Christians Aren't Behind America's Climate Problem, But They May Be the Solution

Phil Roeder/CC BY 2.0

Proponents of fighting climate change have undertaken a long and winding quest to pinpoint why, exactly, Americans just don't seem to give a crap about the issue. Poll after poll reveals an alarming disconnect between popular belief and the scientific consensus. Nearly every other industrialized country, meanwhile, has popular belief more in line with the facts (though discord appears to be growing elsewhere, too). We're the clear laggards here.

Some heap blame on an overwhelmed, faltering media. Some hone in on the entrenched fossil fuel interests who use front groups and think tanks to sow doubt about science. Others point to the uniquely religious culture that pervades vast swaths of the United States; a culture now inextricable from modern American conservatism. This brand of religious ideology, especially predominant in Evangelicalism, allows believers to engage in a sort of post-pollution pomposity, the thinking goes. We humans, mere servants of God, could never do something as momentous as change the Earth's climate. That's His game, not ours.

I've focused primarily on the first two factors in my writing, mostly because the latter has always struck me as dubious. There are, after all, many examples of Christians who place great importance on responsible environmental stewardship, even as it applies to fighting climate change, though they may not comprise the current majority. It seemed to me to be something of a case of 'trickle-down dogma'--opportunistic and supposedly religious political leaders and pundits declared climate change an affront to Christianity first, and then the view was perhaps gradually adopted by constituents who respect those leaders and trendsetters.

Frankly, it's never seemed to figure all that much into the way conservatives view climate change. The Tea Partiers I've spoken with have nearly uniformly cited 'big government' or 'regulation' or global warming being a 'hoax' as reasons for opposing climate change policy; not religious values. Bombastic GOP leaders and pastors have indeed used such language to imply something as vast as the climate is beyond our control. But even the most deeply and strictly religious among us are quite aware of the myriad things man has done to change the fabric of the world (nuclear bombs, the internet, Dancing with the Stars). The notion that we've dumped enough pollution into the atmosphere to screw up the natural balance shouldn't exactly cause an eruption of cognitive dissonance.

In fact, Christianity has long taught that man must be responsible stewards of the environment, so fighting climate change should even fit the bill as a very Christian pursuit. Mat McDermott wrote in his article detailing Christianity's historic relationship to environmentalism that "In fact, both in scripture and modern practice, the mainstream of Christianity, regardless of denomination, has embraced environmental protection (including strong action on climate change) as something entirely compatible with the teachings of Christ and the church."

And now, there's this--a new poll appears to reveal that religious communities are indeed open to the idea of becoming environmental stewards; it's just that many of the individual practitioners aren't familiar with the concept in the first place. The poll found that an alarmingly low number of religious persons felt that they had a "spiritual obligation to seek to prevent climate change"--just 15% said they did.

But as Josh Nelson discovered as he parsed the poll, the devil, as it were, was in the details. The study explains (via EnviroKnow):

Though less than half of all believers and a bare majority of Evangelicals are familiar with the idea of a spiritual obligation to act as good stewards of the environment, when presented with this concept, three out of four believers embraced it. Most rejected the counter-argument that out of humility one should leave the environment in God’s hands ...

It is clear that as believers worked through arguments about a spiritual obligation to be good stewards of the environment, they grew more inclined to endorse the idea of a spiritual obligation to act in this area. Of those who embraced the idea in this series, 62% had earlier said they did not feel that seeking to prevent the loss of species was a spiritual obligation; 74% had earlier said the same about seeking to reduce pollution; and 80% had said the same about seeking to prevent climate change. Thus a large majority of those who expressed comfort with the idea of environmental stewardship arrived at that view through deliberating and gaining greater familiarity with it.

Nelson notes that "After being presented with arguments for and against a spiritual obligation to act as good stewards of the environment, 3/4 of “believers” were convinced, with 23% strongly convinced and 50% somewhat convinced."

Which means that there's a whole lot of room for people to change their minds on this issue. This is just one poll, sure (though it has a decent sample size of 1,500 Americans). But it gives us reason to be hopeful. Religious Americans don't seem to be staunchly embracing the notion that climate change is out of their hands; that might even be more of a liberal construct than anything. Instead, it's more of a non-issue in a religious context; churches' teachings don't appear to focus much on the notion of environmental stewardship one way or the other. Thus, people in religious communities may indeed be taking their cues on climate change more from the media and political leaders they (or their acquaintances) follow--both of which, given their cultural orientation, are likely to be conservative in nature--rather than any intrinsic sense of belief that motivates them to dismiss the threat of climate change.

This has huge implications: a gigantic, key demographic might be much more open to fighting climate change than previously assumed. It means, as Nelson notes, that greens should be doing more and better outreach to religious communities. And it reinforces the notion that the kernel of anti-climate policy sentiment lies more in industrial interests (which spirals outward to partisan media organizations like Fox that disseminate its ideas), not in religious ideology. Religious Americans, it turns out, may even be eager to become environmental stewards on the basis of their faith; to fight climate change on spiritual grounds.

Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions | Religion