This essay is part of #TheRisingTide4ClimateJustice’s Elephant in the Room series (link): a writing project calling out the institutions and ideas that contribute to environmental environmental injustice within the Birmingham community and across the South.
By Rev. Dr. David Barnhart
Climate change denial is a religious problem.
The elephant in the room, or the sanctuary, in this case, is that climate change denial has become a matter of doctrine for some Christians. “God is in charge of the weather and the end of the world,” they claim. Environmentalism, like evolution, is considered a competing and anti-Christian ideology.
But it’s a doctrine that is—predictably—correlated to race. According to Langer Research, slightly more than a third of white evangelicals believe that human-caused climate change is a very serious problem, while 60-70% of Black and Hispanic respondents believe it is. These numbers are slightly better than Pew’s findings five years ago. What is it about white evangelical Christians that makes them susceptible to climate change denial? And why does climate change denial take this particularly racial character in the church?
For a religion whose sacred texts include stories of a Great Flood and biblical plagues caused by human sin, it’s a strange time to become skeptical. Last summer, temperatures reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit in France, while a hailstorm covered some Mexican towns in more than three feet of ice, and Anchorage, Alaska set a new 90 degree record. One year ago, we learned that more than a million species are in danger of becoming extinct. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated the world has about a decade to take serious action on climate change.
The evangelical movement grew up with the institution of slavery and the industrial revolution, and so it shaped the American church as a uniquely American business.
But in history-of-religion terms, contemporary white evangelical Christianity is a recent invention, a two-century-long flash in the pan in a diverse 2000-year faith tradition. In the Southeast United States, where its evangelical form is so dominant, we tend to lose sight of how new and unusual its war with modernity is.
The evangelical movement grew up with the institution of slavery and the industrial revolution, and so it shaped the American church as a uniquely American business. Its leaders have their roots in capitalism more than monastic vows of poverty. Early Christians escaped to the desert and the wilderness to live as simply as possible and discern what was most essential for a holy life. Saints Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, who spoke of communing with God through nature, would likely be considered New Age radicals by many in today’s white evangelical church.
The Bible begins and ends with the Tree of Life. In Genesis, its role in the story is overshadowed by its sibling, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. You may not remember that there even were two trees. It’s okay if you don’t remember. Part of the irony of the story is that most people, especially the religious sort, associate religion with moralism rather than abundant life, too.
But the tree of life shows up again in the last book of the Bible, in Revelation, as if to say, “Hey, folks, remember me?” Its leaves, says the author, are “for the healing of all nations.” in the original Greek, this word that gets translated as “nations” is actually ethnoi, or ethnic groups. In other words, the leaves of this Tree of Life heal the wounds of racism and tribalism.
Our racism shapes our doctrine more than the Bible or church tradition does—and our racist theology is killing the planet.
The prophets from the Hebrew Bible have stern words for the ways class oppression and environmental destruction go hand-in-hand. Ezekiel speaks to the wealthy class and says not only have they taken more than their share of the earth’s resources, they have ruined them for others: “Is feeding in good pasture or drinking clear water such a trivial thing that you should trample and muddy what is left with your feet?”
What the survey data and these scriptures point to is that environmental racism is a particular area of denial in the Christian church, and that it is a theological problem. Our racism shapes our doctrine more than the Bible or church tradition does—and our racist theology is killing the planet.
I need to point out that some white evangelicals are strong advocates for Creation Care. And many do see the relationships between a history of racism and climate change denial. But white evangelical leaders have spent decades building a platform on culture war and are very sensitive to having planks yanked out of it. They see Christian Creation Care as a political attempt to “divide and conquer” the Religious Right, as Jim Inhofe has said, and they strictly police evangelical attempts to take climate change seriously.
This is why people of faith who take their theology, their tradition, and their ministry seriously cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the sanctuary. We need to look at environmental racism clearly, honestly, and with the courage to have difficult conversations about the changes we face.
As a pastor and someone who believes passionately in the good news of Jesus of Nazareth, I believe the church has a role to play in addressing climate change and systemic racism. And if the church will not, it needs to get out of the way and let God work with people who will.
Dave is the Pastor of Saint Junia United Methodist Church, and has been an active advocate for justice throughout the Birmingham, Alabama area for many years.