What Do Evangelical Christians Really Think About Climate Change?

A conversation about how a quarter of the US population came to reject the idea that it’s a human-made problem.

Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty

This story was originally published by Newsweek and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The vast majority of scientists agree climate change is an existing, growing, and human-made threat to our planet. And yet the topic is a divisive issue in the US—not least among people of faith.

White evangelical Christians in particular are, on average, more likely to question whether human activity contributed to the Earth’s warming, with research by Pew suggesting 28 percent accept this view, compared with 64 percent of those without a religious affiliation, 56 percent of black Protestants and 41 percent of mainline Protestants. Over a third of evangelical Christians say there is “no solid evidence” that climate change is happening.

Some evangelicals argue that global warming is of little concern when the end times are approaching. Indeed, it could even be proof of it.

Bible verses are also pointed to as evidence humans are required to subdue Earth, that God is in control, and global warming is part of His plan. Others see it as liberal hoax and a means to push folks away from religion towards the government.

But that’s not the whole picture. As author Katharine K. Wilkinson explores in her book Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change, a subset of evangelicals are concerned about the environment, and are actively campaigning to protect it. By looking at the intersection of religion and politics, Wilkinson, found members of what is known as the ‘care movement’ believe humans are custodians of the planet—and it is our duty to protect God’s creation.

Wilkinson was inspired by the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative campaign, where American evangelical church leaders called for a market based approach to tackling climate change. Between 2007 and 2009, she spoke to leaders and grassroots members of the movement, held focus groups, and sat down with a range of congregations.

Due to be released in October, academic Robin Veldman offers a sequel to Wilkinson’s work in her book The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. Using a similar approach to Wilkinson in her research, the assistant professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University charts how the movement evolved since 2011.

Newsweek spoke to the researchers about what their work suggests shapes the Evangelical view on climate change, the risk involved with speaking out, and how attitudes have evolved.

Can you briefly define what you mean by evangelicals in this context?

 There’s a lot of debate over what the term means and how best to measure it. My book focuses on traditionalist evangelicals, who are a subset of the broader evangelical community, one that is mostly white and both theologically and politically conservative. When defining evangelicalism more broadly, I use the same definition that Katherine uses, and it’s the same one that the National Association of Evangelicals uses.

Katharine Wilkinson: We’re talking about theologically conservative Christians. There’s often a lot of overlap with politically conservative folks. But those two things are different. There is so much difference between theologically conservative white Christians and other theologically conservative Christians, oftentimes.

I totally agree. There are groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses that are theologically conservative, but they’re not evangelicals. So yeah, evangelicalism is being theologically conservative, but also there’s an evangelical subculture and certain cultural winds blow through that community that don’t touch other theologically conservative communities.

What are the most important factors which shape how evangelicals view climate change? For instance, those who believe it’s their duty to protect protect God’s creation, those who think humans can do with the Earth as they please, and those who don’t think protecting the environment matters because the end times are approaching.

KW: Often, I found that there was kind of a much larger group of people who would say things like, “we agree, we’re called to care for God’s creation,” or “we’re called to be stewards of the planet.” But that didn’t necessarily map directly on to: “And so we should do something about climate change.”

Even where you had a theological or religiously grounded support for the idea of being a good steward of creation or the environment, there’s a lot of other stuff that surrounds the topic of climate in particular. In my experience, the biggest thing that would otherwise chop kind of good ecological theology off at the neck was generally political ideology.

I was doing these focus groups shortly after An Inconvenient Truth (2006) came out. There were a lot of Al Gore associations with climate change and the sense that this is part of a part of a broader progressive agenda. Even at that time, I think the sort of partisan baggage around and around the climate was already quite strong.

RV: I did mine in 2011, 2012. So, five years later. It’s funny that Al Gore did come up a lot in my focus groups as well. He’s a polarizing figure.

What I traced out in the book is how politics and religion became sort of fused together. And that starting around probably 2007 and 2008, there was this campaign that leaders in the Christian Right initiated to portray scepticism that the climate is changing due to human activities as the more biblical position on climate change.

