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The gospel of climate change: Green pastors bringing environmentalism to evangelicals

While many evangelical Christians dismiss climate change as major concern, some scripture-citing environmentalists within their churches are on a mission.
by Ethan Sacks /  / Updated 
Image: Young Evangelicals for Climate Action supporter Rick Kruis at the People's Climate March in Washington in April 2017.
Young Evangelicals for Climate Action supporter Rick Kruis at the People’s Climate March in Washington in April 2017.Courtesy Rick Kruis / Courtesy Rick Kruis via Young Evangelicals for Climate Action

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Preaching an environmental message to evangelicals is a bit like, as the New Testament says, casting seeds on rocky ground.

And few people know that better than atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who recently ran into a pair of climate change skeptics while speaking at the Presbyterian Church in Granada Hills, California.

"These were two men who were leaning back and looking stern, with their arms folded across their chest and shaking their heads while I was speaking," said Hayhoe, who is both the director of the Climate Change Center at Texas Tech University and a pastor’s wife.

"So I finally said, 'The real reason most people reject the science of climate change has nothing to do with the science and everything to do with the solutions ... they're afraid of having the government regulating their thermostat,'" she recounted.

Image: Dr. Katharine Hayhoe
President Barack Obama with Leonardo DiCaprio and Dr. Katharine Hayhoe at a climate change event on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 3, 2016.Carolyn Kaster / AP file

"One of the two guys said, 'Yes, that's exactly it!'"

Surveys show most evangelicals dismiss the issue in one of three ways: A liberal hoax, a hypothesis based on flawed science, or an affront to the concept of human existence based on God's intelligence design.

A 2015 Pew Research Poll, the most recent on the subject, found only 28 percent of white evangelicals believed that the Earth was getting warmer because of human activity — by far the lowest percentage of any religious demographic in the survey.

"[Much of the] theology doesn’t work with the whole idea of climate change where humans can actually do some damage to the Earth against God's plan," Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, told NBC News.

Evangelical Christians don’t have to wade too deeply into the Bible to find the verse in the book of Genesis that's often pointed to as addressing climate change: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” verse 1:26 of the King James Version states. “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

But it’s the interpretation of the word “dominion” that separates the faithful who trust scientists' warnings that the Earth is in danger from human-caused climate change, and the vast majority of evangelicals who are left cold by the concept.

There's a lot of potential energy, politically speaking, in a demographic that includes 50 million Americans, according to a 2010 census by the Association of Religion Data Archives. At least for a movement that can inspire believers.

Dr. E. Calvin Beisner and his organization, the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, for instance, believes that man-made climate change exists — but that doomsday scenarios of "catastrophic anthropogenic global warming" are exaggerated and unrealistic. The group also feels that any large-scale ban on fossil fuels would have a devastating effect on the poor.

"Evangelicals have a high regard for the Bible as truth revealed by God, and the worldview they derive from it affects how they understand everything," Beisner said by email, noting the difficulty of reconciling "infinitesimally" small changes in the atmosphere with having a huge impact on the planet. "[Especially] with the Biblical teaching ... that an infinitely wise God designed, an infinitely powerful God created, and an infinitely faithful God upholds the earth and everything in it, including its climate system."

But there are other evangelicals who embrace the climate change modeling that is treated as gospel by most major scientific organizations. And they are repositioning the debate towards the concept of "creation care" — the idea that humans are conscripted by the Bible to act as stewards for nature.

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"If I say that I respect God, that I love God, and God has given us this incredible life-giving planet, then if I strip every resource at the expense of my poor sisters and brothers — one in six of whom die because of pollution-related issues, who are suffering and dying today — then I’m not somebody who takes the Bible seriously," said Hayhoe.

"What kind of love is it when some one gives you such an amazing gift and you leave it in a smoking ruin?"

This schism in evangelical points of views, though, isn't entirely rooted in the religious and intellectual interpretation of the science.

Like so much else in American life, it's also about politics.

"There has been in the evangelical political imagination a tying together of several issues to create a policy suite that many [in the community] find unacceptable," said Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Change.

"Those include same sex marriage, abortion, and feminism, for a lot of people. To even move a little bit on one of those issues is seen as acquiescence to all of them."

As an environmentalist of faith who has worked with groups from most of the world's major religions on both sides of the Atlantic, Martin Palmer has seen that resistance up close. He recalls the time in 1987 when he was due to speak at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union — only to cross paths with more than 500 protesters who tried to force entry into the chapel.

"I realized then that because of such a fundamental difference in theological interpretation, nobody in the evangelical community in the U.S. was going to listen to me," said Palmer, a religious historian who is now the secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

Over the next two decades, though, the Brit said he's watched some of those American attitudes evolve. He credits the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network with coming up with the type of slogans that cut through the science, like a "What would Jesus drive?" ad campaign extolling the virtue of buying fuel efficient cars.

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That just shows, said Palmer, one thing that hasn't changed in the last three decades: Most of the scientific community doesn't know how to talk to people of faith — dismissing the biblical beliefs and relying instead on statistics and abstract concepts to back up their points of view.

"The way climate change has been presented is monumentally boring and monumentally irrelevant to most people," said Palmer. "Environmentalists have not really reached out in the same way they work with big business."

Beisner sees climate change scientists as being unwilling to debate their findings, citing 1 Thessalonians 5:21 as a biblical call to arms to test all theories before accepting any one.

Flory of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture doesn't foresee a major shift among older evangelicals, but added that there may be a sea change among millennials.

Studies show many younger members across denominations hold different views on many key social issues, including climate change. The Young Evangelicals for Climate Change, for example, was formed to advocate on the campuses of Christian colleges and beyond.

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"A lot of people who grew up in the Evangelical church were told we either had to check our brain at the door of the church or our faith at the door of the classroom," said Meyaard-Schaap, 28. "And we rejected that false choice, that you could only embrace either God or God’s creations."

Meyaard-Schaap says his group has the ear of many elders, because of the legitimate fear that younger congregation members will leave their churches to find more progressive evangelical denominations.

For all the divide among evangelicals on climate change, there remains potential for compromise when the subject is tackled on a local scale. As an example, Hayhoe points to consultants who work with individual churches to switch to renewable energy sources, with the resulting savings being channeled into mission work.

"Nobody, left or right, really wants to live in a dirtier, more poisonous, uglier place," said Beisner. "If we focus on shared ends — like enhancing the fruitfulness, the beauty, and the safety of the Earth, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors — we should be able to negotiate means that can be embraced across the political spectrum."

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