Review – Conservative Christians and Climate Change

Neall W. Pogue is Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. Robin Globus Veldman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas A&M University. James Morton Turner is Professor of Environmental Studies at Wellesley College, and Andrew C. Isenburg is Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kentucky. They are the authors of three new books on conservative Christian attitudes toward environmental problems, especially climate change.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan selected Wyoming attorney James G. Watt to serve as Secretary of the Interior, tasked with managing the nation’s public lands, federal parks, and natural resources. Then president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, Watt’s past relationship to the Department of the Interior had been primarily antagonistic, pressing the federal government to loosen regulations and to make public lands more accessible to timber, mining, and ranching interests. His nomination thus signaled that the Reagan Administration intended to develop lands that had been protected in the past, drawing immediate scrutiny from environmental organizations and advocates. Though Watt’s posture toward conservation and resource management may have been defensible within a secular conception of politics and policy, his approach quickly became entangled with the tenets of his evangelical Christian faith. It was around this time, according to an array of contemporary sources, that Watt drew the connection himself. The United States may not need to conserve its natural resources at all, he quipped, because “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” Thus with one careless remark, Watt established and substantiated a popular association between evangelical theology, conservative policymaking, and an exceedingly transitory, entirely disposable planet.

Though Watt’s tenure was short—he was forced out in 1983 after some jarring comments on affirmative action and a public feud with the Beach Boys—his profile has proven durable. Over the four decades that followed, the claim that “end times” thinking has left evangelical Christians complacent on environmental conservation has been oft-repeated and published, with former Vice President Al Gore and journalist Bill Moyers among its more prominent proponents. In 2015, when a Pew Research poll revealed that only 28 percent of white evangelicals accepted the science behind anthropogenic climate change—far fewer than any other religious demographic—the theory seemed to be confirmed. As far as most evangelicals are concerned, environmental problems either do not exist or do not matter. God is in control of the world and will end it on his own terms, however much oil and coal we burn.

If this dismissive characterization feels intuitive or cathartic to critics of the evangelical movement, the reality of the situation is somewhat more nuanced and complex. In recent years, scholars from a range of disciplines have investigated the matter and sought to clarify the relationships between evangelical belief, conservative politics, and environmental protection. Their careful labor has yielded a variety of fascinating reads, including the three books under consideration in this review. Each of them discusses James Watt, but all locate the problem in a discursive environment far larger than any one man or idea. Together, they explain how forty years of shifts in the American religious and political ecosystems have left evangelicals largely dubious of or indifferent to climate change, a problem that the United Nations has termed “the defining issue of our time.”

Read the whole thing in the Journal of Communication and Religion.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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