Evangelicals Love the Earth. So What Are They Doing to Save It?
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.Genesis 1:28
Centuries before humans began to walk the Earth, the Book of Genesis says the planet was a formless void, without light or life. Separating light from darkness and forming blue sky and soft waters, God created the heavens and the Earth.
After separating the dry land from the seas, the Bible says God created seeds that bloomed into fruit and living creatures such as birds, cattle and sea monsters which multiplied. Finally, in the image of himself, God created humankind.
“Though the Earth belongs to God, He places it, gives it to man, to be a steward of protecting and preserving the Earth,” says Bishop George Dallas McKinney of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in San Diego, California. McKinney is an evangelical Christian.
Unlike the Roman Catholics, who look to the pope, or Mormons, who have their First Presidency, evangelicals do not have a single living authority. Instead, they accept Jesus Christ as humanity’s savior. Evangelicals are defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as finding authority within Scripture and committing to spreading the message of the Christian gospel.
“Being an evangelical means that I believe that salvation is available to everybody regardless of ethnicity, language or place of dwelling, and that means that I have a responsibility of sharing the faith with those who will hear,” McKinney continues.
British historian David Bebbington coined a standard definition of evangelicalism in 1989. Known as the Bebbington quadrilateral, this is often the most widely accepted definition of evangelicalism.
About a quarter of the American population identifies with evangelical Protestantism, according to a Pew Research Center poll, with three-quarters of the community being white. Most survey data on evangelicalism emphasizes the white dominance within this community.
While more Americans than ever before view climate change as a grave issue, 77 percent of white evangelical voters identify with the Republican party, according to a Pew Research Center poll. On the whole, the Pew Research Center shows just 21 percent of Republicans believe the environment must be a priority.
A Pew Research Center poll in 2019 found that seven in 10 evangelicals approve of President Trump, who said in 2012 that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Historically, being an evangelical has also meant being suspicious of the reality of climate change and feeling hostile toward potential solutions.
There are several high priority issues for evangelical Americans, with the economy ranking at 69 percent and abortion at 64 percent, in a polling by the Barna Group. In comparison, the same poll found that only 16 percent of evangelicals considered environmental issues to be of great importance.
To many of those who identify as evangelical, the concept of spreading the good news is inspiring, and includes environmental activism. To others, the illustration of creation care is not necessarily reflected in the Bible.
As the ice in Antarctica rises and temperatures rise across the planet, it’s clear that our planet is changing in ways that could be catastrophic. Stopping the catastrophe will not be easy, but it will be impossible without the support of evangelical Americans, who represent one of the most enduring and cohesive voting blocs in the United States.
Perhaps an outlier within the evangelical community, McKinney is a strong advocate for climate change. While all evangelicals are often known for political conservatism, McKinney is willing to vote for candidates who enact environmental policies.
“For those who have the exposure to the realities of this climate change situation, and to be silent is to be negligent, and in a very real sense malfeasance and crude in responsibility,” says McKinney.
Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your feet from being snared.Proverbs 3:25-36
In the middle of the night on Aug. 28, 2005, Robert Green’s 3-year-old granddaughter, Shanai Green, woke him up. Water was seeping into the house. Within 15 minutes, the water had risen 17 feet, all the way to Green’s attic. He used an axe to chop his way out and pulled his mother, three granddaughters and two other family members up onto the roof. The levees had begun to break.
After minutes on the roof, the floodwater lifted Green’s house off of its foundation and sent it careening down the street, which had turned into a river. Robert’s elderly mother fell into the water. While they pulled her out, she later died of pneumonia. Shanai, the one who warned the family of the approaching danger, fell in the water too. Her body was never found.
In 2015, a 25-year-old Rev. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap was on a trip to New Orleans for emerging faith leaders, where he met Green and heard what had befallen his family.
“This whole story is a perfect encapsulation of how social problems and natural problems amplify each other,” Meyaard-Schaap tells me. “It’s just a horrific, horrific story. And those kinds of stories really, really affected me. And I carry those stories and those faces with me still
and I tell those stories because they’re important for people to hear and they asked me to share them.”
Trips like this were reminders to Meyaard-Schaap, the national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), that creation care equaled people care. To him, climate action is an act of evangelism. It is sharing the good news of the promise of Jesus’ love and restoration for everybody.
