Why You Should Care - a Lot - About Christian Environmentalism

admin January 5th, 2011

Over at Science Blogs, one of my colleagues Dr. Jeffrey Toney, author of Dean’s Corner, has been meditating on the attacks on the environmental movement by Conservative Christian organizations.  

Protecting and sustaining our environment is a core value that seems to be common sense. It never occurred to me that this value might somehow conflict with religion - after all, isn’t being a good steward of the earth a goal of numerous faiths? Apparently not.

As reported in The New York Times, there is a strong push back by Christian evangelists against environmentalism. I find this mind boggling.

This movement refers to itself as “Resisting the Green Dragon” {is such a moniker supposed to conjure images of fire breathing dragons in a prehistoric era?} and refers to enviornmentalism as a “false religion.” Is it not a science? Shouldn’t scientific data drive the conversation?

I’m not sure that environmentalism is a science.  It is based on scientific evidence, but while scientific reasoning might well lead one to the sense one should protect the environment, it is also possible that other things would lead you there - love for a specific place or experience endangered by our way of life, for example, or a religious sense of obligation to care and protect things.  As I’ve written before, my own environmentalism is certainly a product of the scientific evidence for climate change, resource depletion and habitat destruction, but I don’t think it is solely the sum of that reasoning.  The Jewish notion of Tikkun Olam, that humans are here for the purpose of repairing a damaged world is central to my thinking, as are other philosophical and theological and historical reasons. 

I’m glad that Dr. Toney is writing about this issue, because I think it is profoundly important, and it doesn’t take a lot of hard thinking to figure out why.  At this point, the leading environmental issue of this century, climate change, has powerful ideological associations, associations that will essentially determine whether we do anything to protect ourselves from the worst outcomes of global warming.  Our last election put nails in the coffin of climate change legislation in the US, nails that were already halfway banged in by the tepid support of even the left.  Toney’s argument that environmentalism should be about science is right, but it isn’t - and it hasn’t been for a very long time.

The Green Dragon movement which appalls Dr. Toney is a response to the emergence of a conservative Christian environmentalism that is profoundly concerned with climate change and resource consumption.  I had the pleasure of speaking at Mercer University a while back, along with Dr. David Gushee, drafter of the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative, and other evangelical Christians attempting to create a Christian cultural narrative with an awareness of how fragile our ecological situation is at its center. 

This is a fraught position among conservative Christians - at the same conference, young climate activist and writer Jonathan Merritt talked about the anger and threats that had accompanied his first tentative steps to bring his environmental and religious convictions together.  Gushee has argued that there is an emergent Christian “Center” that could be moved politically and socially on a host of issues.  But such movement, and popularizing the theological and philosophical cultural grounding that will allow people who have been raised to view environmental awareness as ideologically leftist and associated with a lack of faith or paganism is a big and difficult project.

The statistics are very clear - there aren’t enough leftists in the US to do much of anything (to the extent the US even has a left, which is another issue).  In order to make political change that will moderate the worst extremes of climate change or begin preparing us for resource depletion, traditional environmentalists must collaborate with people they haven’t always gotten along with.  As I have argued for some years, particularly in this article “Moloch’s Children” , we are going to have to choose who we concentrate our efforts on, and in some ways, attempting to move Conservative Christians may actually be more effective than moving the vast secular middle. 

Why do I think this?  Because as I say in the essay mentioned above, I distinguish between two categories of climate skeptic - the paid shills, who deserve to be properly reviled, and the rest, the ordinary people who are simply uncertain about what to believe, or reject climate change because they have been told they should.  Among this group are a large number of people who I think could be moved by our ecological crisis, if the framing was correct (I’m not sure at this point climate change is the best mover - it may be that peak energy works better):

I don’t believe that people can be easily and accurately divided into enlightment categories – I think they are mostly a distraction.  Nor do I think that the climate change debate exists in the terms that most climate activists frame it, between skeptics and activists/scientists.  There are certainly some people on both sides who come to this with a single, all-encompassing worldview that could be described that way, but mostly, I don’t think that’s accurate.  Instead, I would frame the distinction differently – that the populace is roughly divided into two groups – but not the ones you think they are. The first, I’m going to call “Moloch’s Children” – which isn’t a very nice name, but it is, I think,  accurate.   By this I mean that like Moloch, they devour their own young.  I do not claim that the Children of Moloch do so intentionally – at worst, their seeming god is Mammon.  But the reality is that the worship of consumption leads to the cannibalizing of our future and our children.  

