Why some evangelicals struggle with environmentalism

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.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Why some evangelicals struggle with environmentalism

  1. Philip Kingston

    With regard to some Evangelical Christians finding difficulty with a recognition of the value of the natural world as God’s gift and our responsibility; and a recognition of our part in structural sin, both by participation and by silence, I wonder whether there may be a further reason for this difficulty in finding concern about what is happening to the environment. I do not know to what extent the Evangelicals referred to are synonymous with a Right – Wing politics, especially in the U.S.. But if they are, then they may instinctively realise that the destruction of the environment, with its accompanying reduction and extinction of species, has clear links to economic growth and to the increase in consumption which goes with that.

    To see the necessity of halting and reversing growth may be too frightening and painful to contemplate – as indeed it probably is for all of us to some degree. In other words, they and we may not see the truth of aspects of our Faith if doing so implies a major loss of security in a material way of life which we have come to regard as our right.

    Questioning economic growth is an ongoing taboo in politics, business and the media; and at this time of a struggling economy (in the terms of the current economic dogma), breaking this taboo is tantamount to being unpatriotic.
    I suppose that the history of being prophetic is always to risk being judged as unpatriotic, even though in the long-term, it may be highly patriotic!

    Phil Kingston

  2. I think there’s also an issue about what motivates people – my experience is that many people care about the environment a bit, but few have it near the top of their list of priorities. So when motivating Christians to take action on climate change with Tearfund and coalitions Tearfund is part of, I’ve found talking about the impact on humans gets more response than talking about the environment, even though obviously the humans depend on the environment.

    I suspect that not only do most people care more about people than they do about the rest of creation, but that the word ‘environment’ creates an impression of being slow moving and long term, which reduces the sense of urgency and the amount of action.

    Yet the Evangelical Alliance’s survey http://www.eauk.org/snapshot earlier this year found that over 90% of self-declared evangelicals thought God wanted them to care for creation, suggesting that any reluctance to act is not primarily theological.

  3. Colin Bell

    Agreed, Ben. One of the major challenges of this issue seems to be that different things motivate different people, so you need to have multiple ways of telling the story, and recognise that some will just not appeal to certain people.

    Plus, of course, if it’s not near the top of the priority list, then it can easily get shelved to better economic times – I’ve had success in showing the linkage between environmental/resource issues and economics. (If we don’t do something, there may not be substantially better economics times.)

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