I was at a lecture yesterday on the environment and christian faith, and in the course of discussion someone mentioned that Christians in the US are the least likely segment of society to take climate change seriously. I thought I’d look that up, and it turns out it’s true. At the risk of wading into some controversial waters, let’s explore this a little.
According to the Christian research group Barna, 51% of America’s 95 million Christians believe global warming is a ‘major’ problem affecting the country. By comparison, 62% of people in other religions believed it was a major issue, and so did 69% of atheists and agnostics. Hmm.
Narrow it down to ‘evangelical‘ Christians, and just 33% are concerned about climate change. “That qualifies evangelicals as the least concerned segment among more than 50 population groups studied”, say Barna.
Not surprising with figureheads like Jerry Falwell delivering sermons called ‘the myth of global warming’, in which he righteously declared: “I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be duped by these ‘earthism’ worshippers.” Or this advice from the Evangel Society: “Christians should not worry that their transportation choices might harm other people. Christians can choose to drive how they wish without fearing that their actions contribute to Global Warming”. Search Dr James Dobson’s Focus on the Family website for global warming, and amongst the hundreds of articles on marriage and homosexuality and prayer in schools you’ll find headlines like ‘Stoplight: global warming and the nation-sized error’, ‘Scientists renounce global warming alarmism’, and ‘Study: no global consensus on global warming’.
As a Christian in the UK, this is odd to me. Although Christian might not be leading the way in tackling climate change (although I think we should be), we’re at least aware of it and willing to engage with it. The Bishop of London vowed not to fly for a year to set an example. Elaine Storkey, president of Tearfund, says in Christianity Magazine: “A key part of loving God is to exercise faithful stewardship of the world God has made. A key part of loving our neighbour is not to harm them or exploit their vulnerability to climate change.”
Of course, there are climate change believers in the US too – a group of 86 evangelical leaders issued a statement on the issue not long ago that is worth reading. But why is it so difficult for American Christians to embrace climate change science? I have a few ideas.
- Politics. It’s worth remembering, for those of us outside the States, that one of the biggest influences on the debate has been An Inconvenient Truth, and that this is a film made by a Democrat. Christians tend to be Republicans, and just wouldn’t bother to see the film. Al Gore is a Democrat hero, so his people will listen to him. The Republicans are far less likely too. Barna’s research reflects this political divide, with 67% of Democrats saying climate change is a major issue, and just 38% of Republicans. Who’s going to make a film for the Republicans?
- Science. It’s very difficult to engage with climate change, or environmental concerns more generally, without the prickly issue of origins coming up. If you want to hold to a literal Genesis, and hence a young earth and a six day creation, you’re going to have trouble with the world of science fairly quickly. That makes some Christians wary of scientists, and potentially more skeptical than most.
- Economics. It’s no secret that the American church is very wealthy. The same loud voices attacking the idea of climate change defend Christians’ rights to affluent lifestyles. “God is in favour of freedom, property ownership, competition, diligence, work, and acquisition” says Falwell in his book Wisdom for Living. Climate change requires us rich people to lay aside some of our ‘rights’ – rights to fly, to drive SUVs, and so on. The richer we are, the more likely we are to need to examine our lives and make some cutbacks. Christians can’t use the Bible to justify ecologically wasteful lifestyles.
- Theology. Traditionally, the church has taught more about personal wrongdoing, or sin, than corporate irresponsibility. We haven’t talked much about ethics in public life, and so environmental and social justice issues have got sidelined or ignored by the American church as they focus on personal morality, on abortion and homosexuality. Alongside that, the Christian message has been reduced to ‘personal salvation’. The environment pales into insignificance, say the Evangelicals, compared to eternal damnation, and so the church is focused on future heaven, while the present goes to hell.
I’m not an American, so I’m probably not getting the whole perspective. My opinion from across the pond is that American Christianity has become narrow, politicized and entrenched, at least on this issue. Personally, I think there’s a whole wealth of opportunity for Christians to involve themselves in environmental action, if we could see it. Perhaps I need to write a bit more about what those opportunities are. Or then again, maybe I’m just a deluded ‘earthism’ worshipper.