That may sound like a harsh or exaggerated statement, but it really isn’t. Christians don’t just ignore environmental action, they put effort into vehemently opposing it.
“Christians” is a broad generalization here. I’m referring more specifically to American, conservative, Republican Evangelical Christians. But they do have a loud voice in both American and global faith and often shape what “mainstream” Christianity is.
During Climate Week, global leaders gathered at the UN to discuss environmental initiatives. Students around the world also held the #FridaysForFuture climate protests, led by young activist Greta Thunberg. While there’s broad support and excitement for climate action and the young activists, there’s also a lot of resistance.
Conservatives, and more so conservative Christians, have been at the forefront of this opposition. They mock a 16-year-old for her passion and disregard the youth protests. They show indifference towards the burning of the Amazon. They scoff and complain about laws limiting single use plastics such as bags and straws. They demean the Green New Deal as a socialist agenda without knowing what it actually says. They support Trump’s pullout of the Paris Climate Accord and his rollback of environmental protections. And the list goes on, but that’s just within the past 3 years.
While most will say they care about the earth, conservative Christians seem act as if they hate the planet they live on.
Of course this position isn’t representative of all conservative Christians, but it is the dominant view within that demographic.
As a Christian myself, this stance within the faith has always perplexed me. It would seem logical that Christians would champion environmentalism. God created the earth, said it was good, and told humanity to take care of it. So why would we be so opposed to trying to keep it in pristine condition, and be so indifferent of trashing something God made?
This is perhaps the most obvious and powerful influencer. Christianity in America is undeniably tangled with the Republican Party. Sometimes Christian values influence Republican values. Other times, Republican values shape Christian values, though many Christians will ardently deny it.
Even though the environmental movement began fairly bipartisan (The EPA was created by a Republican president, and Earth Day was founded by a Democratic Senator and Republican Congressman), Republicans soon opposed it. Protecting the environment required government regulation and restrictions on businesses, which is in opposition to GOP ideology. Simultaneously, Christians were very skeptical of environmentalism, as will be discussed later.
So the environment became a liberal campaign, and Christians, being tied to Republicans, opposed all things liberal, regardless of whether or not those things were in opposition to faith. Christians who oppose the environment movement will often cite it as a “liberal” or “socialist” agenda – they can’t separate their faith from their politics.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a powerful voice in mainstream Evangelical Christianity put out a resolution called, “On Environmentalism and Evangelicals.” Though they don’t speak on behalf of Christianity, they do represent a prominent voice in reflecting and shaping the American church.
Some environmental activists are seeking to advance a political agenda based on disputed claims, which not only impacts public policy and in turn our economic well-being, but also seeks to indoctrinate the publicOn Environmentalism And Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, 2006
Though many conservative Christians will admit that it’s important to take care of God’s good green earth, any mention of tangible environmental action tends to be written off as liberal propaganda, and for them, liberals are evil. (Christians will say they joke about that last part, but they’re also dead serious)
In the Bible, it’s a fairly clear and agreed upon view that God created the earth, owns the earth, and has entrusted it to humanity. Beyond that is where the divide occurs, and it has to deal with the beginning and the end of the world.
The creation account in the book of Genesis has a line saying, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15) Essentially the first job and command God gives to humanity is to take care of the environment. But there’s also another line, “God blessed them (humanity) and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28)
Christians who oppose the environment focus more on the “subdue and rule” section of the Genesis account. Rather than view it as a mantle of responsible rule, they see it as a license to exploit. The earth is theirs to dominate and use for their needs.
On the other bookend is the end of the world: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Revelation 21:1). I like to call this the “Screw It” theology, in which Christians believe that since God will be giving them a whole new world in the end, what they do to this one doesn’t really matter.
Also mixed in there is an anti-animist sentiment. Early Christians were often in conflict with their surrounding pagan beliefs that every rock, plant and animal had a spirit. Elements of nature were often worshipped, which was a big no-no for monotheistic religions. Though animism isn’t a part of modern environmental activism, Christians will still see through that lens and associate environmentalism as equal to worshipping nature above God. The SBC Resolution also states:
Some in our culture have completely rejected God the Father in favor of deifying “Mother Earth,” made environmentalism into a neo-pagan religion, and elevated animal and plant life to the place of equal—or greater—value with human life;On Environmentalism And Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, 2006
In a way, these beliefs work together to form the view that humanity is separate from creation and more important than the rest of creation. The emphasis on valuing people comes at the cost of making creation disposable. Yet that view goes even further in the American context to valuing self over others.
The church in America does have a unique brand of Christianity that’s not as prevalent in other parts of the world or in its longer history: individualism. The church both helped create this culture and also has been influenced by this culture. There’s a high emphasis placed on personal responsibility and personal freedom.
In the context of faith, it’s evident in the message that’s preached. While much the Bible will describe salvation as a communal experience (there are a lot of “me and my household” phrases in the stories), the American version of Christianity promotes a “me and God” mentality with the selling point of needing a “personal savior.” Each individual is personally responsible for their own actions and their own consequences. A personal “freedom in Jesus” sentiment can then translate into personal rights and freedoms in other areas of life – speech, enterprise, guns, consumerism, etc.
The pollution and global warming issue isn’t attractive to an individualistic worldview because it’s something caused by everyone, affects everyone, and requires everyone to fix. Environmental action erodes away at personal freedom because it’s someone else telling you what you can’t do. Which is a little ironic since conservative Christianity has a reputation for telling other people what not to do.
Ultimately, they see other people polluting more than they do, so environmental cleanup is not their personal responsibility. They don’t feel the supposed affects of climate change, regardless if other populations feel it or younger populations will feel it more in the future, so there’s no personal obligation to do anything. And environmental regulation is an oversized government encroaching on their personal freedoms.
While Christianity has made contributions to scientific advancements, it’s also been at odds with science; not so much because faith and science are incompatible, but because of widely held misinterpretations of faith. Remember when the church punished astronomers for thinking the Earth revolved around the Sun?
In more recent history, new scientific theories such as the Big Bang and Evolution have challenged pre-existing Christian narratives. It’s made Christians reluctant to trust scientists and skeptical of their intentions.
Therefore, even in the face of facts that may not contradict their faith, conservative Christians can easily dismiss evidence as theories, as biased agendas, or as flat out wrong. Academic elites are viewed with distrust and even disdain.
When it comes persuading conservative Christians to believe in climate science and care about the environment, no amount of compelling research will change their minds.
Can Christians Care About the Environment?
In the midst of all these forces influencing conservative Christians, will they ever shift on their stance of environmental action? The outlook certainly seems bleak. A recent study by David M. Konisky, concern for the environment among American Christians has actually declined over the past 20 years. This group makes up approximately 25% of American voters, so their political willpower can influence environmental action (or lack of it) in the US and around the world. Even the rising vocalization of their progressive Christian peers on this issue doesn’t seem to sway them much.
As I’ve said earlier, I’m a Christian. It seems obvious to me that based on my belief, I should take care of the earth for other people and for future generations, because God made it. I also grew up in church culture that mocked and opposed the “liberal environmental agenda.” It kind of made sense, but kind didn’t. So I’m exploring this issue from both an inside and outside point of view.
Before we can answer the question of “How do we get conservative Christians to care about the environment,” we have to first address the question of “Should Christians care about the environment.” More importantly, that question needs to be answered on their terms, within their framework.
I’m going to attempt to answer this question in a follow up article, both addressed to skeptical conservative Christians, but also to environmental activists trying to get more people onboard.