Why Do Evangelicals Still Support Scott Pruitt?

Commentary
By Aaron Weaver 4-10-2018

Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, testifies to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee  on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
 

A $50-a-night condo deal from a lobbyist pal. More than $100,000 for first class airfare and $40,000 on a soundproof phone booth. A twenty person 24-hour protective detail and emergency sirens en route to a French restaurant. Travel costs closing in on $3 million. Big raises for top aides and demotions for officials who dare question the spending habits of their boss and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

Pruitt is under fire for these and other possible ethics violations from his first year as EPA administrator. Environmental groups have launched a “Boot Pruitt” campaign. Sixty-four House Democrats sent President Trump a letter asking him to fire Pruitt. Several Republicans have even called for Pruitt’s resignation as the number of investigations are mounting.

Not surprisingly, President Trump is standing by his ethically-challenged EPA chief, resisting advice from his Chief of Staff, John Kelly, to give the boot to the former Oklahoma attorney general. In a Saturday evening tweet, Trump doubled down on his support of Pruitt. 

Evangelicals also appear to be silently sticking with Pruitt, a member and former deacon of First Baptist Church of Broken Arrow, Okla., and former trustee of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., from 2012 until 2017.

When then President elect Trump announced Pruitt as his pick to lead the EPA, top leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention sent their praise.

As Pruitt faced fierce criticism from Democrats, scientists, and environmental organizations for his earlier statements questioning climate change, a group of 48 prominent evangelical leaders backed Pruitt in a public letter to Trump.

The evangelical leaders called Pruitt “well qualified” to head the EPA and said he deserved “the full support of the United States Senate in his confirmation.” These evangelicals aimed to counter the claims of climate change denialism leveled against their Southern Baptist brother, insisting that he had been “misrepresented as denying ‘settled science.’” Pruitt had just called for “a continuing debate” on the impact and extent of climate change, they said.

With this public defense of Pruitt, these evangelicals were continuing down a path started more than a decade ago as awareness about the urgent global challenge of climate change was increasing within evangelicalism. In 2006, a coalition of well known evangelical pastors and professors calling themselves the Evangelical Climate Initiative released a declaration urging environmental concern and imploring Congress to adopt legislation to curb carbon emissions. Shortly after, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a statement warning that climate change was “threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community” and distract its members from “the priority of the Great Commission.”

In other words, climate change was off-brand and not compatible with the narrow anti-abortion, anti-LGBT agenda of evangelical gatekeepers beholden to the deregulation philosophy of the religious right dating back to the days of protecting segregated Christian schools

As national media continued to cover the ways some evangelicals were “going green,” Southern Baptists hit back a year later with a statement arguing that the scientific community was divided on the extent of human responsibility for climate change.

This is, of course, the exact same rhetorical tactic that the group of evangelical leaders took in defense of Pruitt. The science isn’t really settled so the debate must continue, etc … Back then, this proved to be a useful tactic and evangelical environmentalism seemed to die a sudden death in 2008 after the failure of the Bush-era Climate Security Act, the bipartisan cap-and-trade legislation eventually killed by Senate Republicans.

We know why Trump is sticking with his guy. While dysfunction pervades the Trump Administration, the EPA administrator’s deregulation successes in year one were plentiful, including the rollback of 22 regulations with a recently announced plan to ditch President Obama’s fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. We also can’t forget Pruitt’s proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, regarded as President Obama’s signature accomplishment in addressing climate change which called for a 30 plus percent reduction in power plan carbon emissions by 2030.

The EPA under Pruitt has also lifted regulations monitoring fracking and limits on toxic air pollution. Pruitt has made himself the sole-decider on jurisdictional issues regarding the Clean Water Act, ensuring the opinions of industry leaders are favored over local leaders on issues involving the nation’s central law governing water pollution. Research advisers have been replaced with industry scientists. Pruitt even rejected the recommendation of EPA scientists and approved the use of a toxic pesticide known to cause neurological damage in children

And most importantly, Pruitt has been a faithful cheerleader for President Trump’s rejection of climate science, advising him to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord over objections of others in the administration.

That the morally bankrupt Trump would overlook the ethical improprieties of Pruitt is a surprise to no one. But what’s the excuse for evangelicals? How do #NeverTrump evangelical voices have nothing to say about the glaring ethical breaches of their pal, Scott Pruitt?

Evangelicals gave Pruitt their support at a critical time, playing a key role in securing his confirmation. Pruitt was said to have always modeled integrity. It would seem the former Sunday School teacher left his integrity in that wacky, paranoia-induced $43,000 soundproof booth.

Can evangelicals recover their own integrity?

Evangelical credibility is at an all-time low. Despite the racism, Russia revelations, sex assault allegations, and porn star payoff, evangelicals continue to approve of Trump at a rate nearly double that of the nation. Sixty one percent of evangelicals still back Trump compared with an overall approval rating of just 32 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

What will it take for evangelicals to rid themselves of this unethical messes?

In his April cover story for The Atlantic titled “Trump and the Evangelical Temptation,” former Bush White House speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote that evangelicals have an “urgent task” ahead of them: “to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.”

The time may have passed for a real rescue. But recovery could begin with reminding themselves and Scott Pruitt that ethics matter and the purpose of the EPA is to protect the public, not to do the bidding of polluters.

Aaron Weaver is a historian and faith-based communicator with expertise on evangelicals and politics with a focus on Baptists. He is also a participant in Blessed Tomorrow, a progressive coalition of faith leaders focused on finding solutions to climate change. His writings on religion and environment have been published at Religion News Service, Religion Dispatches, Patheos and Baptist News Global among others.

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