Aside from the scriptural call to care for God’s creation for its own sake, to Meyaard- Schaap loving his neighbors means taking environmental degradation seriously.
Scientists have known since the 1970s that the climate is warming, but the root of our inability to solve this ecological crisis began even before “global warming” became a cause. In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. published one of the most cited articles in the journal Science. Titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” White wrote about the role religion plays in the public’s lack of interest in environmental conservation.
“We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man,” White wrote.
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.Romans 10:17
Even as his commitment to the environment reflects his faith values, Meyaard-Schaap admits to grappling with the label “evangelical Christian.”
“I’ll freely admit that [the label ‘evangelical Christian’] is an identifier that I wear uncomfortably,” says Meyaard-Schaap. “There are things about the broader evangelical community, at least the more fundamentalist evangelical portion of the community, that I really disagree with on almost everything.”
“I’ll freely admit that [evangelical Christian] is an identifier that I wear uncomfortably,” says Meyaard-Schaap. “There are things about the broader evangelical community, at least the more fundamentalist evangelical portion of the community, that I really disagree with on almost everything.”
Evangelicalism is hard to define. Evangelicals are grouped as “white Christian Republicans” in the political sphere. They are also used as a sociological term to pollsters. To pastors and believers, it is often seen as a denominational or doctrinal term.
There is a mainstream evangelicalism that has a meaningful interpretation of the gospel, according to Meyaard-Schaap. This is the sort of evangelicalism he still wants to attempt to be a part of and believes has something to offer the world.
Defining evangelicalism requires an understanding of the theological and historical root of the movement. When the Greek compound word euangelion is broken down, eu means “good,” and ngel, where the English language gets the word “angel,” means “messenger” or “message.” Translated to “evangelical” in English, euangelion simply means “good news.”
Wayne Grudem, a 72-year-old professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary, argues that God would not have created a world capable of self- destructing. The Earth, to Grudem, is like a thermostat, automatic and self-regulating.
“[As] the Earth begins to cool, there are mechanisms that allow more heat from the sun to affect the planet and when it becomes too warm … there are self- correcting mechanisms that begin to cool it down,” Grudem says.
Throughout the history of this planet, there have been periods of warming and periods of cooling. This oscillation back and forth over hundreds of years may have contributed to the warming trend we see, Grudem tells me.
Democrats, according to Grudem, tend to be more concerned that use of carbon fuels are
creating harmful irreversible effects while Republicans tend to feel that the use of carbon fuel has not been proven to be necessarily harmful to the atmosphere or temperature. Grudem does not think it necessary to label climate change catastrophic or see human beings as a part of the problem.
“It seemed to me that the picture of the Earth given in the Bible is that God created for the benefit of human beings and wants us to explore and develop and use its resources wisely,” says Grudem. “When I first heard it … it doesn’t seem that the warnings about catastrophic global warming caused by human beings were consistent with the biblical picture of God creating the Earth with resources for our benefit.”
Grudem is not alone in his beliefs. White evangelical Protestants are least likely of all religious groups in the United States to believe that climate change is caused by human activity, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The poll notes that while 33 percent of white evangelicals believe the planet is warming due to natural patterns, 37 percent argue that there is no solid evidence that global warming is occurring at all.
Now an associate professor of philosophy at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, Aaron Simmons grew up in a religious household with a grandfather who was a pastor. Simmons received his Bachelor of Arts at an evangelical Christian-affiliated college, Lee University, in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Simmons went on to participate in a faculty working group that was investigating the relation between ecology and spirituality during his years at Vanderbilt University as a doctoral student. He then began organizing major conferences on Christianity and the environment in the United States.
Simmons notes that evangelicals who are climate deniers use passages in the Bible to prove that salvation is only restricted to humans and climate change cannot be caused by humans because it violates divine sovereignty.
“[As a climate denier] you’re going to anchor [your argument] in the Bible by looking at passages in Genesis about dominion over the Earth, about salvation being something restricted only to human persons,” Simmons says. “This all connected to a deep anthropocentrism whereby all of this is anchored in the only value that God has in the Earth are human souls.”
Simmons notes that because of the talks he gave about implementing environmental awareness in churches around the country, he began to move further away from his faith.
