How evangelicals moved from supporting environmental stewardship to climate skepticism
Ed.: This story was provided by The Conversation for AP customers. The Associated Press is not responsible for the content.
(THE TALK) White conservative evangelicals, who make up the bulk of the religious right-wing movement, largely oppose government regulation to protect environmental initiatives, including efforts to curb human-caused climate change. Several social science studies, for example, show again and again that this group has considerable climate skepticism.
However, contrary to popular belief, this was not always the case.
My research shows how white conservative evangelicals supported a pro-environmental position from the late 1960s to early 1990s.
In 1967, the idea of environmental protection became an issue for the broader Christian community after historian Lynn White Jr. published The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. The article argued that increasing environmental degradation was the result of Christian philosophies encouraging society to view nature as a simple resource for mankind’s sole benefit.
One of the many Christian thinkers who responded to White was popular conservative evangelical author Francis Schaeffer.
To respond to White’s allegation, Schaeffer went to the lecture series to convince the audience of the importance of Christian environmental responsibility. From this perspective, all creation must be treated with respect and not abused for economic gain. He argued that humans must cherish the nonhuman natural world because it was created by and belongs to God. Consequently, humans were only stewards, guardians, or stewards of the natural environment.
Perspectives of evangelical leaders
In 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day that marked the birth of the modern environmental movement, Schaeffer’s perspectives were published in his book Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology. Subsequently, Schaeffer’s environmental views became the standard environmental position among many conservative evangelicals for about the next 20 years.
Schaeffer’s ideas have been reflected and expanded upon in major publications such as Christianity Today, the United Evangelical Action of the National Association of Evangelical, and Moody Monthly of the Moody Bible Institute.
As I researched further on the subject, archival documents revealed that in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention conducted a survey that reflected the environmental views of its 12 million members. It found that 81.7% of pastors surveyed and 76.3% of Sunday school teachers believed churches should lead efforts to solve air and water pollution problems.
In another example that reflects Schaeffer’s views, in the 1970s and 1980s Christian textbook publishers incorporated green philosophies into materials sold to parents, pastors, and teachers who helped expand the growing homeschooling and Christian school movements. The two most popular publishers, ABeka Book and Bob Jones University Press, both supported Christian views on environmental responsibility. ABeka Book, for example, praised the efforts of conservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir in a reader for sixth graders.
respect for creation
The religious right retained its pro-environmental philosophies after the establishment of its first official organization, the Moral Majority, in 1979. ABeka Book reprinted Muir’s story in 1986, and as late as 1989 the publisher was publishing an economics textbook that praised capitalism while warning of the environmental dangers of the free market.
After retiring from the presidential race in 1988, noted televangelist Pat Robertson addressed the GOP National Convention in New Orleans. During his speech, he not only expressed his support for classic religious right-wing positions such as traditional family values, but also reaffirmed the community’s pro-environmental views, saying that he hopes for a future “where the water is clean and the air clean to breathe, and the citizens respect and care for the soil, the forests and God’s other creatures who share with us the earth, the sky and the water.”
On a politically charged national stage, Robertson reiterated Schaeffer’s views on Christian environmental stewardship and emphasized how all creation should be respected.
While Christian environmental responsibility became an accepted environmental perspective within the religious right, it only existed as an idea or philosophy—not as part of organized activism. However, the reality of this support challenges previous notions that this community has largely ignored or rejected conservation efforts.
The anti-environment campaign
In the early 1990s, sections of the religious right attempted to put pro-environmental philosophies into practice. The Southern Baptist Convention held an environmental seminar in 1991 that reiterated Schaeffer’s views on Christian environmental responsibility. However, this attempt encountered an insurmountable obstacle.
In an attempt to quash increasing international cooperation to combat man-made climate change, political conservatives in the US launched an anti-environmental campaign. Conservative think tanks and special interest groups denied the reality of man-made global warming, and some even supported conspiracy theories that claimed environmentalists wanted to create a one-world government.
Aside from finding an audience among secular conservative Americans, these outreach attempts have found a home among the traditionally politically conservative adherents of the religious right.
Anti-environmental messages increasingly relied on mockery, which some leading pastors supported. For example, Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the religious right-wing movement, began calling environmentalists “tree huggers” as early as 1992. In Pat Robertson’s Regent University newspaper, political cartoons derided sympathy for the environment as left-wing extremism.
By 1993, the idea of Christian environmentalism had all but disappeared from the rhetoric of the religious right. In their place came staunch opposition to conservation efforts, including denial of anthropogenic climate change, which the majority of this community today supports.
Although adherents of the religious right today largely oppose Schaeffer’s Christian environmental stewardship, a small but noticeable number of voices within the community keep it alive. Perhaps the largest pro-environmental organization is the Evangelical Environmental Network, founded in 1993. Other notable developments include the signing of the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2006 by prominent religious leaders.
These are notable developments, often using theological arguments to support environmental activism. But they are largely overshadowed by the ongoing non-theological anti-environmental arguments based on misinformation.
The Conversation is an independent and not-for-profit source for news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation is solely responsible for the content.