Evangelical Christians uniformly believe that they should care for the environment and be good stewards. But for them that was really disconnected from concern about climate change. And I think that politics has a lot to do with it. When you look at how the surveys change over time, Evangelicals—from the earliest surveys I can find were [from 2004]—already more skeptical than the general public. But that gap started increasing, and that may be due to the efforts to portray skepticism as the more Biblically sound approach to climate change.

Since you brought up end times, the question that inspired my research was whether end time beliefs were responsible for environmental apathy, because a lot of environmentalists bring that up. And I concluded—and some evangelical environmentalists I’ve seen quoted saying the same thing, like [reverend] Jim Ball does—that end time beliefs are certainly powerful within the evangelical world, but there hasn’t really been a conscious effort to connect them to environmental issues.

So it’s not a driver of apathy—except for maybe among a small segment, but these people also tend to be very politically disengaged anyway, because if you think the world’s going to end, then you’re not going to go out and be politically involved.

What I saw at least was the tension between theological conservatism and political conservatism that’s been developing over time, especially taking off in the 1980s and into the present.

That drive for Christians to get out to vote, return to public life, and reclaim America. A lot of the people that I talked believe that America used to be a Christian nation, or should be a Christian nation. So they feel that becoming politically active is part of their mission to reclaim what was lost. And that was, from what I saw, a more powerful driver than end time beliefs.

KW: I agree. Somehow that trope became really popular among progressives and environmentalists.

RN: It was [journalist and political commentator] Bill Moyers. I think.

KW: I think it’s incredibly unhelpful, not just because it does not seem to be the primary driver, but also, where do you go from there? I think it’s a dangerous oversimplification.

Because climate change has become so entwined with politics, is it dangerous or socially risky for some evangelicals to speak about climate change?

RV: I saw a lot of evidence of that. Part of being a part of the evangelical community is showing that you keep good theologically conservative company, and environmentalism is associated with being liberal. In America, theological liberalism and political liberalism are kind of viewed as the same thing. So it does raise questions if you become interested in the environment.

It’s not to say that people never can, because there’s totally examples like the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. It’s not you’re going to be excommunicated. In my context, people talked about global warming as more of a punchline. It was like, “oh, haha, that’s what liberals believe in.” If you hear people making those kinds of statements, then you’re not likely to bring it up in a serious context, because it just subtly communicates that this isn’t a serious issue.

KW: I think that’s an interesting way to put it: that there is a social risk. This is not just a set of beliefs that you are holding as an individual. Oftentimes, it’s a set of a set of beliefs that you’re holding, and practicing in a community. Whether that’s in a church community or beyond.

I think there were certainly leaders in the evangelical community who I wrote about in Between God and Green who had some very real backlash from the power brokers on the evangelical right.

Robin makes a good point about Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. If you look at self-identified Democrats or self-identified progressives in the US, there’s not much of an age gap around climate change. Twenty somethings and 60 somethings look very similar. But if you look at folks who are self-identified Republicans, or politically conservative, there is a distinct age gap between 20 somethings and 60 somethings. And this is where Young Evangelicals for Climate Action is playing strategically. We also have some good research that shows that people’s children are the most effective messengers on climate change, especially daughters of conservative fathers. So they’re going right for that age gap with the most powerful messenger, and leveraging: “Look you taught us X, Y, and Z, in church, growing up and from the Bible, thus this what we think about climate change,” which I think is really fascinating.

The other thing I thought was interesting … Megan Mayhew Bergman, who writes for The Guardian, did a series of pieces about the South and climate change, and she found some interesting kind of gender gap stuff. You’re talking about male leadership, often patriarchal leadership in a lot of evangelical churches, and women not feeling like they necessarily have the space to speak up and say something that might contradict their pastor.

RV: There is a paper called Cool Dudes that talks about why climate change scepticism is such a white male phenomenon. I was just trying to think back over my focus group: I had a lot of outspoken women. But I’m not sure about about gender dynamics. I heard them being sceptical as well.

When you talk about the backlash, what do you mean?

