Like old Pharaoh in the Exodus story, American white evangelicals are battling a series of plagues which, in aggregate, cloud the reason, distort judgment, and create a mental state bordering on panic. We have considered the impact of 9-11, the election of America’s first Black president, and the success of the gay rights movement (links below). Now we turn to the climate crisis.
Egyptian society revolved around the Nile River. The Nile was the source of all life, the gift of Ra, the sun god. The regular flooding of the Nile River basin gave life to the region, producing lush crops and a dependable source of water in a dry land. Pharaoh presided over these natural miracles as high priest of the national religion.
Which is why the plagues of Yahweh were strategically aimed at the Nile River basin. First it was turned to blood, then it was overrun by frogs. Next, the crops and the animals nourished by the great river were afflicted. Pharaoh had a complete ecological disaster on his hands.
Still he would not relent. When each plague ran its course and Pharaoh was asked to reconsider, he “hardened his heart”. Things had returned to normal. It was easy to imagine they would stay that way. Nothing but blue skies ahead.
Then the next plague would arrive.
When the natural world was out of joint, Pharaoh was on the verge of relenting. When things returned to a semblance of normality, Pharaoh doubled down on denial.
Which is pretty much the way Americans of all stripes relate to climate change. While eating barbecue with a family after officiating at a funeral, I struck up a conversation with a retired engineer. I mentioned, by way of small talk, that 90 degrees was hot for October. “Well, yeah,” the man replied, “but, on the whole, this has been a mild summer. We’ve hardly had any days above 100, and there’s been plenty of rain to cool things off. Hell, I’m still cutting my grass.”
In 2011, when the unrelenting Texas hear broke every record in the book, it was easier to see climate change as a threat. The Texas economy revolves around the petroleum industry. Which makes the argument that our prosperity is killing mother earth is hard to swallow.
And no group of Americans is more resistant to climate change that evangelical Christians. According to a Pew Research Center poll from May 2020, 62% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. adults agree that the Earth is warming primarily due to human activity. Given the scientific consensus on the issue, that’s not an encouraging number. But only 35% of U.S. Protestants believe climate change is linked to human behavior, and, for respondents identifying as white evangelicals, the rate of positive response drops to 24%.
Significantly, Black evangelicals are as likely to believe in human-created climate change as the average American. Hispanic believers, Protestant and Catholic, are far more likely to embrace the scientific consensus on climate than any other demographic. White evangelicals, as always, are a special case.
White evangelical climate change resistance is often linked to evangelical theology. Doesn’t Genesis say that God gave Adam and Eve “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 “creation care” evangelicals point out that, Genesis should be interpreted as a call to tend and care for the earth as creatures created in God’s image. “We are not given authority to rule over,” says Christian environmentalist Katharine Hayhoe. “Rather, we are asked to care for, to watch over” creation.
The impact of end-of-the-world eschatology is also used to explain white evangelical intransigence. If God is going to destroy the world in the near future, evangelicals say, why should we be worried about climate change?
In her book The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change, Robin Globus Veldman distinguishes between “hot” and “cold” millennialists. Hot millennialists live and breathe their end of days theology. They are convinced that Jesus will return in their lifetimes. But hot millennialism requires a deep immersion in arcane theological speculation, something the average believer doesn’t have time for. Most white evangelicals, Veldman says, believe in some form of “second coming”, but are vague on the details and uncomfortable with precise timetables.
The views of American White evangelicals on the issue of climate change are, not surprisingly, identical to those of Republican voters. Between 75% and 80% of GOP voters believe that climate change is a hoax, or view it as a natural phenomenon. Education level makes no discernible difference. By contrast, 72% of Democrats believe human activity is responsible climate change with college educated respondents more likely (86%) than those with only a high school education (58%) to voice this opinion.
For a brief moment, AWE nation seemed willing to embrace the need to fight climate change. A Creation Care movement reached out to opinion leaders within the evangelical community hoping to create bipartisan support for environmental legislation. A few years ago, Lydia Bean (yes, she’s my daughter) and Steve Teles researched the white evangelical response to climate change for the New America Foundation. Their report, Spreading the Gospel of Climate Change: an Evangelical Battleground, argues that the Creation Care movement failed for two simple reasons. “First, evangelicals’ political partners saw Creation Care as a menace for economic conservatives and opponents of environmental regulation, and did not hesitate to let evangelicals know it. Second, the evangelical old guard saw the Creation Care activists as threatening their role as the arbiter of evangelicalism’s political engagement.”
Robin Veldman echoes these sentiments. Leaders of the Religious right “had spent the past few decades establishing and solidifying alliances with this class of powerful free-market advocates who had close ties to the fossil fuel industry,” she says. “Their think tanks—like the Heritage Foundation, for example—were strongly opposed to climate legislation.”
