The Fundamentalists Holding Us Back from a Climate Change Solution
The evangelical Christian movement has been at war with environmentalism for decades—but the stakes have never been higher.
Rachel Lamb grew up thinking that climate change was a liberal hoax. That's what everyone thought at the rural Michigan church where her dad was the pastor. The world was slowly getting hotter, but that fact was rarely mentioned in the Baptist social circles she spun through, and when it was, it was in the context of something Democrats blew way out of proportion. Her attitude about the subject was more wary than antagonistic. If someone were to come up to her clique and suggest that the climate was changing, their response would most likely be a sarcastic, Where'd you hear that from?
Although the 27-year-old used to go hiking in national parks with her family as a kid, she was taught to think of her love of Jesus and her appreciation of nature as being separate—two puzzle pieces that made up the larger picture of her personality but didn't fit together. Then she took a climate change politics course at Wheaton College, a Christian university in Illinois, where her worldview coalesced and she found her purpose.
"I realized I could spend the rest of my life working in the context of environmental protection and do it as a Christian and not in spite of being a Christian," she told me. "I got really excited about helping other people in my faith community understand that climate change was one of the biggest threats our generation would face."
Today Lamb's on the steering committee of the activist group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Her job is to get born-again types to care about saving the Earth. This is harder than you might think, for a number of reasons. Many Christians don't trust the prevailing scientific opinions on the subject, and Republican leaders, many of whom get donations from the oil and gas industries, have been feeding them a line for decades.
However, some experts insist that the biggest factor contributing to climate denialism among evangelicals is scriptural.
Just a day before Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, ExxonMobile shareholders voted for the company to come up with a plan to address climate change. When even oil companies that have long opposed environmentalism are in favor of reducing carbon emissions, why is the Trump administration set against those policies? The answer may lie in the fact that for many religious fundamentalists, a belief in God's omnipotence and infallibility is what orders their existence—a conviction that can overrule economic incentives or earthbound politics.
Philip Schwadel is a sociologist at the University of Nebraska who studies how Americans' attitudes about religion and politics change from generation to generation. For a study published in April, he reviewed decades of polling data to try and figure out the most likely predictor for thinking that global warming was not a major problem. Schwadel concluded that biblical literalism—or the belief that the Bible is the word of God —is what's keeping Americans from an agreement to fight climate change.
His paper in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion analyzed 18,083 survey responses from 1983 to 2012 in which people answered the question, "Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?" Evangelical Protestants make up about 20 percent of the US population, and according to Schwadel's study, 55 percent of people who identify as evangelical answered that question with, "The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." Overall, he found that white people who chose that answer were the most likely to de-prioritize environmental spending and not think climate change was something to worry about.
There are an estimated 35 million biblical literalists in the United States. These people—who may think, for instance, God intends for the Earth to end like it's written in Revelation anyway, so who am I to intervene?— are incredibly hard to convert to the cause of fighting climate change. Pleas from secular scientists and journalists are going to fall on deaf ears; the two sides end up mostly talking past each other.
Those fundamentalists represent a fairly tiny minority in the US—a little more than 10 percent of all Americans. But enabled by fossil fuel money, religious climate change deniers have acquired massive amounts of political influence, to the point that some conservative politicians who favor fighting climate change are allegedly afraid to speak up. And several biblical literalists are in Trump's cabinet, which surely had something to do with the president's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement in June.
Calvin Beisner is a big part of that campaign for climate inaction. He's the head of an evangelical activist group called the Cornwall Alliance that is skeptical of catastrophic climate change and downplays humans' role in rising temperatures. When Beisner was a toddler, his Methodist mother contracted a virus in Calcutta that paralyzed her. As the 61-year-old recalled to me, his father prayed, "God, you can take my son, just don't take my wife." Later, at a Billy Graham crusade in 1969, the budding fundamentalist realized that Christ had not "taken" him in death, but rather to a life in ministry.
He would grow up to be more radical than either of his parents, embracing a Calvinist/Reformed theology that also characterized the Puritans. Later, he would ping-pong between communities, ultimately landing in one that embraced the Southern Baptist Convention. Today, he's he kind of guy who goes on Christian radio to denounce environmentalism as the "greatest threat to Western civilization."
Beisner's argument against environmentalism is a cost-benefit analysis. Although many have argued that poor people will be disproportionately affected by sea-level rise, he instead thinks that the costs of mitigating climate change will prolong and spread poverty.
For the uninitiated, it's hard to see how those things have anything to do with scripture. But people like Beisner can point to a range of Bible passages, from the Genesis concept of man having "dominion" over the rest of God's creatures to the idea of the apocalypse laid out in Revelation. He's also influenced by some of the writing by Paul the apostle, who in spreading the gospel after Jesus's death warned the Romans and the Greeks that the sufferings of present time weren't even worth considering due to the fact that a judgment day would one day consume the heavens and the earth with fire.
