As a Conservative, Evangelical Republican, Why Climate Change Can’t be True (Even Though It Is)
Imagine a mathematician basing his or her entire life’s work on the premise that 1+1 = 3. Absurd, right? Yet a few years ago I came to the conclusion that I had done exactly that when it came to my views on climate change. Here was my flawed formula.
I had spent nearly ten years of my life writing, speaking and teaching on biblical stewardship. As an evangelical theologian, I was (and am) passionate about helping Christians understand the full meaning of what it means to be a faithful steward in every area of their life. That included care for God’s creation.
Add to that that I’m a product of the 60’s when we believed that science was trustworthy on most things. I have no reason to doubt conclusions that come from a broad consensus of scientists. I am no conspiracy theorist, and I have a basic trust in the veracity of scientific data, especially when it is confirmed on a broad scale.
What is the conclusion that I drew from the combination of my passion for stewardship plus a basic trust in science? I was an adamant climate change denier. Yup, 1+1 = 3. Global warming was a hoax. Environmentalism was a word you said with a sneer on your lips. I cared for God’s creation and held science in the highest regard, all while sitting at home watching Whale Wars and rooting for the Japanese whaling ships (seriously). For some unknown reason I lived comfortably with this irreconcilable internal contradiction.
Finally, this absurdity became intolerable, forcing me to question how I got here, and why it had been so easy to establish and remain in such a paradox for so long. I have come to the conclusion that for me, and perhaps for far too many of us in the evangelical church, the answer can be summed up in one word; conditioning.
Webster defines conditioning as ‘a gradual training process, learning behavior over time.’ I realized that over my lifetime I had been conditioned to think about environmentalists through the lens of five significant perspectives. Not everyone will have the same experiences, but see if some of these don’t ring true for you.
1. Conditioning: People who care about the environment are left-wing, socialist, former hippies who have no job and hate those who do. In the culture in which I was raised, ‘environmentalists’ fit very comfortably in this tight little box. After all, you never saw businessmen in three-piece suits riding around in Greenpeace zodiacs. There were no clean-cut, all-American patriots camping out in the offices of Exxon Mobil. The message was clear, if you cared about the environment you aligned yourself with some pretty undesirable people.
2. Conditioning: People who care about the environment are liberal Democrats who favor big government, crushing regulations and higher taxes, who kill jobs, run up deficits, don’t care about small businesses and ruin the economy. Having been raised in a conservative Republican home, the environment was always “their” issue, and “their” only solution was massive regulation, bigger government and higher taxes. Liberal politics and environmental concerns were two sides of the same coin. There was also the hard reality that most every environmental policy I heard about did indeed seem to steal jobs from people. In Oregon in the 1970s the crusade to save the spotted owl nearly broke the timber industry, which included the families of a lot of the kids I went to school with. I concluded that environmentalists hated hard-working, everyday American people. They all lived somewhere back there in Washington DC, cut off from the real world, and probably taking drugs. Damned environmentalists!
3. Conditioning: People who care about the environment are alarmist, scare-mongering activists who chain themselves to trees and always think the world is coming to an end. Thinking back on it, I don’t ever recall seeing a sane environmentalist depicted on television. Every time the news captured the green movement it showed angry fist-wavers and screaming celebrities who were either breaking the law or proclaiming the end of the world. With the possible exception of Ralph Nader, environmentalists were regarded in my circles as kooks. To care about the environment was to align with the lunatic fringe.
4. Conditioning: People who care about the environment are shame peddlers, always wanting to make everyone feel guilty for the way we live, what we drive, how much money we spend and for not caring about the rain forest, polar bears and, yes, spotted owls. In the town I grew up in and the church I attended, all talk about saving the rainforests and protecting the whales was greeted with rolled eyes and a shake of the head. Environmentalists relished in telling us that our lifestyles were killing the planet. The real truth was, we didn’t want to change. We especially didn’t want a wacko, hippie-type liberal telling us what laundry detergent to buy or why our mahogany coffee table was destroying the earth. This isn’t the Soviet Union (think 1970’s), after all. This is America, and we are free to pursue life, liberty and happiness. To believe anything less was un-American.
5. Conditioning: People who care about the environment are atheists who worship nature, hate Christians and believe humans are intruders on the earth. If the first four conditioning agents didn’t seal the deal, this was the game-changer. Simply put, environmentalists were atheists. They dismissed any idea of God and deeply disliked the idea that human beings had any real right to be on the earth. They worshiped trees, idolized mother Gaia, saw the Earth as sacred and considered humanity a deeply flawed polluter on an otherwise perfect planet. As a conservative Christian, if you even hinted at ‘caring’ for creation, you were already heading down the slippery slope of pantheism. We prayed for such wayward brothers and sisters!
Having been thoroughly conditioned by these five attitudes, it should not be surprising to see how easy it was to hold to my contradictory foundational philosophy. Somewhere deep inside me, however, I knew that our call to care for creation required more of me than I dared think. I was also slowly worn down by the unquestionable scientific evidence that became impossible to ignore.
Finally, one day I was forced to face the internal absurdities of my worldview and I was challenged to do the unthinkable. I had to consider in one crushing moment that maybe, just maybe, they were right, at least at the foundational level of understanding the need to care for our environment.
