How apostate evangelicals moved from playing God in Environmental Philosophical Idol of Laudato Si’ ‘Stewardship’ to “climate skepticism”

With many, a philosophical idol is enthroned in the place of Jehovah; while the living God, as He is revealed in His word, in Christ, and in the works of creation, is worshiped by but few. Thousands deify nature while they deny the God of nature. Though in a different form, idolatry exists in the Christian world today as verily as it existed among ancient Israel in the days of Elijah. The god of many professedly wise men, of philosophers, poets, politicians, journalists—the god of polished fashionable circles, of many colleges and universities, even of some theological institutions—is little better than Baal, the sun-god of Phoenicia. GC 583.1

Neall Pogue, University of Texas at Dallas

Published: January 30, 2023 8.13am EST

A man dressed in a suit speaks from a podium as people stand around holding banners.

White conservative evangelicals, who make up most of the religious right movement, largely oppose government regulation to protect the environmental initiatives, including efforts to curb human-caused climate change. Multiple social scientific studies, for example, consistently reveal that this group maintains a significant level of climate skepticism.

Contrary to popular perception, however, this hasn’t always been the case.

My research reveals how white conservative evangelicals supported an environmentally friendly position from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

Christian environmental stewardship

In 1967, the idea of environmental protection became an issue for the wider Christian community after historian Lynn White Jr. published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” The article argued that growing environmental degradation was the result of Christian philosophies that encourage society to regard nature as a simple resource for the sole benefit of humanity.

One of the many Christian thinkers responding to White included popular conservative evangelical author Francis Schaeffer.

To answer White’s accusation, Schaeffer took to the lecture circuit to convince audiences of the importance of Christian environmental stewardship.

With many, a philosophical idol is enthroned in the place of Jehovah; while the living God, as He is revealed in His word, in Christ, and in the works of creation, is worshiped by but few. Thousands deify nature while they deny the God of nature. GC 583.1

The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan by Ellen G White

According to this perspective, all of creation needed to be treated with respect and not abused for economic benefit. He argued that humans must value the nonhuman natural world because it was created by and owned by God. Consequently, humans were only caretakers, custodians or stewards of the natural environment.

Perspectives of evangelical leaders

In 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day observance, which signified the birth of the modern environmental movement, Schaeffer’s perspectives were published in his book “Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology.” Subsequently, Schaeffer’s environmental views became the standard environmental position among many conservative evangelicals for roughly the next 20 years.

Schaeffer’s ideas were reflected and expanded in major publications such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelical’s United Evangelical Action and the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly.

As I continued researching this topic, archival documents revealed that in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention conducted a poll reflecting the environmental views of its 12 million members. It found that 81.7% of pastors and 76.3% of Sunday school teachers surveyed believed that churches should lead efforts to solve air and water pollution problems.

In another example reflecting Schaeffer’s views, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Christian school textbook publishers included environment-friendly philosophies in material sold to parents, pastors and teachers who were helping expand the growing home-school and Christian school movement. The two most popular publishers, ABeka Book and Bob Jones University Press, both supported Christian environmental stewardship views. ABeka Book, for instance, lauded the efforts of preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir in a reader intended for sixth graders.

Respect for creation

The religious right retained its eco-friendly philosophies after the formation of its first official organization, the Moral Majority, in 1979. ABeka Book reprinted Muir’s story in 1986 and, as late as 1989, the publisher released an economics textbook that praised capitalism while warning of the environmental dangers of the free market.Pat Robertson speaks at a rally where he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Bettmann via Getty Images

And he took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made. 1 Kings:15:12, Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.Colossians:2:8

After bowing out of the presidential race in 1988, well-known televangelist Pat Robertson addressed the GOP National Convention in New Orleans. During his speech, he not only stated his support for classic religious right positions, such as traditional family values, but also restated the community’s eco-friendly views, saying that he hoped for a future “where the water is pure to drink, the air clean to breathe, and the citizens respect and care for the soil, the forests, and God’s other creatures who share with us the earth, the sky and the water.”

On a politically charged national stage, Robertson reprised Schaeffer’s views of Christian environmental stewardship, emphasizing how all creation should be respected.

