Green pastors: Preaching the gospel of climate change to evangelicals
“If I say that I respect God, that I love God, and God has given us this incredible life-giving planet, then if I strip every resource at the expense of my poor sisters and brothers — one in six of whom die because of pollution-related issues, who are suffering and dying today — then I’m not somebody who takes the Bible seriously,” said Hayhoe.
“What kind of love is it when some one gives you such an amazing gift and you leave it in a smoking ruin?”
This schism in evangelical points of views, though, isn’t entirely rooted in the religious and intellectual interpretation of the science.
Like so much else in American life, it’s also about politics.
“There has been in the evangelical political imagination a tying together of several issues to create a policy suite that many [in the community] find unacceptable,” said Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Change.
“Those include same sex marriage, abortion, and feminism, for a lot of people. To even move a little bit on one of those issues is seen as acquiescence to all of them.”
As an environmentalist of faith who has worked with groups from most of the world’s major religions on both sides of the Atlantic, Martin Palmer has seen that resistance up close. He recalls the time in 1987 when he was due to speak at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union — only to cross paths with more than 500 protesters who tried to force entry into the chapel.
“I realized then that because of such a fundamental difference in theological interpretation, nobody in the evangelical community in the U.S. was going to listen to me,” said Palmer, a religious historian who is now the secretary general of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
Over the next two decades, though, the Brit said he’s watched some of those American attitudes evolve. He credits the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network with coming up with the type of slogans that cut through the science, like a “What would Jesus drive?” ad campaign extolling the virtue of buying fuel efficient cars.
That just shows, said Palmer, one thing that hasn’t changed in the last three decades: Most of the scientific community doesn’t know how to talk to people of faith — dismissing the biblical beliefs and relying instead on statistics and abstract concepts to back up their points of view.
“The way climate change has been presented is monumentally boring and monumentally irrelevant to most people,” said Palmer. “Environmentalists have not really reached out in the same way they work with big business.”
Beisner sees climate change scientists as being unwilling to debate their findings, citing 1 Thessalonians 5:21 as a biblical call to arms to test all theories before accepting any one.
Flory of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture doesn’t foresee a major shift among older evangelicals, but added that there may be a sea change among millennials.
Studies show many younger members across denominations hold different views on many key social issues, including climate change. The Young Evangelicals for Climate Change, for example, was formed to advocate on the campuses of Christian colleges and beyond.
“A lot of people who grew up in the Evangelical church were told we either had to check our brain at the door of the church or our faith at the door of the classroom,” said Meyaard-Schaap, 28. “And we rejected that false choice, that you could only embrace either God or God’s creations.”
Meyaard-Schaap says his group has the ear of many elders, because of the legitimate fear that younger congregation members will leave their churches to find more progressive evangelical denominations.
For all the divide among evangelicals on climate change, there remains potential for compromise when the subject is tackled on a local scale. As an example, Hayhoe points to consultants who work with individual churches to switch to renewable energy sources, with the resulting savings being channeled into mission work.
“Nobody, left or right, really wants to live in a dirtier, more poisonous, uglier place,” said Beisner. “If we focus on shared ends — like enhancing the fruitfulness, the beauty, and the safety of the Earth, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors — we should be able to negotiate means that can be embraced across the political spectrum.”