Darren Dochuk’s groundbreaking study, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, traces the intimate link between AWE leaders back to the mid twentieth century. In post-war America, conservative Christians in the Billy Graham mold began using the term “evangelical” as a way of shedding the negative connotations of the fighting fundamentalists. This move corresponded to the rise of “wildcatters”, independent oilmen who were locked in an all-out war with the major oil companies. In the first half of the century, the Rockefellers had used their Standard Oil money to bankroll liberal religious institutions like Riverside Church and Union Theological Seminary in New York City and the University of Chicago. The Wildcatters favored a business-friendly strain of conservative Protestantism rooted in individualism and free enterprise. Wildcatters like J. Howard Pew, president of Sunoco, funneled millions of dollars into the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and other evangelical organizations. At the same time, churches like First Baptist, Dallas were receiving generous support from oilmen like Sid Richardson, H.L. Hunt and Clint Murchison.
Billy Graham’s connections and charisma helped build a tight relationship between independent oil money and evangelical religion. When Graham heard about the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada, he arranged a meeting between J. Howard Pew and Alberta Premier (and evangelistic preacher) E.C. Manning. When the two men failed to reach an agreement, Graham kept the conversation going until they found common ground.
Dochuk sees Charles and David Koch, the money behind the Tea party movement, as a continuation of what he calls “the American civil religion of crude”. By 2006, Dochuk says, GOP moderates were startled to see their party taken over by “antiestablishment oilers and church folk.”
The oilers and the church folk needed one another, and each had an indispensable role to play in the relationship. “Since the 1970s, evangelicals have been what Daniel Schlozman calls an ‘anchor group’ of the Republican Party,” Bean and Teles write. “This special relationship gives evangelicals enormous sway over the Republican Party, but it also comes with responsibilities. Evangelicals are expected to do what they can to integrate their belief system with that of their coalition partners, and to police unorthodoxy within their own ranks when it threatens those partners.”
From the perspective of mainline evangelicalism, environmentalism is the enemy, the plague besetting America. Climate change is nothing to worry about. Having been taught from infancy that see American prosperity as a gift from God, the AWE nation refuses to believe that the engine driving our blessed estate is about to jump the tracks. At all costs, capitalism must be defended as the good blessing of a loving God.
Which is why the climate care movement was quickly snuffed out. The religious right and the petroleum industry conducted a full court press designed to link environmental concern with Al Gore and the liberals. Dochuk’s American civil religion of crude has partnered with some of the best scientists money can buy. In their book Merchant’s of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway reveal the unsurprising fact that many of the scientific “experts” debunking climate change were also enlisted in Big Tobacco’s earlier fight with the medical community.
The fact that the GOP and AWE nation have capitulated to the Oil Lobby doesn’t mean the climate change fight is over. Public support for environmental initiatives is growing rapidly. Dochuk revels in the irony that the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockefeller Foundation have joined forces behind the move to alternative energy.
Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch is planning to compete with the Weather Channel. Although Murdoch’s Fox News has been giving aid and comfort to climate change deniers for decades, he no longer sees that as the best way to maximize his return on investment. According to the Washington Post, we will soon be seeing an embrace of mainstream climate science impacting Murdoch-controlled media outlets like Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post.
So, the battle is joined and, once again, AWE nation is fighting on the wrong—and losing—side. Canadian climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe teaches atmospheric science at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. She grew up in the ultra-conservative Plymouth Brethren Church and was raised by missionary parents. She describes her conversion to climate science as a form of coming out of the evangelical closet. She receives hate mail on a daily basis and is often confronted by angry questioners when she speaks in evangelical venues.
As Kermit the Frog has famously noted, “It’s not easy being green.”
The Sunday school class my wife, Nancy and I attend is currently studying Hayhoe’s Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. It is not unusual she says, to see dozens of snarling faces in the crowd when she speaks. The best thing we can do to fight climate change, she counsels, is to talk about it. That can be tough, especially in oil-dependent Texas. Don’t spout a lot of scary statistics, she cautions. Just try to find a point of common interest and establish rapport. Then speak personally about why you joined the fight to save the planet. Being a climate scientist doesn’t help, she admits, when your audience sees science as the enemy.
There are other encouraging signs on the horizon. Younger evangelicals (and Republicans) are far more likely to believe in human-caused climate change than are their parents. At the beginning of this piece I recounted a conversation in which a retired engineer pointed out that, by Texas standards, this has been a cool summer. I took him for a skeptic. He wasn’t. “But I guess they don’t have it so good down in Houston, with all that crazy rain,” he told me. “And the fires on the west coast are getting worse every year.”
People are starting to get it. I’m starting to get it. My wife and I are getting solar panels for our house and are talking about going electric should we ever be in the market for another car. As I write, the UN Climate Change Conference is getting underway in Glasgow. If you’re the praying kind, please be praying for the participants.