"In the context of working in [Young Evangelicals for Climate Action], I've heard just about every argument against climate change from economic, to theological, political, to some hybrid combination of them all," Lamb told me. "But for a lot of conservative Christians they think, 'If God's in control of everything, he's not gonna make a mess of things,' or 'The world's gonna burn up anyways, so maybe climate change is signifying the end is coming and we should just use it as a warning sign,' or 'What's the point of going overboard to fix this.' And their church pastor is not saying anything about it."
To understand how Christian ideology got to this point you need to go back thousands of years, to the dawn of agriculture in Mesopotamia. The region's light soil meant you only needed two oxen to plow. But as the practice of farming trickled west to the people of Northern Europe, four times as much power was needed to dig into the wetter earth. Because no subsistence-farming peasants owned more than a couple animals apiece, early Christians pooled resources and developed a process of plowing that violently dragged a vertical knife and a moldboard through the mud using eight animals.
"Man's relation to the soil was profoundly changed," legendary medieval scholar Lynn White wrote in 1967 about this moment in human history. "Formerly man was part of nature; now he was the exploiter of nature."
According to White, this innovation could only have happened after what he calls the "greatest physic revolution in the history of culture"—the transition from paganism to Christianity. Basically, that's when much of the world went from thinking that we needed to get permission from a tree's guardian spirt if we wanted to cut it down to the belief that everything on earth was there for humans to use as they saw fit. To this day, White's seminal thesis undergirds almost all modern scholarship on why the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West is seemingly at odds with the ecology movement, which was just coming into being in White's era.
In 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich wrote a book with his wife, Anne, called The Population Bomb. The speculative tome argued that we needed to do whatever was necessary to reduce the number of human beings on earth in order to save it—including promote contraception and allow abortion. According to Mark Stoll, a professor of environmental history at Texas Tech University and the author of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of Environmentalism, the publication of Bomb was the beginning of a decades-long battle between evangelical Christians and liberals.
Still, environmentalism wasn't exactly a dirty word among conservatives at that time—Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. There were also moderate Republicans, like Nelson Rockefeller, who supported many environmentalist positions. Stoll imagines an alternate history in which Republicans were on board with climate change action, but the battle between evangelicals and environmentalists heated up in following years.
"It takes two to start this fight," he told me. "So there's been some stuff that goes on in the environmental movement that alienates the evangelicals, and at the same time the evangelicals are doing stuff that's alienated the environmentalists. It's just kind of snowballed."
One turning point came in 1980, when Ronald Reagan declared himself a member of the so-called "sagebrush rebellion," a burgeoning movement fighting for federal deregulation of lands in 13 western states. This states-rights argument about land use didn't explicitly invoke religious themes, but it was going on at the same time the Republican Party was becoming inextricably tied to the Christian right. That was partially due to the influence of Calvin Beisner, who as a much younger man worked with a group called the Coalition of Revival to help get evangelicals into politics and guide them toward an Old Testament-influenced worldview. (As recently reported by Splinter's Brendan O'Connor, the group's manifesto was co-written by Beisner.)
There's a chicken-or-egg argument about whether the oil and gas lobby pushed the GOP to adopt anti-environment positions and the evangelicals moved in that direction with the rest of the party, or whether Christian fundamentalists were already primed to endorse those views. Schwadel's research suggests that the latter explanation can't be dismissed.
He's quick to note how religious the United States is compared to tother industrialized countries, something he says goes a long part of the way in explaining the country's attitudes toward the environment, though he doubts it's a total explanation of the phenomenon.
"Today we tend to think of [environmentalism] as a highly partisan issue and that it always was," Schwadel told me. "But the research clearly shows that it wasn't nearly as partisan especially among cultural elites and political leaders in the leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. It really started to become partisan in the 1980s or later 70s. [The Christian Right] may have played a role. It's probably not a coincidence that environmental perspectives became a lot more partisan as the Republican Party became a lot more tied to the evangelical Protestant community."
The proof of evangelicals' influence is that though there's little evidence Donald Trump himself thinks the Bible is the word of God—or has even read it all that deeply—he has put a number of biblical literalists in his cabinet, giving fundamentalists an enormous amount of power.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is a Seventh-Day Adventist who believes in the Second Coming of Christ and that the Bible offers a historically accurate view of ancient times. Carson—a noted climate change skeptic—thinks God created the world in six days.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue attends the Second Baptist Church in Warner Robins, Georgia, where his son, Jim Perdue, is the pastor. On the church's website are links to sermons about the creation of the earth by God exactly as it is told in the Bible. Perdue himself once prayed for a storm during a drought while the governor of Georgia. In 2014, he questioned the link between climate change and weather events.
