Are irrational and dangerous end-of-the-world views of conservative Christians—”the earth is going to be burned up anyway, so why care for it”—behind the environmental policies of our Republican-controlled federal government?
Put aside for a moment any thoughts about whether the presuppositions behind this thesis are correct, because the “secret” has now been exposed by Glenn Scherer, an investigative reporter for the online environmental magazine Grist, in an article provocatively titled “The Godly Must Be Crazy.”
But wait, there’s more. The Grist “expose” was catapulted into the national spotlight when veteran journalist Bill Moyers made it the centerpiece of a speech on Dec. 1 in New York City that was subsequently excerpted in numerous newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Oakland Tribune, Miami Herald and Indianapolis Star.
Many readers were troubled by factual errors in the Grist article, and the Web site has run a correction regarding one blatant inaccuracy: Scherer’s claim that James Watt, the first Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan administration, told a congressional hearing that there was no need to worry about preserving natural resources because: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” Moyers, who had repeated the apocryphal quote in his speech, later issued a correction. Nevertheless, his speech was already part of the environmentalist canon.
I have been an appreciative reader of Grist since its inception. And I have admired some of the work of Bill Moyers. But they really blew it this time.
The Scherer/Moyers storyline belongs in the fiction-is-stranger-than-truth category. While they have captured a lot of attention with a disturbing and salacious conspiracy theory, it is neither accurate nor helpful.
In fact, the Grist article’s thesis provides a perverse form of comfort to those who view conservative Christians warily, confirming what they already believe: “I always knew those people were crazy.” It also provides a scapegoat for explaining bad public policy: “Well, at least I know who to blame for wrecking the environment.”
Most disturbing, the Scherer/Moyers attack on evangelicals gives cover to the environment’s true enemies. Anti-environmental industry leaders aware of the Scherer-Moyers “end-times” argument must be laughing all the way to the bank, as attention is deflected from them toward conservative Christians.
There are indeed barriers to evangelicals embracing environmental issues or creation-care, including for some their end-times views. The real question that should have been addressed by Scherer and Moyers is, “What are the most important barriers to evangelicals caring for God’s creation?” And a follow-up would be, “What is keeping evangelicals and environmentalists from working together to care for the environment?” A good starting point for Scherer and Moyers could have been, “Why do evangelicals dismiss creation-care as a liberal concern when the Bible calls them to do it?” I’ll address such questions in a moment.
But first, in relation to the Scherer-Moyers thesis, the issue is not whether some conservative Christians hold what others perceive to be strange end-time views. The issue is whether these views significantly affect their care for God’s creation. The answer, in my opinion, is no.
Even for those Christians for whom end-times views are a barrier to creation-care, this hurdle is not a very high one and is, in my experience, easily dispelled. I usually ask them, “You take care of your own body, don’t you?” I then go on to explain that the biblical vision of the end-times—resurrected bodies on a New Earth—actually supports a creation-care perspective.
To switch metaphors, dispensationalist end-times views are a half-mile wide—thanks in large part to the best-selling “Left Behind” book series—but only an inch deep. Hardly anyone makes important day-to-day decisions based upon these end-times views.
As Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, recently commented in The Washington Post, “The authors of the ‘Left Behind’ books have life insurance policies.” And Professor John Green, a pollster and expert on evangelical views told the Post that end-times beliefs justifying anti-environmental attitudes and behavior is a “fringe” phenomenon. Even the king of the popular dispensationalists, Tim LaHaye, co-author of the “Left Behind” series, recently said on “Larry King Live” that Christians should work for clean air and water.
As to the real questions—what are the most important barriers to a creation-care consciousness among evangelicals, and what keeps evangelicals and environmentalists from cooperating—the answer to both is essentially the same.
The main reason many evangelicals have not been as engaged in caring for God’s creation as the Bible calls them to be is because in their minds “environmentalists” are liberals who hold beliefs (e.g. pantheism) and values (e.g. population control) that can be harmful and lead people astray.
Indeed, becoming an environmentalist could lead one to become a full-blown liberal, and thus turn away from conservative Christian values and those who hold them. Some evangelicals are also concerned about what they regard as liberal solutions to environmental problems: big government and oppressive regulations.
Because environmentalists are perceived to be liberals, anything tagged as an “environmental” concern must be liberal, too. There is an unfortunate guilt-by-association dynamic at play: if something is liberal, then evangelicals should have nothing to do with it.
This environmentalism-is-liberal barrier stops many evangelicals from exploring the richness of the Bible’s message on creation-care, creating additional barriers of ignorance and lack of motivation.
What we have by and large are two subcultures viewing each other through the inaccurate stereotypes they hold of the other. This is why the Grist article is so unhelpful. It feeds those stereotypes. Dismissing each other as weird or crazy means that: 1. a significant number of evangelicals shy away from creation-care; and 2. we are not working to find common ground in solving the serious environmental problems that are threatening human health and harming the rest of creation.
There is a political problem here, but it is not the one the Grist article puts forward. Until recently, a lack of serious involvement by evangelical Christians in creation-care issues has freed politicians attuned to evangelical concerns to listen instead to other powerful voices on environmental issues (e.g. big business).
But things are starting to change. First, many evangelical swing voters are concerned about creation-care, which could begin to tip their votes.
Second, creation-care is starting to resonate not just with evangelical progressives, but with conservatives at the center of the evangelical spectrum. Recently, in its document “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” the National Association of Evangelicals stated that Genesis 2:15 “implies the principle of sustainability: our uses of the Earth must be designed to conserve and renew the Earth rather than to deplete or destroy it … We urge government to encourage fuel efficiency, reduce pollution, encourage sustainable use of natural resources, and provide for the proper care of wildlife and their natural habitats.”
As increasing numbers of rank-and-file evangelical Christians understand more deeply that reducing pollution is loving your neighbor, as they become more aware of mercury’s impact on the unborn, that one in six newborns have potentially harmful levels of mercury in their blood, as evangelicals become more aware that global warming is real and is projected to harm and even kill millions of the world’s poorest, whom Jesus Christ identified with himself (Mt. 25:40), they will become more engaged.
Are there real differences between evangelicals and environmentalists? Sure. There always are between subcultures. Will these differences make us uncomfortable with each other at times? Of course. Is common ground to be found through reducing pollution that hurts people and caring for all of God’s creation? Absolutely. The time has come for olive branches all around.
Those environmentalists who do not share our faith perspective will have to understand that we evangelicals will have some different reasons for addressing environmental concerns. We may use different language, like “creation-care,” and we may be more comfortable with labels like “conservationist” rather than “environmentalist.” And, frankly, we may seem strange to you at times. But once committed to a cause, we can help make a difference.
Jim Ball is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and publisher of Creation Care magazine. This column appeared previously on BeliefNet and is used here with the author’s permission.
Jim Ball is Executive Vice President for Policy and Climate Change at the Evangelical Environmental Network and author of the award-winning book, “Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change.”