The Common Good
August 2006

False Stewardship

by Steve Thorngate | August 2006

Dobson's is a fringe position gussied up in mainstream garb.

James Dobson believes that Christians should be good stewards of the earth. He said so on his radio show in May—right after he harshly criticized the National Association of Evangelicals’ Rich Cizik, who has led a tireless crusade against global warming. (Dobson’s censure also included Jim Wallis and Sojourners.) According to Dobson, Christians should not let environmental “doomsday theories” distract them from abortion and same-sex marriage. Stewardship, while crucial, doesn’t require any particular action on global warming.

Dobson’s careful words fail to mask the familiar politics behind them. His claim that Cizik is “dividing evangelicals” points to the Religious Right’s vulnerability to a curveball tossed into a field otherwise marked by partisan clarity. And his complaint that Cizik wants “to roll back the use of fossil fuels … which would paralyze industry” is both unfair to Cizik’s position and a reminder that the strange bedfellows of big business and the Religious Right seem committed to making their love last.

Yet Dobson affirms stewardship, a small comfort given his unwillingness to do anything about it. Conveniently, he cites the lack of unanimous scientific agreement on global warming—an unreasonable expectation, especially considering the high stakes.

And Focus on the Family is not simply ignoring scientific consensus and the many Christians (including evangelicals) convinced that the time to act is now—it’s actively opposing them. Dobson’s “stewardship” is pure lip service; his view of creation in fact fits into a theology of dominion. Dominionism’s narrow reading of Genesis 1:26-28 emphasizes that Christians are to “have dominion” over worldly institutions and over the creation itself, and it dismisses any suggestion that the latter might not allow rank exploitation of the earth.

A 2005 Focus environmental statement rejects that the Genesis mandate “justifies pillaging the earth” but insists that environmental concerns should always be secondary to “basic human welfare.” But environmental problems affect people, not just some notion of “the earth” that excludes them. Global warming has potentially cataclysmic consequences, especially for the poor. The distinction between exploiting the earth and merely valuing humans most may sound reasonable, but its neatness relies on the fiction that our lives are not dependent on the health of all creation.

A preference for “basic human welfare” also begs questions as to what qualifies as basic—and for which humans. The idea plays on a bias toward feeding the hungry over saving the whales, but it is easily stretched to defend unsustainable agriculture, mountaintop-removal mining, or a blind eye toward global crisis in favor of any pet issue that in some way affects people. The final paragraph of the Focus statement shifts its topic to—wait for it—abortion.

SUCH NONCOMMITTAL stewardship is ultimately just as indifferent to creation as is a purely anthropocentric and Christianist dominionism. Dobson’s is a fringe position gussied up in mainstream garb.

And active stewardship is certainly entrenched in the Christian mainstream. It’s the just-war theory of Christian environmentalism, the moderate chief player in a broad coalition of orthodoxy. Stewardship prioritizes human prudence in caring for creation—a wise and longsighted model, though it remains fairly invested in a hierarchical distinction between humans and everything else.

Other Christians have pushed further, stressing the created order’s intricate web of connections and its intrinsic—not utilitarian—value. While this may seem radical to some, it is actually a far more balanced view than any offered by either dominionism or hardline preservationism: It refuses to promote either human or environmental welfare to the exclusion of the other, because it refuses to conceive of humans and the environment as fundamentally separate entities.

But lately it’s the creation-care evangelicals who are making headlines, and Dobson and others have repeatedly criticized Cizik and his array of allies. Only on the conservative fringe do Christians oppose nearly every pro-environment effort, if not for purely political reasons then due to the perceived threat of pantheism or a theological beef with those who think a fiery apocalypse would be a bad thing. Dobson’s approach is dangerous and wrong. It’s based in bad theology, however well he dresses it in steward’s clothing.

Steve Thorngate is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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