Finally, and most importantly, is Scott Pruitt, a self-purported climate denier who unsuccessfully sued the EPA as Oklahoma's attorney general five times before becoming the head of the EPA under Trump. He's also a deacon at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, which Stoll says means he's almost certainly a biblical literalist.
"We believe the Bible to be 'the' Word of God," one of Pruitt's pastors, Nick Garland, told me. "To take every word of Daniel's vision or Revelation as literal then we would fail to recognize the symbolic meaning of the imagery. Where the Bible speaks—unless it is presented as symbolic— we take it as literally true."
During his tenure, Pruitt has worked to gut the EPA, and has done more to roll back environmental rules than anyone in the agency's history. He said he wants to focus on "tangible" issues like pollution rather than climate change—a phenomenon that he doesn't believe humans are a major contributor to. (When he said as much on CNBC, other employees of the EPA conducted an internal review to figure out if he'd violated a scientific integrity policy, though they concluded he did not.)
Willful disregard for the environment espoused by the very people tasked with creating it gives Stoll, the historian, "deja vu." He says it's strikingly similar to what Reagan did after he took office back in 1981. Anne Gorsuch Burford—the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice's mother—was a sagebrush rebel who got appointed to the head of the EPA and basically dismantled it before being forced to step down amid widespread accusations of mismanagement.
There was also James Watts, who often talked about his Christian faith and as secretary of the interior thought the US had too many parks and wanted to open up game refuges to oil and gas development. "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns," he once told Congress while being questioned about his views on preserving natural resources. Like Burford, he resigned after intense pressure from environmentalists.
"Politically we're in a rather different situation today, it seems to me liberalism or the environmental movement isn't as powerful as it was back in the 1980s," Stoll said. "But, one of the things that happened during the 1980s was money poured in to all the environmental organizations and new members poured in. In a way it was a boon for environmentalism—it rallied all of the complacent people."
Dave Lamb was one of those formerly complacent people. He was born in 1962, and grew up in the Baptist Church around Milwaukee. Later, he spent time working as a camp in Alaska, and got a taste of what it was like to be away from pollution—then a growing topic of concern.
Still, as he got older, and people started warning about climate change, he balked. He was happy to preach against pollution, but talking about global warming seemed way too out of his league. Climate change, climate action, climate science—whatever you want to call it—was too large and abstract of a concept to even tackle. It also struck him and his friends as something that didn't jibe with what he calls his "identity theology." The idea is that like with identity politics, there are certain issues for Christians that serve as litmus tests. Knowing how someone feels about a handful of issues lets you know if they're in your "tribe."
"If you get tribal about it, that was the more liberal end, and we were the more conservative end," he told me. "Maybe that's not fair, or oversimplified, but that's probably it. I don't think I had a disdain for climate science, it just wasn't a category I was used to. I had enough to worry about it without trying to become an expert in reading climate studies or things like that."
But then his daughter Rachel took what she considered a life-changing climate-change politics class. After that, she majored in environmental studies. Finally, when she got a fellowship with the Environmental Protection Agency and went to visit a native Alaskan community, she brought back stories of real people. That was striking.
"You can throw statistics and graphs at people and it's depersonalized," said Dave, who now gives sermons about climate change at his church. "But if you get somebody involved in a narrative or a story about people getting impacted by an issue, they can identify with it so much more deeply or empathetically."
And with a new school year on the horizon comes new hope for further conversion. The YECA is a handful of weeks out from their annual planning retreat. The younger Lamb will help train the group's fourth cohort of climate change leadership fellows to enlighten their fellow evangelical students on both secular and religious campuses, by doing things like bringing in speakers to talk about creation care at campus chapels.
Stoll, the Texas academic, says that one way to get evangelicals to support climate action, which is to couch it in the biblical term of stewardship—a concept that's particularly appealing to Baptists. He also points to the success of a wind-energy sector that grew under Texas Governor Rick Perry LINK as a lesson in the benefits of painting pro-environment policies as good for business.
"Don't mention the words 'global warming' and people are supportive here," he said.
For her part, Rachel Lamb says that she knows not to engage with people who are overtly hostile, but thinks that people like her—who were simply never exposed to information about climate science in their cultural orbit as children—are where she needs to focus her energies. But though she believes that the vocal minority of evangelical climate change deniers is shrinking, she doesn't deny that Republican politicians continue to be a thorn in her side. She singles out Vice President Mike Pence as an example of someone who publicly seems to identify as an evangelical Christian but who continues to make comments about the Paris Agreement that don't frame it as a faith-informed issue, but rather a partisan one.
"I still believe many people in our community are confused about the solutions," Lamb said. "People are more understanding that climate change is real, but it still gets caught up in partisan politics of being a liberal versus a conservative. It's been portrayed as a liberal issue. It's not about Al Gore, it's about following Jesus."
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