Thanks to our friends at the John Ray Initiative to pointing me at an excellent post by Robert Cabin at the Huffington Post, which looks at the influence of the Christian Right in the USA in lowering support for pro-environmental change. As he notes, the position is complex – evangelicals can be found with strong opinions on both sides – but certainly many seem to deny that we have a responsibility to care for the earth. Why? Cabin provides two reasons, which I think worth reiterating and broadening a bit.
Firstly, they refuse to ally with the environmental movement out of a a perception that it is about worshipping the natural world, and that it puts animals and plants on a par with human beings, denying them the role of special creation. Undoubtedly, many environmentalists do believe these things, including some Christians. But equally, many do not, and it is perfectly consistent to hold to an evangelical theology which sees humans as having mastery over creation and a responsibility to care for it as God’s representatives. Indeed that’s the way that we argue the Bible should be read.
And of course, it is worth noting that if you refuse to sign up to supporting a group on the grounds that some in the group hold consequent positions that you disagree, you’re not going to be joining many groups! But clearly some caution has to be taken: those with religious beliefs need to be clear in saying “we support environmentalism, but for these reasons, and while we agree with others on the ends we want to reach, we cannot accept some of their rationale for reaching such a position”.
Secondly, Cabin quotes Benjamin Zeller in noting that their view of sin is insufficient to see what is being done as a problem. I’d put it this way: they see sin and responsibility as predominantly an individual matter, while downplaying or even denying the corporate or institutional aspect. Here I’d argue that their theology is flawed, and has absorbed part of our wider individualistic culture. Clearly individual sin – or more positively virtue, and a relationship with God – is highly important, and one of the key themes of the New Testament. But the failure of institutions to live up to the role God has for them is similarly a key theme in the Old Testament, particularly the prophetic books. The Israelite kingdoms were condemned and ultimately allowed to fall because of their neglect of God and oppression of the underprivileged.
A tendency which naturally flows out of this view is to promote the role of the individual believer at the expense of that of the church. (Again, of course, both are important.) This again damages the options for sustainability as many are dependent on community, or at least enhanced by it.
But probably the key point is the one that Cabin closes with. The anti-environmental wing have clearly been better at getting their message out, and theirs is what the public seems to believe as truth. Perhaps the other side, who are getting on with improving things at the local level, often below the radar, should choose to blow their own trumpet a bit (allowing for the Biblical warnings about so doing!) and show that there’s a real debate going on here.