Evangelicals take on the environment

The environment has seldom been pleased with evangelical Christians. Before it even got a chance to know them, Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, getting both themselves and the environment cursed as a result. Subsequent Christians have used the Bible to justify the exploitation and reckless consumption of their fallen companion. And to add insult to injury, most evangelicals today have chosen to eschew environmentalism, preferring to believe that global warming is a myth. This column examines those tendencies from the perspective of an evangelical who cares about the environment, with an eye towards current manifestations of evangelicals’ anti-environmentalist bent.

Many trace the root of the problem to the Bible’s creation story. Here, after speaking the earth, animals and plants into being, God constructs the crown of creation: humankind, made in God’s own image. God instructs these special creatures as following: “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.”

Many environmentalists claim that this story is the cause of Western civilizations’ traditional neglect for the environment. First, it distinguishes between God and creation. If God is not part of creation, and creation itself not a god, then humans have less reason to respect it. Their allegiance lies elsewhere, to a being beyond the physical; thus, their allegiance is not to the physical environment they inhabit. Second, in making the appearance of humans the climax of the creation narrative, the passage seems to encourage an anthropocentric worldview. Humankind is the center of the universe and other entities are only important insofar as they serve the needs of humans. As a result, a high-ranking official in the Southern Baptist Convention recently dismissed environmentalism thus: “human beings come first in God’s created order.” Third, this anthropocentrism is exacerbated by the “dominion mandate”: the command from God to humans to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” over the rest of creation.

Other sources of evangelicals’ opposition to environmentalism are more recent. In the late 1800s, evangelicals developed a “pre-millennial eschatology” — a doctrine holding that Jesus would come back to earth and rapture believers away to be with him. In this analysis, the deteriorating earth will be left behind and eventually destroyed. And if this is the case, why bother taking care of it? Thus, James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretory of the Interior, justified environmental complacency with the statement, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

As a result of these features, many have called Christianity the source of our environmental problem. In some ways, perhaps it has been. But I’m optimistic that it needn’t be in the future. I think the Christian tradition has more than enough resources to reverse past tendencies, overcoming previous apathy to be at the vanguard of the environmental movement. Though in Genesis God does tell humans to “have dominion,” that needn’t be read as license to exploit and conquer the environment. In the next chapter of Genesis, humans are placed in the Garden of Eden to “till and keep it” — to care for the earth, of which Genesis repeatedly declares, “And God saw that it was good.” And regardless of the eschatology they adopt, evangelicals have no reason to be complacent. Scholar Tom Finger joins many other evangelicals in rejecting previous views that the earth will eventually be destroyed. He notes that, “since God will transform the earth we now have, this earth must be precious to God, and that proper stewardship of nonhuman nature is a task with eternal consequences.”

In reality, however, it seems those consequences are ignored by us evangelicals. It’s not that we’ve added the environment to our list of foes. It’s just that we currently have better things to do. Hence, the declaration from some of our leaders that “Others are using global warming to shift emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.” We evangelicals are more concerned that homosexual marriages be outlawed and gay couples not be allowed to raise kids. We’d prefer to see abortion be called “murder” and, thus, be outlawed too. Perhaps most importantly, we want to bring the message of Genesis into public schools. We want to make sure people know that God created each species, not via evolution, but through the mechanisms of Intelligent Design. We want to assure secular society that our environment, in all its beautiful, complex diversity, is indeed the direct product of God’s creative command. Once those tasks are accomplished, we’ll saddle up our SUVs and drive into the hazy sunset quite content.

Jonathan Dudley is a first-year student at the Divinity School and does research in molecular oncology at the School of Medicine.

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