Who are these people?  The children of Moloch consist of the great mass of Americans and other rich world denizens whose central ideology is technological progress and consumption – Moloch is their god, the overarching center of their world is the urge for more and more comfort, more and more possessions, more and more wealth, more and more technology in complete disregard of the fact that these things are not possible.   They do not realize that they devour their own future as they consume.  I realize that most of the people I am describing would fervently deny that this is true of them – but they would mostly be wrong.  At the center of their value system is something empty and deeply wrong, and that emptiness stretches out and empties their world.  They do not know what is missing from their lives, so they seek out more to fill the empty space.

The Children of Moloch cross political, religious, cultural and ethnic lines.  That is, there are plenty of climate skeptics who believe that the climate probably isn’t changing and even if it is, we can just fix it with more free enterprise.  But there are equally many people in the same camp who believe that yes, climate change is a big problem, and someone really should do something about it, but not me, and nothing that impacts my mutual fund statement.   It is possible to be a devout Christian and still hold prosperity, comfort and your game cube at the center of your world in practice, while going to Church on Sundays.  It is possible to be a radical leftist athiest and still hold those same values at the center of your world.  Every shade of middle ground runs through the center.  Moloch knows no political bounds.

The truth is that if you could meaningfully divide the world up into climate skeptics and climate believers and use that information politically, then we’d already be acting on climate change.  The fact is that you can’t – the vast majority of people who believe we should do something about climate change believe that we shouldn’t do anything very difficult, expensive or inconvenient – pretty much what the skeptics believe.  They are different in that if it doesn’t cost them anything substantive, they’d be happy if the problem went away.

The second group I’ve called several things over the years – anti-modernists, sustainability folk (before that term came to mean “people who buy green prada”)…  For this purpose, though, I call them “People of the Center” – that is, anyone who has something other than Moloch at the center of their world: a hope for the future, an investment in the past, the love of a G-d, the love of humanity in general, an ethical paradigm that actually trumps the desire for more –  and thus perceives, sometimes instinctively, sometimes after long study, that we cannot go on this way, and must find something else. 

And this category too crosses all political, cultural and religious lines.   There are devout Christian homesteaders in this group, and indigenous native farmers, radical leftists and radical rightists.  There are aging hippies and crunchy cons.  There are Quakers and Amish, Hasidic and Liberal Jews, Moslems, Buddhist Nuns and Catholic Nuns, Neo-Pagans and Athiests.  There are people who believe that climate change is no problem at all, or not their problem, but who deeply and profoundly believe they are called by their faith or taste or commitment to another principle to live ethically.  There are people who believe that climate change is everything and come to the same conclusions.  And in the end, what matters here are the ends- the conclusions and the life that follows them.

Here, then, I see the people who are already beginning to live the life necessary.  They may think I’m a complete raving loon on the subject of climate change – but they recognize the need to grow their own food.  They may not care at all about peak oil, but they know they need to cut their energy use and energy budget.  They could be, on the right political grounds, supportive of far more radical political changes than most of the moderate people who accept climate change, because their basic premise is that the future is worth preserving.

The truth is that even without acceptance of climate change, tens of thousands of people recognize the essential emptiness of our center and are looking for a better way.  The truth is that even if we disagree on peak oil, or on the face of the financial collapse, we have things to speak about.   Even if we fight over important (I do not claim they are not important, just perhaps not as important as preventing the worst outcomes of our future) issues that are simply secondary – the traditional battleground issues of left and right, for example, we can recognize their secondariness. 

Even if we have nothing in common except our commitment to creating a future for human beings in the world, we can work together at least in some measure – and I would argue that the People of the Center have more in common with one another than they do with the Children of Moloch, regardless of  their opinions on gay marriage and health care funding.

Christians whose primary ideology is Moloch or Mammon and those who recognize that the way of life they live cannot go on are now associated with each other, but there’s nothing ideologically necessary in that association, and the emergence of the Christian Center and a language of Christian environmentalism is part and parcel I think of creating a culture in which it might be possible for those anti-modernist people of the center to ally.  It won’t be easy or simple, but it may well be the best bet we have.

This is why even if you don’t think Christian environmentalism has anything to do with you, even if you have thought up to now that all evangelicals are alike, you should rethink.  It is important that we begin to explore the common ground held by middle peoples - and provide aid and support to those beleaguered by blowback -  our lives depend on it.


11 Responses to “Why You Should Care - a Lot - About Christian Environmentalism”

  1. Fatima says:

    Thank you so much for this post.
    I don’t often comment on your writing, though I read it regularly. I am one of those people you describe who don’t easily fall into a category. I am a Christian. I love my little place here on earth. I want to provide a good and sustainable future for my children. I am turned off by the mindless consumerism. I am not a scientist. I am skeptical of much of the “news.”
    I am one of the middle, but I still struggle against my own selfishness.
    Selfishness is so much easier.
    Be patient with those of us who are finally learning to turn of the TV and see life in a new way.

    Hope you might have moment to check out a post I wrote last summer… May give you a bit more hope for the middle people.


