It was just after God created the world that He made His first mistake. "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it," Genesis 2 tells us. He never tells us how, though, and people have been arguing about how to treat the world ever since. Perhaps, with a bit more foresight, God could have appointed a gardening committee, and a committee for resource apportionment, and another for water management. Absent any further divine instruction, evangelical Christians now find themselves at a tipping point in their relationship with the natural world: No longer content to consign environmental issues to secular progressives, evangelicals are beginning to organize around and against climate change.
In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, we hear the prophet say: "The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands." The Psalms are full of similar paeans to nature: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;" the Psalmist says, "what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"
"The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants," the prophet Isaiah tells us; "for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant."
In the church I attended growing up, song lyrics were often projected onto nature scenes on large wall-mounted screens, both so the thousands of us in the auditorium could see them and to draw the connection between the words we were singing and the creation of the God we were singing to. "The heavens declare your glory," we would sing with a rotating PowerPoint deck in the background: a mountain range covered in snow. A lone deer in a field at dusk. The Aurora Borealis. An ocean sunset. There is a particularly religious—or at the very least transcendent—feeling when one is struck by the beauty of nature. John Muir, the patron saint of American wilderness—and a Christian—wrote that “in God's wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” If evangelicals can’t all agree on the science behind climate change, they can at least agree about that.
For a long time, issues of social justice have been left in the hands of Catholics and mainline Protestants; both have a history of emphasizing the importance of the environment. Conservative evangelicals have tended to be more skeptical of the scientific community, having inherited a tradition that emphasizes individualism over the common good. Conversion—the notion that one person chooses God and turns, in a moment of private repentance and communion, to Him—is central to evangelicalism. Personal responsibility has meant evangelicals often take care of their own, without much attention to what’s best for the world. George Handley, a professor at Brigham Young University, wrote: "The debate in the end has nothing to do with facts, but rather with the narratives we use to frame our relationship to the natural world." The shift toward a greener evangelicalism may lead to further division and infighting, but it is well underway.
It is more than a little ironic that the man largely responsible for founding the Moral Majority emerged as one of the loudest advocates for evangelical environmentalism. Francis Schaeffer was a leading intellectual voice in the Christian community during the 1960s and '70s, and his books about Christian public engagement were beloved by people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Even though Schaeffer was not nearly as rabid in his conservatism as Falwell and Robertson, his vision for a society rooted in Biblical truths cemented his position as an evangelical hero.
Schaeffer shared Falwell and Robertson's anti-abortion convictions, but his environmentalism never managed to make it onto the Moral Majority platform, which often lined up with conservative, pro-capitalist interests. In a 1970 pamphlet called Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer wrote: "If God treats the tree like a tree, the machine like a machine, the man like a man, shouldn't I, as a fellow-creature, do the same—treating each thing in integrity in its own order?" His words provided a rallying cry for the nascent Christian environmental movement, though back then it was more likely to be an Episcopalian or a Lutheran who took inspiration from Schaeffer’s words than an evangelical.
One of the primary tenets of the Christian faith is the responsibility to care for the poor. Of all the things Jesus talked about, one that he returned to most often was money and the poor. Eleven of the 39 parables he told had to do with money, and he constantly warned the rich that their wealth would prove the primary stumbling block to their faith: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God," Jesus told his disciples. Because Jesus never mentioned climate change explicitly, evangelical Christians have begun to build a case for environmental justice—what they call "creation care"—based on other Biblical arguments, such as the mandate to care for the poor, and the instruction to "till and keep" the garden of Eden that God gave to Adam in Genesis 2:15.
Like any extra-biblical issue, climate change has a host of skeptics within Christianity. There are those who deny its existence and others who don't really care—Christians like broadcaster Jan Markell who argue that "souls are dying" as a result of the church's focus on issues of justice. "You cannot prove scientifically that the weather aberrations that are going on are manmade," Markell told Bill Moyers. "And in the meantime, souls are dying," as resources are diverted from evangelistic efforts and turned, instead, to combating climate change.
Merkell and other conservative Christians tend to see evangelism as a zero-sum game: Either you are "preaching the gospel” or you are wasting your time. The evangelical battle to deny and abandon climate change has been well-documented, and the deep relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican party has meant that there hasn't been any political pressure to examine the issue. Evangelical leaders didn’t demand action from their party’s representatives, and Republicans were content to avoid an issue that was controversial at best.