“Ironically, as a result of all that work, I started getting increasingly socially progressive in my own social identity. And so now I no longer identify as evangelical,” he says.
To Christopher Doran, a professor of religion at Pepperdine University, American evangelicalism, conservative ideologies and Republican politics are inextricably linked. Due to moral opposition to abortion and gay rights, Doran says evangelicals often tend to intersect directly with the most conservative and anti-science elements of the Republican party.
“They like science when they get on an airplane and the laws of physics work. They like science when grandma gets cancer and we have good biological solutions to cancer treatments. But there’s not always an acceptance of science when it comes to behavior modification,” Doran says. “Part of it is just the sense of being very selective about when you want to take science seriously and when you do not.”
A Psalm of David. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.Psalms 24:1-2
In 1970, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) put out a statement on the climate, noting that “those who thoughtlessly destroy a God-ordained balance of nature are guilty of sin against God’s creation.” NAE stated that Christ would not want humankind to destroy Earth’s resources and reminded Christians they were entrusted with stewarding all God’s creation.
The following year, NAE wrote another urgent call to action: a statement affirming humanity’s responsibility to steward the world under God by engaging in climate activism.
Calling upon their constituency to do the same, NAE pledged to support and cooperate with efforts to solve critical environmental issues.
Within evangelical politics there remain two sides to the issue of climate change. Organizations like the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA) have created platforms that use evangelical Christian values to specifically advocate for climate change.
The Cornwall Alliance, a conservative Christian public policy group, is on the other side of the issue within the evangelical community. Being critical opponents of the ENN and YECA, the group rejects the idea that climate change is caused by humans and claims it must be opposed as it harms the poor.
“I think that sometimes, we allow our thinking and our decisions to be informed by the wrong sources,” says Bishop McKinney. “I think that many evangelicals, for example, without any hesitation, have completely abandoned the theological and biblical perspectives [regarding the issue of climate change].”
Finding a solution to the current climate crisis in America might depend on evangelicals forming consensus on an issue that has become increasingly partisan.
Perhaps historian Lynn White Jr.’s most intriguing statement in his journal article hints at a solution to the grave issue of climate change. He stated, “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”Mark 16:15
Christians in America are an important group when it comes to grassroots changes, with
roughly seven in 10 Americans identifying with some branch of Christianity, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll.
In a journal article published by the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” sociologist Bernard Daley Zaleha and sociologist and environmentalist Andrew Szasz note that the call to action when it comes to climate change is a top issue for liberal Christians. But climate stewardship comes with “certain reservations and qualifications” for certain conservative Christians.
Zaleha notes that for certain evangelicals, voting for candidates that have policies to combat climate changes means sacrificing their pro-life views.
To Meyaard-Schaap, what is most difficult is the idea that evangelicals cannot be both pro-life and pro-climate action. It is a false choice presented to those who have traditionally conservative values and want to support climate action, he says.
“For example, just taking the pro-life issue, fossil fuel combustion and generation releases tons of heavy metals and other toxins that, among other things, impede fetal development and actually hurt the unborn,” Meyaard-Schaap says. “So, valuing life and being concerned with the unborn is actually perfectly consistent with pursuing clean energy and renewable energy technologies that phase out the dangers posed by fossil fuel pollution.”
Bishop McKinney is also frustrated that evangelicals often all get grouped together. “I think there are some evangelicals who reject the concept of climate change and take it as a hoax, but I’m an evangelical and I don’t take it in that way. And I think that I’m a legitimate evangelical,” he says.
Bishop McKinney serves in a congregation with predominantly working-class people, so responding to the emergencies of the hour is often of most importance, he says. The day-to-day burden of existence — the problem of unemployment, the lack of access to medical care, the problems that come from the housing shortage and homelessness — shows there are those who have problems that are so much more immediate than the climate, McKinney says.
But to McKinney, caring for the environment is still a matter of spiritual stewardship. “We know that God owns everything, but he has allowed us to be overseers and caretakers of what belongs to him and that makes it the moral duty, a virtual obligation,” McKinney says.
When asked if he votes for Democratic candidates who support climate change policies, he says yes without hesitation. While he does not promote candidates to those in his church, he does have private conversations or group discussions where he is willing to talk about it, stating he is “unashamed to do so.”
