Insights into Evangelicals’ ‘Moral Gravity’ Approach to Climate Activism

A researcher and author explores some evangelicals’ good Earth stewardship approach to climate change activism.

NEW HAVEN, CT. — Over the past six or seven years, some evangelical Christians have energized a movement for a climate change policy, and done so more effectively, some say, than nonreligious NGOs that have been working on the issue for years.

How did that happen? Katharine K. Wilkinson, who chronicled the movement in her new book, Between God and Green, recently told a group of Yale University students that it happened because the evangelicals have connected recent science to a moral imperative.

The secular environmental movement has been “profoundly restrictive and unhopeful,” she said, overly focused on harsh impacts that could result from the absence of effective mitigation efforts, and with benefits so far off in the future that they are hard to perceive.

“What the evangelical leaders do is layer-on this piece of personally meaningful advocacy work,” she said. They say that they accept evidence that sea-level rise and increasing storms are hurting the poor in low-lying countries. They note that the Bible calls on Christians to help the poor and to be good Earth stewards.

Wilkinson, who describes herself as a lapsed Episcopalian, told a small but fervent audience that a full-page ad she spotted in The New York Times in 2006 had changed the course of her Ph.D work in environmental studies at Oxford. Like many environmental thinkers and activists, she had expected evangelicals to question or reject climate change science. She was wrong, she said: The evangelical world is more diverse and not as monolithic as people might think. (See related Yale Forum feature on evangelicals and climate change, part of a comprehensive series on faith-based groups.)

The ad, signed by 86 prominent evangelicals, said, “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.” For months Wilkinson talked to evangelical church members in an attempt to sort out how they had such success mobilizing when the general public seemed apathetic.

“At the time, I was working for a big NGO [the Natural Resources Defense Council] and was spending a lot of my time thinking about how to build political will and public debate,” Wilkinson said.

“I decided to use my Ph.D. year to ask, What was going on here? What led to this moment?” she said. The movement she calls “climate care” became the subject of her doctoral dissertation, which she expanded to the book. For her research, Wilkinson visited evangelical churches around the United States, talking to leaders and groups of church members. Few in the evangelical churches, she said, brought up theories related to issues such as evolution or creationism.

Evangelical Community Complex, Fractious, a Patchwork

During a question-and-answer session, Wilkinson said the evangelical community “is a much more complex community than folks from the outside often see. It is very much a kind of fractious, patchwork, mosaic kind of world, where you often have lots of internal tension. You have folks who literally read the bible literally — and all of it literally — and then you have those who consider themselves evangelical but who read the Bible with what we would consider to be more of a mainline approach.”

Wilkinson pointed to an issue that arose frequently as she interviewed church members: Many said they are uncomfortable that climate change is considered part of a progressive political agenda. She detected “an unwillingness to cross that political chasm in a lot of ways,” with some church members reluctant to favor a climate change policy because they distrust Al Gore or other Democrats.

The pivotal document in the evangelical Christian climate change movement is, “An Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change,” Wilkinson said. It outlines the consensus and calls on the federal government to enact suitable policies. “The basic task for all of the world’s inhabitants is to find ways now to begin to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of human-induced climate change,” it says.

Many of the points in this and other writings of the evangelical movement parallel messages of secular groups and other religious organizations. But, Wilkinson said, the platform of the evangelical movement “couches that issue with moral gravity.” That is, the Christian responsibility to care for God’s creation and a concern for poor and vulnerable people.

Wilkinson’s book traces three decades of change in theology, from the 1970s to present day. Religious thinkers of all persuasions have moved out of their ivory towers, she said, and have started more efforts on the ground, “drawing on the metaphor of Noah’s Ark.”

Evangelicals began thinking in the 1990s of ways to become more mainstream, she said. “Then you get to the early 2000s, and there’s a very deliberate effort to build a broader movement around the specific issue of climate change.”

She added, “They are finding an on-ramp to this particular issue through their religious belief and their religious identity. It is not separated from science.”

– Christine Woodside

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