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A Climate of Change
Why more and more evangelicals are acting in support of the environment.


posted May 10, 2006

Is it possible to be both a Christian and an environmentalist? If the word environmentalist conjures up negative images of a liberal democratic, tree-hugging hippie, you probably think the answer is "no." If, on the other hand, you tend to think of Christians as right-wing, SUV-driving, exploitative capitalists, you probably think the answer is "no" … but for vastly different reasons. 

As spring moves into summer—with church picnics, summer festivals, and family road trips—evangelicals of all stripes have a great opportunity to move beyond the polarizing political rhetoric that has pigeonholed the environmental debate for so many years. For Christians with serious concerns about the state of the environment, it's no longer an either/or question: God calls us to save babies and whales. Over the last few years, a growing number of Christian environmentalists have set out to defy the stereotypes. They've engaged in a broader dialogue, and they've focused on practical steps designed to move us all toward faithful stewardship of the Earth. To catch you up on the developments and help you start a conversation for yourself, here are some brief definitions of the key concepts and important issues.

Bedrock Beliefs

Debates about the environment have a wide reach in American culture. More and more frequently we're debating the merits of genetically modified foods. We're seeking an answer to the problem of climate change, and lauding efforts to improve environmental conditions in the developing world. These issues continue to receive much attention, even in the shadow of nuclear threats and the fears of biological warfare. And at one level, that seems perfectly logical. We'd all love to buy the highest quality organic foods at an affordable price. We'd love to see gas prices come down. (Family road trips get expensive with gas at $3.00-$4.00 per gallon.) But care for the environment needs a motivation that goes deeper than capital in Washington D.C.'s political economy. 

Care for the Earth shouldn't come from our fears of calamity or our frustrations with inconveniences. It should stem from a deep-seated desire to honor the Creator by respecting Creation. As recipients of the Creation mandate, we have the distinct privilege of acting as stewards of the Earth. We get to remind the world that "the Earth is the Lord's and everything in it." Christianity has a long history of honoring this mandate. The stance taken by many of the great men of science, from Copernicus and Galileo to Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, continues on into the 20th century. Their in-depth explorations of the Earth and the mechanics of the universe continue to reflect the glory of the Creator.

Engaging with the environment as Creation sounds like a simple thing. And in fact, when spending time in the wilderness, many evangelicals feel the call powerfully. So why does the environment remain such a contentious issue? Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to remain aware and responsible after returning home. In urban and suburban settings that prize convenience and efficiency, it's easy to forego careful, reasoned evaluations of how we should use our resources.

Building Bridges

But our use of resources has the potential to effect change worldwide. Experts have shown that caring for the Earth offers us a way of serving our impoverished brothers and sisters throughout the world. Famine continues to plague Africa, perhaps because of global climate change. Other possible effects of climate change, hurricanes and droughts, leave lasting devastation in both hemispheres. This leaves evangelicals—even the skeptics—with a "Pascal's Wager" of sorts: What if climate change is real? If we ignore it, will we inadvertently condemn millions to an untimely death? Blessed with an abundance of material and economic resources, wouldn't we be wiser to work toward a solution?    

In the face of high tensions and misperceptions, these two ideas—stewardship of Creation and love of neighbor—provide the driving force behind the increase in evangelical action on behalf of the environment. Groups like The Evangelical Environmental Network are working hard to expose the myths on both sides of the debate. Seeking common ground from which to engage in dialogue, some choose to use terms like Earth stewardship or Creation care rather than the highly charged environmentalism. And they're succeeding. Nationwide, it's getting easier to talk about environmental concerns. In the climate of current debates, these groups are finding strong allies in churches.

This year, even the Earth Day Network made a move toward bridging the gap. They offered a package of resources (available online) specifically for religious communities. Some have also been pleased to find that a robust conversation about our responsibility for the Earth can also lead to resilient communities, healthier families, and in some cases, even stronger investment portfolios. Who knows? Perhaps these welcome extras are a reward for our faithful stewardship of Creation.

Whether they call it Creation care, stewardship, or environmentalism, evangelicals have stepped up to the challenge. We're learning to speak responsibly and respectfully about topics like environmental stewardship and care of the Earth, and more people join the conversation daily. Will you be one of them? As you enjoy spending time outdoors this summer, don't just contemplate nature, care for it. Take a few moments to consider and implement any one of the simple but effective ways you can care for God's world. Small choices—even ones that only seem to affect your back yard—may just be the steppingstones to global impact.  

Melody Pugh is a Chicago-based freelance writer and graduate student in the humanities.