    Thanks so much.

  2. Nicole D says:

    I come from an Eastern Christian perspective, and I am often sort mystified by the reasoning of our Western brethren when it comes to things like the environmental stewardship. My husband (an Orthodox Christian priest) addressed this last spring in this post on his blog. Care of the created world has been written about by many of our Church Fathers, but as many Western Christians don’t read or view them as valid this theology is not something they can access as they attempt to reformulate their own theology of taking care of creation. My hope and prayer is that more Christians turn towards this wisdom increasingly available to them (new translations are flooding the English speaking world, thank God!)

    Anyhow, I agree with you that any real progress will have to include more from the Evangelical Christian culture (and also the mainstream Christian groups here). I would add that people who hold ascetism as a theological virtue are far more likely to make the sacrifices necessary to live the sort of life you talk about on these blogs. That does not, unfortunately, include many Western Christian denominations.

  3. Nicole C says:

    I think a big part of the issue is the tension between Christianity and science that has been ongoing since the Catholic Church felt so seriously threatened by the Enlightment. (As they should have been; most of their fears came true.) Scientific empiricism and religious faith are philosophies which are extremely difficult to reconcile, although not impossible. Scientists will always first seek proof to arrive at truth, and religionists will always find their truth in faith first, with proof a secondary concern (if that). Branding environmentalism as science and providing the scientific proof of climate change isn’t going to resonate well with many religionists.

    A second source of tension is within the the Christian faith itself. The notion of long term stewardship is at odds with looking forward to Armageddon. You don’t plant peas where you expect a battlefield.

    Nonetheless, I believe the seeds of success lie in these tensions, not because of where they differ, but in where they are alike. For example, Christians who are more focused on the End Times can be very responsive to self-sustainability concerns. (With the exception of those who believe in the Rapture, I guess.) Peak Energy serves quite well as a potential sign of the last days. Or, Christians who are focused more on Jesus’ message of love are certainly potential allies in preserving and protecting the world for those living today and future generations.

    I agree that there is a large and critical common ground in the middle. The most radical leftist free love hippie wants the same safety and security for their family that a devout conservative Christian does. We ignore the common ground at our peril, but it will take a lot of work. I have a co-worker with whom I have civil political discussion. He is fond of telling me what I believe. I have yet to convince him that just because Joe Schmoe pundit said I believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. When I figure out how to breech that kind of barrier of preconceptions, I’ll get back to you! :)

  4. aimee says:

    Of all the groups you mention in your list at the end, I think probably “neo-pagan” describes my family best. Without going into details, we believe in the Earth as a living organism, and that the health of that organism is essential to our own survival. We believe in being the best stewards we can of our piece of the planet (five small acres) and advocating for the rest of it.

    However, I also attend a Christian church. It’s a Lutheran Church, and I started attending as a way to get to know my neighbors. I have been very pleasantly surprised to hear our pastor speak many times on the need to protect the world from environmental damage, on our utter dependence on natural systems, and on the moral responsibility Christians have towards the rest of creation. I would like to see her be a bit more outspoken about the specifics of how to do those things, but I understand that her pulpit is not overtly political - a position I respect.

    Our congregation is made up mostly of elderly farmers, and while their politics may be rightist, I have seen firsthand that they also have a deep love of place, and a long memory for the natural world they grew up in. They are not blind; they have seen that world become impoverished. They have seen the game disappear, the streams falter, the forests cut down, and the ocean beaches become too contaminated to harvest shellfish. They don’t care for the government telling them how to be stewards of their land, but stewards they are, and good ones for the most part.

    I think, from my limited experience, that caretaking the Earth is part of mainstream Christianity. The folks you are talking about are not mainstream Christians, for the most part. There are unreachable people - I’m not sure what the point of attempting to reach them is. But most Christians, Protestant and Catholic, ARE reachable. The values are already embedded - it is the language that must be skillfully employed.

  5. Tweets that mention The Chatelaine's Keys » Blog Archive » Why You Should Care – a Lot – About Christian Environmentalism -- Topsy.com says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kristy Harris, Tina Ray. Tina Ray said: On environmentalism, Christians, and "children of Moloch." Thought provoking. http://ow.ly/3yLKx [...]

  6. Jess says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now, and I really like your way of thinking. This entry in particular, really touched me.

    I struggle so much with the total and utter blindness of others. How can they choose to ignore facts, common sense, moral obligation, and the right thing to do?!

