Preserving the Environment

Can Religion Save the Environment?

April 17, 2018
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Can Religion Save the Environment?
Young Evangelicals for Climate Action
Members of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action participate in the People's Climate March in New York City in 2014. Photo courtesy of YECA
Against a convoluted landscape where faith, science and politics don’t play nice together, a few voices in the eco-evangelical movement are driving change.

Evangelical Christians and climate change? The two aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath, unless referring to the former as staunch and outspoken deniers of the latter.

Like the origins of life itself, the notion of man-made climate change is one that frequently puts religious conservatives at odds with the scientific community. And despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree the threat of ecological disaster at the hands of humans is real, just over a quarter of white evangelicals believe the same. Even less believe in climate reform.

This puts the small cohort of eco-conscious Christians in a bind: How do they convince their fellow worshippers that the earth is warming due to human activity, that it will disproportionately affect the poor, and that evangelicals have a role to play in stopping it?

“There’s a lot in the Christian faith that is chock-full of evidence of God’s love for the world that he created, and particularly in the non-human world,” says Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, a national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. “Faith and a concern for the environment tend to get pitted against each other and get associated with one side of the aisle or the other. We don’t have to bridge these two seemingly disparate concerns because they are the same concerns.”

Meyaard-Schaap and others in the so-named creation-care movement are facing an uphill battle, if numerous studies are right. Two years ago, for example, evolutionary biologist Josh Rosenau dug into a massive 2007 Pew Research Center survey on America’s religious beliefs. He created a chart that examined the relationship between a denomination’s acceptance of evolution and the degree to which it supports stricter environmental regulations.

Rosenau found that the more a religion dismisses evolution in favor of creationism, the more its members push back against government action on climate change.

But while evangelicals’ religious beliefs inform their views on climate change, it’s their politics that might be more responsible for their attitudes — especially where environmental regulations affect the fossil fuel industry. (To wit: Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s christening of Oct. 13 as “Oilfield Prayer Day.”)

What Influences Your View on Climate Policy
A Pew study found that once you take political leanings out of the conversation, religion is one of the smallest factors in a person’s view on climate policy.Graphic by Leslie White

That entangling of religion, science and politics has become a hallmark of the current administration, perhaps most visibly in the appointment of Scott Pruitt, a former Sunday school teacher and deacon, to sit atop the Environmental Protection Agency. Just as he once said there aren’t “sufficient scientific facts to support the theory of evolution,” Pruitt has made no bones about his dismissal of man-made climate change. In a February interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he alleged that unfettered development of the nation’s energy reserves is rooted in Scripture.

That view is in line with most evangelicals, who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. For many of the faithful, earth was created for human “dominion” — a word found in Genesis and used often in the argument against human-led climate change.

But that kind of literal reading of the Bible is problematic — and misguided — says Rev. Mitch Hescox, a leading voice in the creation-care movement.

“There are some very conservative people who believe that humanity’s right to use the earth is biblical, and correcting that understanding is my number one job,” says Hescox, who also serves as president of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). He adds that the church has long ignored creation-care.

Creation-care isn’t a new movement — EEN was founded in 1993 — but it has gotten more attention in recent years as prominent religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, have agitated on behalf of environmentalism and balked at the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. And from its beginnings, creation-care has pushed a human-centric message whereas liberal-leaning groups might focus on more abstract concepts like melting glaciers and eroding coastlines.

“We’ve never been climate deniers; we’ve acknowledged it was real, but it didn’t ever impact [our] day-to-day life,” say Dave and Lonna Schaap, Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s parents, who were convinced to pay attention to climate change by their son’s campaign. “We have other values. We care for the poor, for orphans, for those in prison. And we’ve always been taught to care for those things.”

Hescox says the focus on people is where those in the left-leaning environmental movement get lost in relaying the message.

“What liberals don’t get is that faithful conservatives have a different value system,” Hescox says. “Trying to get conservative folks to care about polar bears is the wrong issue. And where maybe people like polar bears, people will not change their life over a polar bear. People will, though, change their life when you start helping them understand how fossil-fuel pollution affects children around the world.”

Still, that doesn’t mean EEN and other groups have found it easy to convert the faithful. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan think-tank New America, it’s a battle of David-and-Goliath proportions, where eco-conscious evangelicals just don’t have the resources or organization and lobbying power to go head-to-head with opposing groups — groups like the Christian Right, for example, whose network of outspoken evangelical leaders have pushed back against the environmental activism of their fellow followers.

The reason? It’s political.

“First, evangelicals’ political partners saw Creation Care as a menace for economic conservatives and opponents of environmental regulation, and did not hesitate to let evangelicals know it,” concluded the New America report. “Second, the evangelical old guard saw the Creation Care activists as threatening their role as the arbiter of evangelicalism’s political engagement.”

Another Pew study likewise found that once you take political leanings out of the conversation, there are only a few areas where deeply religious individuals actually digress from conventional scientific thinking.

And that’s news that Meyaard-Schaap, Hescox and others in the creation-care movement can use, especially where younger evangelicals are concerned.

In the past six years, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, the group Meyaard-Schaap helps lead, has grown from 18 people signing a call to action to currently reaching over 10,000 youth, he says.

“A lot of conservative lawmakers are the ones holding up on the progress of climate change from a policy position, and most conservative lawmakers rely on evangelicals to keep their seat,” says Meyaard-Schaap. “So now we’re using our voice to say, ‘You’ve depended on the support of our community to keep your seat and be a member of Congress, and you have to continue relying on our support. So now you have to pay attention.’”

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