A Spiritual Reckoning Is Coming on Climate Justice

News
By Jeremy Deaton 4-23-2018

A coalition of faith leaders took to the steps of the Interior Department April 19 to ask Secretary Ryan Zinke to curb methane leaks at natural gas drilling sites. Notably, the group included a representative from the evangelical community, which has been very supportive of President Trump.

“What the Department of the Interior is doing is, from my vantage point, frankly, sinful and wrong,” Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said. “It’s bad for public health. I believe, as an evangelical Christian, that it also harms the unborn.”

This sort of proclamation has become increasingly common in the age of Trump. On issues ranging from water pollution to coal mining to automotive fuel standards, faith leaders of every stripe are urging the Trump administration to take climate change seriously, while encouraging everyone else to view the health of the planet through a spiritual lens. Environmental nonprofit GreenFaith announced Friday that it will be spearheading a new international coalition of faith groups urging people to live more sustainably.

In the United States, senior officials like Zinke and EPA chief Scott Pruitt are facing resistance from the faith community, including a number of evangelical Christians. Earlier this month, Pruitt agreed to meet with a diverse group faith leaders on the condition that they not talk about climate change, E&E News reported. The leader of the Evangelical Environmental Network, Rev. Mitchell Hescox, who attended the meeting, said he would have stayed home if had known Pruitt would nix any talk of climate. He explained that he and his colleagues are deeply worried about climate change, particularly what it means for children.

“We are pro-life from conception until natural death. The colloquial expression is ‘from the womb to the tomb,’” he said. “We have not been a strong supporter, to say the least, of Mr. Pruitt.”

Faith groups have pushed back on Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda at every turn, protesting his efforts to roll back limits on carbon pollution, weaken fuel efficiency standards, and eliminate clean water protections. Some faith groups have even called for Pruitt to step down.

“I had a meeting several months ago with one of his [Pruitt’s] staff members, who asked me if I had anything good to say about the current administration,” Hescox said. “My answer to that person was, ‘Well, you’re getting rid of the climate stuff. You’re undoing the methane rules. You’re getting rid of car standards. There’s not a whole lot that you’re doing that I can support, so how do you expect me to say something really good about you?’”

The faith community has been similarly persistent in pushing the administration to uphold the Paris Agreement, which Trump promised to exit last year. So far, more than 200 faith organizations have pledged to meet U.S. commitments under the landmark environmental accord.

At the 2017 U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, young evangelicals pressed for more ambitious action to limit carbon pollution.

“The Gospel, to me, is the most compelling story ever told, and that’s why I want to commit my life to it,” Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, said in Bonn. “So when it comes to creation care and climate change, my faith is the entire reason why I think it’s so important.”

Like Meyaard-Schaap, Hescox believes that evangelical Christians can make climate change a nonpartisan issue. “There is a growing movement, I believe, of faith-based conservatives who are willing to care for God’s creation,” he said. “I would say a large majority of the people who have heard me preach in the church I attend agree with me.”

Though Hescox may have won over his fellow congregants, most evangelical Christians aren’t worried about climate change, and persuading them to care about the carbon crisis will be a challenge. Over the last half-century, Americans have grown more secular: Church attendance is down, and fewer Americans say that religion is an important part of their lives. At the same time, the country has become more politically polarized, as both Republicans and Democrats have grown more hostile toward the other side. Consistent with these trends, Americans today appear to trust political leaders more than religious leaders on climate change.

“I think it’s possible that some of our political values are replacing our religious values,” Asheley Landrum, a scholar of science communication at Texas Tech University who studies public understanding of climate change, said. “That is a hypothesis that I have, and I don’t think that it is something that is heavily supported by research yet. I think that it’s something that we really want to find out.”

For his part, Hescox is confident that he can win over conservative Christians. The key, he said, is to talk about children’s health. He recalled meeting a climate change denier at a recent conference near Mobile, Ala.: “After my presentation, I got done, and the gentleman walked up to me and said, ‘So, are you telling me that all these children’s health problems are caused by climate change?’ I said, ‘No, not really, but climate change and all these children’s illnesses are being caused by how we use fossil fuels and petrochemicals’… He said, ‘You explained it in a way that I can understand it. I’m not going to have a problem with it anymore.’”

While the future remains uncertain, stories like that should worry the Trump administration.

“The evangelical community is rising up on climate change and using their value system to do so,” Hescox said. “This is not about polar bears. This is about protecting our children’s health and being a follower of Jesus Christ.”

Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy, and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy

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