Finding climate change solutions does not mean excluding the conservative parties, says Rachel Lamb, one of the founders of YECA, but rather putting pressure on Republicans locally and nationally to take climate change seriously. Lamb’s dream candidate is one who believes in climate change, in addition to socially conservative values.
“If you care about climate, you just get one choice. I think that’s ridiculous,” Lamb says. “I think the best ideas come from creativity, and so what I want to see is I want to see a bunch of candidates, at least the major two parties, putting forth their best ideas for how to deal with the climate. And I want to have a choice around the climate, about which issues I think are best.”
Absent this, Lamb and other younger evangelicals face what they see as a Sophie’s choice — vote for a Democrat who believes in climate change and who supports liberal policies or vote for a Republican who is conservative but denies the severity of climate change.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.Matthew 5:13
Lamb is a doctoral student in geographical sciences at University of Maryland. She chose
to study environmental science precisely because of her evangelical faith.
Lamb conducts research at her university that works with the state of Maryland and a
regional greenhouse gas initiative to better utilize land resources and supportive climate action in more effective ways. She believes climate change is one of the greatest issues of her generation.
A Pew Research Center poll notes that 19 percent of younger millennials identify as evangelical. This is a significantly higher percentage when compared to young believers of any other branches of Christianity.
The number of young evangelicals is estimated to continue rising. Another Pew Research Center poll shows that 10 percent of adults who have been raised in another tradition switch to identifying with evangelical Protestantism.
While evangelicals constitute one of the country’s most conservative religious groups, younger believers are more likely than their older counterparts to take liberal positions on social and political issues. Younger evangelicals are significantly more likely to support immigration, accept same-sex marriage and believe that government aid does more good than harm, as shown in polls conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Fifty-five percent of millennials who identify as evangelical believe that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost, according to the same poll.
Young evangelical pastors are also a part of the movement to integrate faith and climate justice. Thirty-one-year-old Trevor Hudges, the lead pastor at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Torrance, California, loves both Christ and the planet.
“[God has] given us authority to tend to this beautiful place,” says Hudges. “The Bible sets it up that way is that the responsibility of humankind is to tend and care to the world. So, I think it is a responsibility of other Christians to do that.”
Can these young evangelicals persuade their older counterparts to embrace the reality of climate change?
The group Lamb helped found, YECA, hopes to mobilize younger generations of evangelicals for climate action, while also engaging with their senior leaders and political leaders. Founded in 2012, the group grew out of the EEN.
Groups such as YECA and EEN have created a network of young American evangelicals on the frontlines of the environmental movement. These organizations use biblical teachings to argue that being good stewards of God’s creation means fighting for climate justice and pressing church leaders, and local and national politicians to take action on the environment, Lamb says.
“The Jesus that I follow tells me to love God and to love my neighbor and when I look out at a world being ravaged by climate change and all of the ways that that’s harming the people I am called to love, I literally don’t know how to live out my faith in a way that doesn’t take seriously that reality, and that doesn’t do what it can to address it,” Meyaard-Schaap says. “It would just feel completely inauthentic and I just can’t conceive of my faith any other way.”
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.Genesis 2:15
In the story of the final judgment, titled “The Sheep and the Goats” in Matthew 25, Jesus, the King, sits on his throne surrounded by angels with all humankind gathered in front of him. He then divides the people from one another to decide who will inherit the kingdom.
The Bible begins with the beautiful story of tending to the land and creation given to us by God, Pastor Hudges tells me. There is this idea, when you read the Bible, that Christians should be at their finest when they’re following God, he says. He quotes Matthew 6:10, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
“There’s this heaven coming down to Earth,” he says. “There’s this idea that God, through Jesus, is helping us restore, or recreate the world as it was, which is an image of heaven on Earth.”
But there is more to the story, he notes: the problem of sin. Sin is when humans do not respect what God has called us to do, Hudges says, and not taking care of the planet that he’s put us on is a part of that.
Hudges says the proof that Christians should care deeply about the environment is written in the Bible. He tells me, “God deeply cares about this place, and he deeply cares about its restoration. And there’s a brokenness that we have here in the world that it isn’t how it should be.”
As written in the Bible, in the final judgment, the King will say, “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”