But there was more. Could it be that those I held in contempt may actually have unwittingly been acting more biblically than I had? Could it be that decades of conditioning had calloused me from any serious engagement with this issue, and that disengagement bore witness to my disobedience to God? I had to confess that for me, it had, and it was time to speak the truth and repent.
Once the humiliation subsided, the work began to use my theological training to reclaim an understanding of our created purpose and responsibilities when it comes to caring for God’s creation. The challenge was to rethink this issue from a truly biblical standpoint, setting aside as much as possible the layers of conditioning that so deeply influenced my thinking.
I am still in process in making this transition, but I pray the following is a faithful response to the five conditioning influences I’ve mentioned. Let me revisit them in reverse order.
1. Even though many environmentalists are atheists and many others do worship creation – as evangelicals, we can love God and still care about creation – in fact, we are commanded to do so. I am convinced that a person with an unconditioned mind who embraced Scripture in its purity and simplicity would come away fully committed to caring for God’s creation. There would be no temptation to worship creation. Scripture is clear we worship God alone. It is also clear that if we are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength we must put our heart, soul, mind and strength into caring for what God cares about, and that includes our neighbor and the world in which we live. In fact, you cannot love your neighbor and love God while destroying God’s creation. Here’s the good news: Evangelicals can hold the highest view of Scripture and embrace the most strident care for God’s creation as one integrated act of submission and obedience. Yes, there will always be environmentalists who will worship creation. But that must not deter us from bearing witness to the image of the God who created us to care for and steward the world he created.
2. Even though some environmentalists continue to be shame peddlers – as evangelicals, we care for creation out of love and obedience, not guilt. The fact of the matter is our lifestyles are destroying this planet, we do need radical change in the way we choose to live, and we are responsible for the warming of our planet. Our response, however, flows from our deep love for the God who created this world, his Son who came to this world to redeem all of it, and the power of the Holy Spirit that guides us into all truth regarding our place in this world. The change we must embrace is motivated by our deep sense of thanksgiving and honor to the creator who placed us in charge of the creation he loves. Let the shame peddlers wag their fingers at us. Our response must be both passionate and humble, but unequivocal if it is truly to be the response to grace and the call to joyful obedience in the name of Christ the King.
3. Even though some environmentalists will continue to be alarmists – as evangelicals, we are not alarmists, but we take seriously the critical state of the creation and our urgent responsibility to act. There is nothing wrong with being alarmed about those things that God finds alarming. Time and again God sent prophets to raise the alarm among the Israelites that their lack of obedience to God’s commands would not go unpunished. Some Christian and political leaders are claiming that God’s sovereignty gives us an excuse for our continued pollution. Such desperately wrongheaded thinking and pitiful theology should be alarming. When we hear of species of animals that God created becoming extinct because of our own greed and arrogance, we should be alarmed. When evangelical leaders scoff at the idea of global warming and claim there are “more important issues” than taking seriously our fundamental responsibility to care for a creation that is a gift from our Creator, we should be very alarmed. The important point here is that we, as conservative evangelicals, should be alarmed about the right things. Perhaps most alarming of all is our apathy in the face of unequivocal evidence that we are ruining this planet. For all the right reasons it should be us, the followers of the Creator God, who should be raising the alarm.
4. Even though some environmentalists are liberal Democrats – caring for the environment is not a political issue, it is a moral issue. As a Republican, I champion small government, the minimum necessary federal regulations governing our lives, policies that create jobs and taxes that are fair and as low as possible. I also believe that the government will need to play a role in leading us with a responsible energy policy that takes seriously the implications of global warming and climate change. I don’t know how those things will hold together, but I’m absolutely convinced that they must hold together. We need to find political leaders of both parties (or a third?) with the creativity and will to envision a third way through this impasse. There is a way to create jobs, minimize regulation and expand our economy while implementing aggressive policies that will decrease pollution, increase investment in alternative resources and seriously engage our country in the international effort to curb global warming. There is no doubt this can be done. God help us if we don’t have the will to do it.
5. Even though some environmentalists represent the liberal fringe – I am pleased to announce to my conservative, evangelical friends that there is an army of educated, intelligent, sane, level thinking, baseball loving, patriotic, apple-pie eating, Bible believing, church attending people who believe in man-made global warming and are committed to lifestyles that will help save the planet. Praise be to God that we no longer have to choose between loving our country and caring for creation, between being good Christians and committed conservationists. We can put our “save the whales” sticker on our bumper right next to our fish emblem. We can drop off our recycling on the way to Bible study. We can use the electricity generated from our newly installed solar panels to show the Jesus Film. The term ‘evangelical environmentalist’ is no longer an oxymoron, it is, in fact, a term of supreme biblical obedience and authentic Christian witness.
What this meant for me was that it was time to stop living with this internal inconsistency, time to set aside my years of conditioning and start to live my faith boldly.
I want to encourage every conservative evangelical who is courageous enough to admit to a similar internal inconsistency in your worldview. To you I say, it is time to stop being influenced by our cultural conditioning and start thinking as God’s people.
It is time to follow Christ not culture.
It is time to put obedience above politics.
It is time to seek repentance and begin living as faithful stewards.
It is time to start speaking boldly regardless of the cost.
And it is time to take joy in connecting with the message of the gospel and the heart of God by caring for his creation.