and encouraged the abuse of nature. Some Christians went along with that shift, but it was a result of their adaptation to prevailing ideas of their time, not a biblical theology of stewardship. The appropriate answer is not to revise orthodox Christianity, but to restore a Christian vision of the inherent value of creation.
White’s essay was intended to inspire Christians to become environmentalists by changing their doctrines. There is little he could have said that would have more strongly increased resistance to his cause. Unfortunately, his call for revision of orthodox theology was based on a misdiagnosis of the cause of the environmental crisis. His error still impedes reasonable environmental engagement among some conservative Christians today.
2. Aligning Abortion with Environment
The second wedge driven between many conservative Christians and environmental activism is the explicitly misanthropic emphasis of some forms of environmentalism. Concerns about overpopulation are not unique to the 20th and 21st century. In the 18th century, Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus published a volume, First Essay on Population, predicting the population would grow beyond the means of agricultural production, which would in turn result in mass starvation of the poor. His proposed solution included delaying marriage and voluntarily limiting family size, both reasonable solutions for a faithful Christian. His predictions turned out to be vastly wrong.
In the mid-20th century, Paul Ehrlich, a biologist from Stanford, wrote a contemporary Malthusian proposal in his book The Population Bomb. Unlike Malthus, however, Ehrlich links population control with the legalization of abortion and distribution of birth control. Population control was also a significant plank in the syncretistic philosophy of Deep Ecology, with some advocates of Deep Ecology advocating abortion as a means of reducing the impact of humans on the earth.
The connection was made clearer between abortion and environmentalism in the mind of the American public upon the release of the Rockefeller Commission report, “Population and the American Future.” That report, commissioned by Nixon in 1969, was based on public concern for the environment and overpopulation, driven by Ehrlich and others. It was released in 1972 and openly recommended the legalization of abortion and government-funded contraceptive distribution. Political tensions were high as Nixon was running for a second term. The contentious Roe v. Wade case was already at the US Supreme Court, making abortion a hot button issue. Although he had founded the EPA and endorsed Earth Day, Nixon was compelled by politics, if not by conviction, to undermine the Rockefeller Commission through a public statement rejecting the findings in the report before it was issued, in addition to behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure none of the recommendations ever made it to the legislative process.
The link between abortion and environmentalism is one that the environmental movement has been unable to shake because some groups continue to reinforce it, which biases some evangelicals against environmental activism. In reality, there is no necessary connection between environmental concern and abortion. A beautifully orthodox evangelicalism should have room for opposing abortion and caring for creation.
3. Leftward Drift of Environmentalist Evangelicals
A third factor in the resistance of some conservative Christians to environmental activism is the apparent leftward drift of Christians who are also environmentalists. As Mark Stoll notes in his recent volume, Inherit the Holy Mountain, “A high proportion of leading figures in environmental history had religious childhoods. A surprisingly large contingent had ministers or preachers as close relatives or had even considered the ministry themselves. Curiously, few (and after 1900, hardly any) were churchgoers as adults.” This apparent pattern, combined with fears of young Christians abandoning their faith, tends to raise resistance to environmentalism as a perceived cause of the decay of faith.
Adding fuel to the fire, popular pleas for the environment often use explicitly religious, often Christianesque language. John Muir, who was raised in the Disciples of Christ movement, used language about conversion and religious experience, and wrote of experiencing God in nature. In Muir’s apologetics for national parks and environmental preservation, the religious language served to raise concerns of paganization among many conservative Christians. At a time when fundamentalism and evangelicalism were developing in response to the modernist controversy, Muir’s choice of language may have alienated otherwise sympathetic Christians.
The pattern of leftward drift among evangelicals who engage in environmental activism still continues, with some notable figures who argued for evangelical engagement with the environment also becoming proponents of sexual revisionism. The recent popularity of ecotheology, a brand of highly revisionist liberation theology that focuses on freeing the oppressed environment, also contributes to the association of liberalism with environmentalism.
Additionally, many well-intentioned environmentalists, in part because of their acceptance of the Lynn White thesis, insist that revision of orthodox Christianity is necessary for environmental engagement. For example, in a 2015 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bernard Zaleha and Andrew Szasz argue that the best hope for conservative Christian belief in climate change is to have theological liberals take over denominational structures and incorporate panentheism (the belief that God is greater than the universe and all of reality exists within and as a part of God) into Christianity. Statements like this increase resistance to the issue of environmental concern because of legitimate theological concerns.
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.