The moral fight within Christianity against climate change

Flooding in Virginia Beach during Hurricane Joaquin in October 2015. Photo by Michael Schulson.

This summer, Pope Francis stepped boldly in support of action against climate change—and painfully on the toes of some evangelical Christian Americans by framing global warming as a core moral issue.

But even in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, one of the most climate-vulnerable regions in America, where the effects of sea-level rise can already be seen, the moral argument for action on climate change seems new. Michael Schulson writes,

I traveled to the Hampton Roads area to witness the collision of these two realities, at a place where climate change is visible and evangelical Christianity defines local politics and culture. I wanted to see if the palpable impact of the changing climate on this community is influencing the evangelical response to global warming policy and politics.

In Hampton Roads’ Virginia Beach, the center of Pat Robertson’s evangelical operation, Schulson questions whether the moral appeal of climate change—valuing the lives of human and non-human beings enough to change our social and economic behaviors—is enough to bring the religious right into the fight.

Why is such an appeal is objectionable—even threatening—to some Christians? When Pope Francis wrote, “Today, in view of the common good, there is an urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life,” why was he greeted with scorn by Republican politicians looking to win evangelicals’ votes?

Christianity has a complicated history with environmentalism. At its best, it has supported the interconnectivity between environmental protection and social justice. For example, in 1982, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, led by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., sponsored the first civil disobedience campaign against environmental racism in Warren County, North Carolina. Five years later, the Commission published Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, the first nationwide study establishing the co-location of landfills and hazardous waste facilities and communities of color.

In 1994, the Unitarian Universalist Assembly adopted a General Resolution for Environmental Justice, asserting that it “links the principles of liberal religion with the values of ecological awareness and racial and class justice.” More recently, the UUA adopted food and environmental justice as one of their congressional study action issues, acknowledging the connections between food insecurity and environmental inequities in food production and distribution processes. Many Christian and evangelical organizations are leaders in spreading Pope Francis’s moral message on global warming.

At their worst, religious arguments and environmentalism have converged around principles of morally righteousness white supremacy. In the early 20th century, Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service; John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club; and Madison Grant, founder of the Save-the-Redwoods League led public eugenics campaigns. Believing that crime, poverty, and illness were genetic defects that would destroy civilization, Christians of many denominations, from Episcopalians to Unitarians, invested heavily in sterilization practices—particularly of Black women, people living in poverty, and the mentally ill—designed to create a master race “fit” to inherit the Earth.

These obsessions manifest themselves today in campaigns for reproductive control, resurgence of active white supremacists group, and anti-immigration politics. The racist, xenophobic rhetoric of Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, mirrors that of Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s recent call for concealed weapons permits to “end those Muslims before they walked in.”

What is at stake in the fight against climate change, then, is not just a matter of curbing consumption of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. We are faced with a choice between collective action for social equity and justice, or the destruction of the Earth as humans have known it. The two challenges are inseparable. Climate change disproportionately impacts low-income Black and brown peoples across the world, despite their relatively small contributions to global warming. The U.S. cannot reduce its emissions without changing its consumption habits, and we cannot change our consumption habits without valuing black and brown lives more than we value consumption.

The evangelical opposition to climate change action—and its coincidence with big-business Republican opposition—is indication that the worst of Christianity decided to turn against humanity in the name of righteousness—and entitlement to the Earth’s resources. In a nation responsible for up to 20 percent of observed global warming, it would be risky to say that we could make real progress without a large share of the religious right, especially those who are engaged voters. With just 20 percent of self-identified Republicans “very concerned” about climate change in 2015, the work ahead is formidable.

In the meantime, Hampton Roads is slowly sinking and the oceans rising. The Gulf Coast has lost nearly all of its barrier islands. Failing sewer infrastructure and industrial animal farming mobilize parasites in climbing temperatures in North Carolina and Alabama. Beyond the South, the indigenous residents of Kivalina, Alaska are relocating, as their home disappears in the Chukchi Sea. Roads melt in India. Earthquakes threaten the Pacific islands. This problem requires collective moral force—if we could only muster the morality.