KW: When I was looking at this topic, there was more high profile evangelical leadership engaged visibly and loudly on the topic. I think it was quite significant when Richard Cizik was ousted from the National Association of Evangelicals. He was the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals in DC. He did an interview with Terry Gross on NPR. He insinuated that he had voted for Obama, and he said something to the effect of “I’m coming around on gay marriage.”

RV: Picking up on what Katherine said, in 2006, the Evangelical Climate Initiative came out. And one of the reasons people were really excited about it was because at that time there was a lot of concern about climate change at the grass tops, but there wasn’t a grassroots movement.

The idea was that evangelicals were going to add to the momentum that was already building. Since they were politically conservative, they were going to make it undeniable that action needed to be taken.

Evangelicals were like this political prize to be won. People who were affiliated with The Evangelical Environmental Network—one of the main evangelical organizations working at the national level—had been slowly trying to move climate change from the left to the centre. They wanted to shift it to the middle, to become a centrist concern.

This was of concern to people in what I call the Christian Right, or the evangelical right, who are a group of leaders, usually heads of major media ministries—a lot of them have been active in politically conservative circles. One of their complaints was that: this is dividing evangelicals’ political clout. And if evangelicals break in half, then we won’t be able to make progress on the issues that we’re more concerned about, like religious liberty, and sexual morality. And that was one reason why they criticize Richards Cizik for taking a stand on climate change.

There’s an interesting report from Lydia Bean and Steve Teles in the New America Foundationthat talks about how they were closely in touch with economic conservatives and the Republican party. At the same time as much as environmentalists were super excited that evangelicals might be coming on board, the other side had this whole group of people opposing action on climate change pushing as hard as they could against it.

Moving on to 2006, 2007, there’s this growing concern from the conservative side [saying] we have to stop this push for action on climate change. Then in 2008, the Southern Baptist Environment Climate Initiative came out. Southern Baptists in the US are the largest conservative Protestant denomination and they’re known to be politically conservative. We were heading into election year, so it’s going to be a major political shift, potentially. That ramped up concern. Without the Southern Baptists Environment and Climate Initiative perhaps it would have just kind of slowly fizzled. But that really suggested this movement was not going to go away.

I believe leaders on the Christian Right decided: “Okay, well, this issue is not going to go away. And we need to make sure that people know that what Biblically sound position on climate change is.” So they decided to get involved in this issue of climate change, which really has nothing to do with their core issues, most of the time. People like James Dobson, Dr. James Kennedy, who died in 2007, Jerry Falwell: the environment was not a big deal to them. And so it was unusual that they [leaders on the Christian Right] decide, you know, we’re really going to tackle this issue.

If you look at surveys over time—you can see the numbers between 2006 and 2014—there’s something like a 14 point increase in scepticism. And for many evangelicals, if they are politically conservative, then they’re getting a lot of politically conservative scepticism coming from venues like the media. But they were also getting it in radio programmes and TV programs directed towards Christian audiences. Back in 2000, i don’t think the idea that climate change was a liberal issue had solidified—that if you’re a good theologically conservative Christian you’re not going to be someone who accepts the human causes [because] that’s denying that God’s in control.

Why did they choose to go in that direction and not in the direction of supporting action against climate change?

RV: Basically, the evangelicals who have become involved in politics on the politically conservative side, you kind of make a bargain when you do that, which is that you’re going to work to integrate politically conservative ideas into your own ideology.

They were getting pressure from their coalition partners in the Republican party, who were saying, this is your field. Evangelicals are getting taken from us, this is a big issue for us, and you need to deal with that problem.

What do evangelicals who want to tackle climate change cite? Scientific studies? The Bible?

RV: Going back to the Environment Climate Initiative, it was grounded in theology, the need to care for “the least of these [Bible verse Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV].” It’s theology and science.

KW: My sense is—and I think this is true of most folks who are advocating on climate in some way particularly when they’re going to be coming up against sceptics—is they want to dot the i’s and cross their t’s in terms of science. When I was looking at the Evangelical Climate Initiative, they were also engaged in policy conversation at that time, they were pushing for cap and trade legislation. Not just creation care and stewardship and ecological theology, but also bringing in theological perspectives around how the impacts of climate change hit the most vulnerable people first and worst.