    Most of the people I interact with are of the Moloch variety, and I’m lonely for others like myself. =(

  7. Toomas Karmo says:

    Thanks, Sharon, for drawing attention to this topic. The “Green Dragon” Web page is disconnected from reality to the point of causing scandal for religion. In my pondering, I read the blog posting to which Nicole D refers above (a posting from her husband, an Orthodox cleric), and from it I learned something good: rather than thinking of humans as stewards of the biosphere, we can think of humans as priests for the biosphere. A true priest does not boss people around, and does not “steward” them like a corporate manager, but instead helps their own inner truth, their own inner tendril from God’s vine, grow. I am now rather sorry to have used the facile language of stewardship in my own environmental manifesto (in the second chapter of “Utopia 2184″, www dot metascientia dot com).

    (signed) Toomas (Tom) Karmo
    (Roman Catholic in Toronto, Canada)

  8. Toomas Karmo says:

    Sharon, I should perhaps add that whereas the steward is a kind of expert, a fixer-upper, the priest is a person of love and (what is an essential component in love) humility.

  9. Toomas Karmo says:

    Nicole D: I have to apologize for carelessly referring to your husband, in an earlier blog posting here, as an “Orthodox cleric” (the term might suggest “deacon” or some such), when I should have written “Orthodox priest”. This slip was due to inattention on my part, not to some malign desire to impugn the canonical validity of Orthodox ordinations! - Sharon, and Nicole D and all: In my two earlier postings today, I still did not find all the right words to express the fullness of what Nicole D’s husband calls the priestly relation of humans to biosphere. It is useful to add now that whereas the steward is a managerial expert, the priest is a servant. (This facet of the priestly essence is summed up in the Christian tradition by the image of Christ washing the feet of His disciples at the Passover meal.) - Sharon especially: What a complicated mess theology is. That Christianity is screwed up in North America can already be surmised from its odd public discourses regarding sex and war. Step out of line on sex just a tiny bit in either North American Roman Catholicism or North American conservative Protestantism (wonder, for instance, in front of your pastor whether it really is a good idea for the Vatican to get its Canadian laity to petition Members of Parliament in Ottawa on same-sex marriage) and you may get - indeed I once did get - berated. And yet on WAR it is Liberty Hall: you can be a strict pacifist, as indeed I am, and no Catholic pastor will presume to criticize you; you can, alternatively, pick up a rifle and shoot alleged “Taliban” in Kandahar, blindly following the orders of your colonel, and again no Catholic pastor will presume to criticize you; indeed your armed forces will supply you with Communion, I imagine administered by a priest himself wearing military uniform. A Martian anthropologist contemplating this spectacle would deduce that matters of sex are of supreme import in the Vatican’s creed, with matters of war and peace mere details, mere icing on the ecclesial pastry. The theology of the environment, spotlighted in a scary way by the “Green Dragon” writers to whom you draw attention, is part of a larger, miserable, tangle, with roots going back to the Reformation, perhaps even to the Schism. A path to sanity here might involve reflecting on the theology of incarnation, on which Nicole D’s husband (the Orthodox priest) has good blog postings at roadsfromemmaus dot blogspot dot com. The Byzantine Church, on the Eastern side of the Schism, was and is clear in stressing the materiality of the faith - the icons, the sacramentals, the consecrated Host of course, the sheer PHYSICALITY of a holy physical world. If you need to chat about theological nuances, you could perhaps try ringing me up, using the number I display at the foot of the www dot metascientia dot com homepage. The more brains you can pick on this complex topic, the better. For brain-picking, phone might work a bit better than e-mail.

    (signed) Tom Karmo

  10. Kim says:

    Thank you! We cannot expect God to bless the work of our hands, if we do not bless and care for the work of His hands - the earth and our very existence.

    Many times those who choose not God (for many reasons), care for the earth better than Christ followers. Why do Christians so often poorly embrace:

    For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    Where is my heart and is it operating out of truth? Truth for my neighbor - no matter how far away he lives from me, and for all the creatures we share this planet with.

    Maybe when America is forced into dependence, at her own doing, she will learn to share and what it is like to be in want and to know what it means to be dependent on others.

    In Isaiah 47, God confronts the Babylonians for they say, “I am and there is none besides me.” That is America: “I am and there is none besides me.” If we do not change, the consequences of such behavior shall surely be visited upon us.

    If we choose to break harmony with the earth, her people, her creatures, we will live in isolation, weak and needy - for is that not the consequence of going our own way? One who chooses to go it alone, usually ends up alone.

  11. Maria Barker says:

    Thank you, Sharon.

    I have been confronted, over and over, by the people who tell me that the rapture is going to take care of all this unpleasentness, and only those who are left behind will have to deal with it. When I ask if those who are left behind deserve to have to deal with the consumerchristian’s rubble and debris, they look at me in a considering manner, and tell me that anyone who is left behind deserves everything that happens to him, and I would be wise to plot my path accordingly. (My words, they were less articulate).

    I have a new blog, the focus of which is what we call “Responsible Living” I would like to provide a link to this article, and would be very pleased to have any of your other readers come over for a peek.

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