Until now. Or, more specifically, until February 2006, when the Evangelical Climate Initiative released a letter signed by scores of Christian leaders saying "millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors." Signatories included Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life; Duane Litfin, president of evangelical's flagship Wheaton College; and the Reverend Floyd Flake of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in New York City. The statement asserted that "human-induced climate change is real" and called with urgency for legislation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Around the same time the ECI's letter came out, pollsters were beginning to identify a trend in American religion: Younger people were less religious than their older counterparts (cf. the rise of the "nones"), and those who did go to church were expressing the wish that their churches be involved in issues of social justice—including climate change. Although these smaller voices are often overshadowed by the vociferous conservatism of prominent church leaders, they have been steadily and increasingly influential. "I don't think God is going to ask us how he created the Earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created," Richard Cizik, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told the New York Times in 2005. Millennials agree that we have a responsibility to care for the world: A recent poll revealed that 76 percent of Millennials favored more government involvement in "protecting the environment from pollution."
"Climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality," a recent Oxfam study said. The "poorest half of the world's population are responsible for only about 10% of global emissions," but they live in countries that for various reasons—lack of infrastructure, scarce resources, dependence on manufacturing—are the most vulnerable to climate change. In other words, poor people are disproportionately affected by climate change, benefit from it the least, and are the least likely to be able to do anything about it. (Interestingly, Oxfam was founded in 1942 by a group of British social activists, several of whom were Quakers moved by their faith to care for the poor. They met at University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford and devised ways to provide famine relief for Greece, where Nazi occupation and blockades had caused a food shortage.)
Christians have a long history of caring for the poor, from Mother Teresa to church-operated soup kitchens to places of worship that open their pews for the homeless to sleep on. When it comes to helping the poor affected by climate change, "the messenger matters," says Rachel Lamb, national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
"Conservative evangelicals are typically viewed as being hostile to climate change because it's a political issue," Lamb says. But because we share certain core values and an identity as a Christian, we are able to meet people where they're at and then move the conversation toward: Why does this matter and what then can I do?”
"There weren't a lot of other young, informed voices out there" when YECA started in 2012, Lamb says. YECA was supported as an initiative by the Evangelical Environmental Network, which was founded in 1993 by Ron Sider and Robert Sieple, two prominent evangelical leaders who saw a need to educate Christians about the Biblical mandate to care for creation. Now, YECA operates mostly autonomously as an advocacy organization that works by raising awareness, talking to churches, and encouraging senior evangelical leaders to work on the issue of climate change. A year ago, YECA sent a letter to the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that represents over 45,000 churches, asking them to adopt the commitment of the Lausanne/Capetown meeting, a meeting of thousands of evangelical leaders in 2010. In that commitment, leaders resolved to shun excessive consumption, to persuade their governments of the moral imperative to counteract climate change, and to recognize the responsibility of all Christians to care for people by caring for the Earth.
This October, the NAE endorsed the Capetown commitment. This would not always have been the case, though—it was only seven years ago that Richard Cizik resigned his position as vice president of the NAE in part because of his stance on climate change.
"I had the experience of having my eyes opened in a new way to what was really the Biblical calling to care for God's creation," Cizik said. "It led to 30 evangelical leaders writing a letter to the NAE saying, 'Cizik should be shut up or be fired.'" Cizik's stance on same-sex civil unions was also changing at the time, and these shifting perspectives placed him outside the belief system of the conservative NAE. It wasn't advocating for "creation care" that made other evangelicals suspicious of him, he said, but rather engaging with the science behind climate change. Today, Cizik is the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, an organization that "exist[s] to advance human well-being as an expression of our love for Jesus Christ."
Other evangelicals have followed suit. Mitch Hescox, the president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, spent 14 years working in the coal industry. "My friends tell me that this is my penance job" for all those years, he says, and he isn't quite joking. After another 18 years as a pastor, Hescox was eager to find a job that combined his evangelical heritage with caring for the poor. Funded by member contributions and grants, the EEN has seen membership expand by leaps and bounds in the last six years, from an email list of 15,000 to 800,000.
"We want to see that go to two or three million in the next few years," Hescox says. "We want to see more people being concerned at the grassroots level about climate change." The EEN also endorses a carbon tax and clean energy investments—about half of their work is done at the public policy level, while the other half is done with local churches.
Brian Kaylor, a former professor of political communication and advocacy at James Madison University, is attending COP21 in Paris. He has been encouraged by the priority given to climate change by younger people—Christians and non-Christians alike. But when it comes to believers, he says, "we must take our marching orders from the prophets in the Bible and not politicians in Washington, D.C."
In this sense, Christian environmental activists have something in common with the prophets of the Old Testament. While today’s prophets may not have a direct line to God, they do act in the prophetic tradition when they try to warn fellow Christians about the importance of action on climate change. "The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants," the prophet Isaiah says; "for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant." Modern-day climate change prophets can only hope that their words are heeded more closely than were those of the prophets, all those years ago.
"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.