The line of distinction between professed Christians and the ungodly is now hardly distinguishable. Church members love what the world loves and are ready to join with them, and Satan determines to unite them in one body and thus strengthen his cause by sweeping all into the ranks of spiritualism. Papists, who boast of miracles as a certain sign of the true church, will be readily deceived by this wonder-working power; and Protestants, having cast away the shield of truth, will also be deluded. Papists, Protestants, and worldlings will alike accept the form of godliness without the power, and they will see in this union a grand movement for the conversion of the world and the ushering in of the long-expected millennium.
Through spiritualism, Satan appears as a benefactor of the race, healing the diseases of the people, and professing to present a new and more exalted system of religious faith; but at the same time he works as a destroyer. His temptations are leading multitudes to ruin. Intemperance dethrones reason; sensual indulgence, strife, and bloodshed follow. Satan delights in war, for it excites the worst passions of the soul and then sweeps into eternity its victims steeped in vice and blood. It is his object to incite the nations to war against one another, for he can thus divert the minds of the people from the work of preparation to stand in the day of God.
Satan works through the elements also to garner his harvest of unprepared souls. He has studied the secrets of the laboratories of nature, and he uses all his power to control the elements as far as God allows. When he was suffered to afflict Job, how quickly flocks and herds, servants, houses, children, were swept away, one trouble succeeding another as in a moment. It is God that shields His creatures and hedges them in from the power of the destroyer. But the Christian world have shown contempt for the law of Jehovah; and the Lord will do just what He has declared that He would—He will withdraw His blessings from the earth and remove His protecting care from those who are rebelling against His law and teaching and forcing others to do the same. Satan has control of all whom God does not especially guard. He will favor and prosper some in order to further his own designs, and he will bring trouble upon others and lead men to believe that it is God who is afflicting them.
While appearing to the children of men as a great physician who can heal all their maladies, he will bring disease and disaster, until populous cities are reduced to ruin and desolation. Even now he is at work. In accidents and calamities by sea and by land, in great conflagrations, in fierce tornadoes and terrific hailstorms, in tempests, floods, cyclones, tidal waves, and earthquakes, in every place and in a thousand forms, Satan is exercising his power. He sweeps away the ripening harvest, and famine and distress follow. He imparts to the air a deadly taint, and thousands perish by the pestilence. These visitations are to become more and more frequent and disastrous. Destruction will be upon both man and beast. “The earth mourneth and fadeth away,” “the haughty people … do languish. The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.” Isaiah 24:4, 5.
And then the great deceiver will persuade men that those who serve God are causing these evils. The class that have provoked the displeasure of Heaven will charge all their troubles upon those whose obedience to God’s commandments is a perpetual reproof to transgressors. It will be declared that men are offending God by the violation of the Sunday sabbath; that this sin has brought calamities which will not cease until Sunday observance shall be strictly enforced; and that those who present the claims of the fourth commandment, thus destroying reverence for Sunday, are troublers of the people, preventing their restoration to divine favor and temporal prosperity. Thus the accusation urged of old against the servant of God will be repeated and upon grounds equally well established: “And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim.” 1 Kings 18:17, 18. As the wrath of the people shall be excited by false charges, they will pursue a course toward God’s ambassadors very similar to that which apostate Israel pursued toward Elijah.
The miracle-working power manifested through spiritualism will exert its influence against those who choose to obey God rather than men. Communications from the spirits will declare that God has sent them to convince the rejecters of Sunday of their error, affirming that the laws of the land should be obeyed as the law of God. They will lament the great wickedness in the world and second the testimony of religious teachers that the degraded state of morals is caused by the desecration of Sunday. Great will be the indignation excited against all who refuse to accept their testimony.
Satan’s policy in this final conflict with God’s people is the same that he employed in the opening of the great controversy in heaven. He professed to be seeking to promote the stability of the divine government, while secretly bending every effort to secure its overthrow. And the very work which he was thus endeavoring to accomplish he charged upon the loyal angels. The same policy of deception has marked the history of the Roman Church. It has professed to act as the vicegerent of Heaven, while seeking to exalt itself above God and to change His law. Under the rule of Rome, those who suffered death for their fidelity to the gospel were denounced as evildoers; they were declared to be in league with Satan; and every possible means was employed to cover them with reproach, to cause them to appear in the eyes of the people and even to themselves as the vilest of criminals. So it will be now. While Satan seeks to destroy those who honor God’s law, he will cause them to be accused as lawbreakers, as men who are dishonoring God and bringing judgments upon the world. GC 588.3 – GC 591.1

The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan by Ellen G White

While Christian environmental stewardship became an accepted environmental perspective within the religious right, it existed only as an idea or philosophy – not as part of organized activism. But the reality of this support, however, challenges past understandings that this community largely ignored or opposed environmental protection efforts.

The anti-environmental campaign

In the early 1990s, segments of the religious right tried turning eco-friendly philosophies into action. The Southern Baptist Convention held an environmental seminar in 1991 at which Schaeffer’s Christian environmental stewardship views were repeated. This effort, however, faced an insurmountable obstacle.

In an attempt to crush increasing international cooperation to address human-caused climate change, U.S. political conservatives launched an anti-environmental campaign. Conservative think tanks and special advocacy groups denied the reality of human-caused global warming, and some even supported conspiracy theories alleging that environmentalists wanted to create a one-world government.

Besides finding an audience in secular conservative Americans, these outreach attempts found a home among the traditionally politically conservative religious right supporters.

Anti-environmental messages increasingly relied on ridicule, which some leading pastors endorsed. Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the religious right movement, for instance, began calling environmentalists “tree huggers” as early as 1992. At Pat Robertson’s Regent University’s newspaper, political cartoons mocked sympathy for the environment as left-wing extremism.

By 1993, the idea of Christian environmental stewardship had all but disappeared from the rhetoric of the religious right. In its place emerged firm opposition to environmental protection efforts, including the denial of anthropogenic climate change, which the majority of this community supports today.

Although religious right supporters largely reject Schaeffer’s Christian environmental stewardship today, a small but noticeable number of voices within the community are keeping it alive. Perhaps the largest eco-friendly organization is the Evangelical Environmental Network, which originated in 1993. Other notable developments include the signing of the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2006 by well-known religious leaders.

These are remarkable developments that often employ theological arguments to support environmental activism. But they are largely overshadowed by the continuing nontheological anti-environmental arguments founded in misinformation.Comment on this article

Neall PogueAssistant Professor of Instruction, University of Texas at Dallas

Neall Pogue does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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