In some ways from that group at that time, theology may have been leveraged more often.That was part trying to pull this issue out of the left, out of the environmental movement, and into a more kind of centrist concern.

And you hear similar things from folks like [professor] Katharine Hayhoe [climate scientist and married to evangelical pastor]. She’s been a really fantastic communicator at the intersection of Christianity and climate. And that sense of, “because we care about people we need, we need to care about climate change” is definitely one of the core themes she talks about.

Katharine, in your book you wrote that the environmental movement was “dominated by tedious science and dry policy.” Obviously we need science to know climate change is happening, but what can scientists and evangelicals learn from one another when it comes to spreading the message?

KW: Certainly, the research that I did left me with some criticism of the mainstream, secular environmental movement or climate movement. To some extent, there’s been improvement since then.

What we’re talking about is a question of what it means to be human, and to be human on a planet that’s changing. And what our sense of responsibility is to this place and to one another. I think there are a lot of things that evangelicals do well, in terms of openly talking about values and beliefs in terms of storytelling, and in terms of taking issues that can feel really big and abstract and making them personal in some way.

RV: I agree. Listen to Richard Cizik and the story of his conversion to concern about climate change. I believe his faith really sustained that decision, so there is a power there. I do think that evangelicals are better talking to the common man and understanding basic concerns that people have, and environmentalists, unfortunately, have not been very good at doing that. Most people care about the environment, no matter who you are. And that’s how sceptics were able to get in there and kind of carve out a space for themselves even among people who care about the environment.

Secondly, there’s this thing called the evangelical mass media, which is radio TV, and digital communication specifically directed towards Christian audiences. I think it was really effective [at] creating some uncertainty and suspicion about climate change.

Environmentalists have relied on the secular media to convey their message. I think that they don’t have that direct grassroots connection. The way that their [evangelical] communities are structured, they have to stay close to the grassroots, because there’s no hierarchy. So they are constantly doing this nimble dance between what is my congregation believes, and where can I take leadership.

But they can’t go too far. They always have to stay really close to the grassroots. And I think that the structure of environmental communities is a little different, and maybe has made perhaps too much space to move away from basic communities and their concerns.

 Do you think evangelicals have the power to save the planet? If enough see climate change as an issue, might Republicans see policies to tackle climate change as a way to win votes? Are they the key to tackling climate change?

KW: [laughs] I don’t know that evangelicals will save us. I do think it’s the youth movement that is the most likely to save us. I think the way that young people are changing the story opening up the cultural space that makes political action possible. And so I think young people are the most powerful kind of culture change agents that we’re seeing right now.

Are evangelicals who are very concerned about climate change a small minority, and is that minority made up of young people? And so, will young people from a range of different communities across society have to come together in order to tackle climate change?

RV: I kind of think it’s an open question. I have never seen [evangelicals concerns about climate change] broken down by age. We know that young evangelicals are more liberal on gay marriage homosexuality, and that kind of thing.

One of the things that could become an issue…I remember the people’s Climate March, I remember seeing somebody had a sign that the next flood won’t be Biblical. And there are these weird undercurrents of tension. Other people who look at religion and environmental activism have found that oftentimes evangelicals find themselves marginalized. Environmentalists want their political clout, but sometimes are suspicious of them as well. The main issue is that small disparate groups need to find ways to suppress their disagreements and join to a common cause.

That’s never easy, is it.

RV: It’s extremely difficult.

Based on your research, do you predict evangelicals as a whole will be convinced we need action on climate change?

KW: My anecdotal sense is that, yes, among younger evangelicals.

RV: Some people think that theology prohibits or makes it impossible for evangelicals to become concerned. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think theology is incredibly flexible.

People find ways to stay true to scripture while also bringing it to bear on present day concerns. I don’t think we need to worry about theology itself being some kind of barrier. But I think the grassroots effort can be slow. I don’t know whether, at least on the evangelical side, it’s going to gain momentum fast enough.

More MotherJones reporting on Climate Desk

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