Why are so many American Christians seemingly unbothered by the gutting of the institutions and policies dedicated to protecting our environment? Does the blame lie in Christianity itself?
There have been those who thought so. Indeed, in the 1960s a certain line of cultural criticism began to hold western Christianity culpable for industrial society’s chronic ecological ills. Usually indexed to a 1967 article by the historian Lynn White, the critique holds that, long before the industrial revolution, European Christianity opened cultural space for systematic ecological plunder by developing a worldview in which earth was made for humans to use in pursuit of their own otherworldly destiny. Christianity’s salvation story taught European cultures the anthropocentric instrumentalism that came to shape global capitalism’s basic beliefs about humanity and nature. By cultivating spiritual disdain for this world, the faith’s contemptus mundi became the industrial economy’s contempt for earth.
There are many reasons to doubt the critique: historically dubious, causally simplistic, and based on a religious caricature, it doesn’t even represent White’s own view. Yet the basic suspicion has shaped U.S. environmental politics. Since the 1960s, Christian leaders in the United States have had to defend themselves against the suspicion that their tradition is inherently anti-ecological. Many have therefore endeavored to demonstrate how their tradition in fact supports care for God’s creation, or eco-justice, or some other formulation. Hardly ever have Christian leaders defended contempt for creation as a credible Christian belief.
When Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the action attracted bipartisan support. A basic argument for constraining pollution had moral approval from U.S. evangelicals. In a time of smog-choked cities, flammable rivers, pervasive lead exposure, dying Great Lakes, when even the Bald Eagle was disappearing, environmental protection appeared as commonsense politics. If not their most important issue, Christian churches still largely supported stewardship values. So when Newt Gingrich’s congress threatened to repeal the Endangered Species Act in the mid-1990s, evangelicals were outspoken in protest, calling it “the Noah’s Ark of our day.”
The Trump administration now seeks debilitating cuts to the EPA and the department of Agriculture, and it wants to repeal climate programs. It does so without offering even a fig leaf of moralization, without bothering to spin the moves as somehow better for environmental stewardship. The proposals, and the men chosen to lead them, are openly contemptuous of the idea that ecological issues matter. How did contempt for environmental protection become populist?
It is not because protection over the last half century was ineffective: the nation’s air and water are much cleaner, lead exposure much lower, the Great Lakes returning to health, and the Bald Eagle is no longer critically endangered. Think it is because they prefer market-based approaches to environmental problems? The populists have pilloried a recent conservative proposal for a carbon dividend. Think it is because of conservative skepticism toward over-reaching federal power? Among the programs targeted are regional restoration programs for the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, agricultural incentives for private landowner conservation, and even the publication of information that individuals and local communities would need to make decisions on their own.
There are serious conservative reasons to think that stewardship should happen at different scales and by different means. Those reasons clearly do not explain what is happening here.
Somehow contempt for environmental concern became part of the identity of Trump’s electorate. Why? In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild describes the views of a number of white Christian conservatives in Louisiana. Many have deep attachments to the bayou and lament cherished places lost to chemical pollution – yet they despise the idea of regulations. Hochschild tries to explain that contradiction by rolling it into her “deep story” about working class white people who are frustrated because it seems to them that “others” are cutting in line in front of them, delaying their pursuit of the American dream. Perception of line-cutting might well explain a spike in white ethnonationalism, but it doesn’t seem to explain how they can mutely endure the sickening of beloved waters and, for some, the sickening of their own bodies. Rationalization of suffering, of the sort that helps one endure pain and swallow loss, works at the level of theodicy. It needs a religious story about good and evil.
Over the last decade, Christians who care about environmental issues have been targeted by a (well-oiled?) campaign that has sought particularly to sow a rift among evangelicals. It has largely succeeded. Whereas in 2006 more than three hundred senior evangelical leaders signed a statement affirming that faith in Jesus Christ requires action on climate change, they are now silent as the Trump administration guts climate programs. Why the change? The campaign has mythologized environmentalism as an evil rival to Christianity, thereby casting suspicion of apostasy on those who support even basic forms of action. The accompanying Green Dragon video series instills spiritual fear of any show of care for earth, making the point clear: maintaining evangelical identity now requires contempt for earth.
So a stunning transformation has happened: a certain strand of U.S. evangelicalism now identifies itself with a 1960s caricature of Christianity. Contempt for earth has become a mark of faith.
I should be clear that it is white U.S. evangelicals about whom we are talking. When the American Academy of Religion commissioned a survey about US religion and climate change, it found that black Protestants were much more concerned about climate change than their white counterparts. And Evangelical Protestants in other countries do not seem to share the same antipathy toward environmental concern nor the same affection for fossil fuel energy.
Why would white Christian Protestants in North America be especially tempted to identify with environmental contempt? The answer may partly lie in their affiliation with the rise of an American variety of ethnonationalism, which includes valorization of extractive mastery over nature. This seems different from far-right populisms in Europe, in which ethnicity seems more connected to a particular homeland. Perhaps it expresses the “New World” rootlessness of a settler culture. The first sentence of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: “One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.” So opens his blistering account of American agricultural practices as colonialist plunder. The homeland of American ethnonationalism is neither “home” nor “land” for these people; it is real estate from which to extract wealth.
The future of white nationalist politics in the United States remains uncertain. It is clear, however, that the future of white evangelicalism in the United States is already being transformed by its alliance with fossil fuel culture. Scott Pruitt, the climate-science denier picked to dismantle the EPA, is on the board of trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And they are apparently proud of him. One evangelical organization invited Christians to support him by praying “for streamlined EPA regulations and a more business-friendly agency.” Such piety is difficult to place in Christian liturgical history.
Whatever this strange spiritual alliance of white nationalism and fossil fuel energy becomes, scholars of religion may need to acknowledge its innovation by calling it something other than “Christianity.” We might have to begin teaching it under some other rubric. Anthropocene folk religion? Petro-Manichaeism?
I do not mean to suggest that all white evangelical christians necessarily believe this way. On the contrary, many serious evangelical theologians recognize how profound a danger to Christian doctrine is contempt for creation, not to mention ethnonationalism. Yet serious evangelical theology no longer represents the formations of belief now swirling through the most powerful white evangelical networks.
The point here is not simply that some segment of white evangelicalism has begun mutating into another religious form. It is that, for all of us searching for ways to confront these new formations of contemptuous power, our mumbling dissent at the gutting of environmental protection reveals to us how thin is our public lexicon for affirming the alternative: that our humanity depends on care for our common home.
Willis Jenkins is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia
Photo credit:Nevit Dilmen – Own Photograph, CC BY-SA 3.0