Those elusive green shoots of green evangelicals

Evangelical Environmentalists” is the headline for a recent piece at The subhed reads:

Ben Whitford reports on an unlikely yet growing movement in the U.S. which embraces the Christian God but also preaches protection of, rather than dominion over, the natural world.

I’ve been reading articles like this one for more than 20 years. I’ve written a bunch myself.

But the problem is that this latest version is exactly the same as the articles from 20 years ago.

This year the Evangelical Environmental Network celebrates 20 years of being ignored or marginalized as “controversial.” Um, yay, I guess.

A handful of white evangelicals express a slightly less emphatic opposition to environmentalism and this is held up as a sign of hope.

But as Shaw said, hope makes a good breakfast, but a lousy dinner. Whatever hope I found from such glimmers of hints of potential less-badness 20 years ago has long since grown stale.

Fifteen years ago I believed that white evangelicals’ antipathy to environmentalism was due to a lack of familiarity with the facts and the evidence, or to an innocent failure to grasp the essential idea of stewardship in Christian theology.

Ten years ago I thought maybe it was due to our failure to present those facts and that theology in a winsome, persuasive manner.

Now I just think, feh. This stubborn intransigence isn’t an innocent ignorance, and it’s not the fault of environmental advocates for failing to tailor their communications for this audience. (Bill McKibben is a Sunday school teacher, after all.)

If they won’t listen, and they won’t help, and they won’t get out of the way, then let’s move on. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”

There’s too much work to be done to keep waiting around for a group of people who ignore their own scripture and who are perpetually just a few years away from maybe, kind of, almost being able to begin considering possibly thinking about someday giving a damn.


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  • Jessica_R

    I’m always amazed by the idea that treating a jewel of a planet like this like shit is a sign of holiness. That’s backwards. I never felt anything transcendent attending church, I felt plenty of that looking at the mountains, or the sea, or up at the stars. 

    I mean how can you see something like this and not be moved by it? By the need to protect it?

  • AnonaMiss

    I hope you’ll be OK, Fred.

  • Lliira

    You are far from the only person feeling like this lately. It’s not just about Evangelicals. Something’s in the air.

    Leave them behind. They can choke on our dust.

  • Illegitimi non carborundum, as the fellow said.

  • Amazing. I’ve never seen that, and I am so glad that I now have. Thank you so much for passing that on.

  • Amaryllis

    Yes, thank you, that was lovely.

    And I loved the grin on the girl’s face as she turned for one last look.

    As if out of the Bible
    or science fiction,
    a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
    like iron filings which a magnet 
    underneath the paper undulates.
    It dartingly darkened in spots,
    paled, pulsed, compressed, distended, yet
    held an identity firm: a flock
    of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
    One will moved above the trees
    the liquid and hesitant drift.

    – John Updike

  • Otrame

    Fred, they don’t listen because their leaders are a “holy” owned subsidiary of people who make a great deal of money by raping the planet.

  • Fusina

     video was awesome–I love watching flocks of birds flying–and somehow never, ever crashing–like a huge amoeba in the sky. I have never seen anything like this number–and the poem was perfect to go with it. I have read other Updike poems, and he describes the transcendent very well.

    Err, I love his poem Cosmic Gall.

    NEUTRINOS, they are very small.
    They have no charge and have no mass
    And do not interact at all.
    The earth is just a silly ball
    To them, through which they simply pass,
    Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
    Or photons through a sheet of glass.
    They snub the most exquisite gas,
    Ignore the most substantial wall,
    Cold shoulder steel and sounding brass,
    Insult the stallion in his stall,
    And scorning barriers of class,
    Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
    and painless guillotines, they fall
    Down through our heads into the grass.
    At night, they enter at Nepal
    and pierce the lover and his lass
    From underneath the bed-you call
    It wonderful; I call it crass.

  • Carstonio

    The reason for the hostility to environmentalism isn’t complicated. It’s simply a variation on anti-intellectualism, where they wrongly perceive scientists as pretenders to authority. They resent being told to recycle. The same reaction they had to Michelle Obama’s push for healthy eating – they assumed they were being told to stop eating chips by someone who (in their view) had no business acting like an authority figure.

  • Ross Thompson

    I always thought the issue is that “this isn’t our home”, which obviously means it’s OK to shit on the carpet….

  • Jessica_R

    Seriously. Okay this is only our “waiting room”, well it would be nice not to die of mercury poisoning in the waiting room then, ok? 

  • histrogeek

    Love the analogy.
    More weird is Jesus saying, “Don’t lay up for yourself treasures on earth,” but apparently just trashing everything around is okie dokey.

  • OriginalExtraCrispy

     I saw one of those just yesterday. It was like this beautiful black ribbon dancing over the trees. I was at a light for a while, so I got a good long look at it.

  • JustoneK

    I have to wonder at what point the Jewish stewardship of Earth got traded in for the merican industrial Christian waste of it.

  • DorothyD

    So cool. There’s a flock of starlings here that hangs around through winter, usually in the same area on the west side of town. You can see them going through their routines around nightfall. Nothing on this scale though, and not right overhead.

  • One of the usual bases for treating the Earth like it’s some kind of giant vault to plunder for riches is the “God gave Man dominion over creatures” verse in Genesis.

  • Vermic

    Ben Whitford reports on an unlikely yet growing movement in the U.S. which embraces the Christian God but also preaches protection of, rather than dominion over, the natural world.

    This paragraph is super depressing.  It’s sad if this is what American Christianity — or the public perception of it — has come to: that simultaneously believing in God and giving half a shit about the planet is “unlikely” and, when it occurs, newsworthy.  It almost reads like an Onion headline: “Small Minority of Christians Astonishingly Not Part of the Problem.”I’m not Christian, but I can understand Fred’s discouragement about being part of a group about which such things can be said, for 20 years no less.

  • JustoneK

    But…vaults need refilling too.  Riches only work in finite amounts.  Look at WoW’s internal economy.

  • The_L1985

    Because tyrannical slaughter is the only kind of dominion there is, hadn’t you heard? No such thing as benevolent guardianship.

  • histrogeek

     American Christianity has always been iffy on stewardship. I think it’s the frontier, infinite-horizons nationalism of the United States, and to a lesser extent Latin American nations as well. Always more land to grab, always something new out there to take, don’t worry there’s more where that came from.
    Some authors try to link it to Christianity in general, but that doesn’t really hold up. Medieval Europe had some rough conservation laws (usually for aristocratic recreation and maintaining timber stocks for strategic reasons, so sustainability was a concern at least), so even pretty ignorant, superstitious Christians had some notion that you can’t just cut crap down and God will bail your dumb ass out.

    Yes American conservatives are actually stupider than people whose academic elites were divided as to whether disease was caused by humouric imbalance or demon infestation and classified alchemy and astrology as scientific disciplines. Going to drink now.

  • Will Hennessy

    I counseled at a Christian summer camp in a place in California along the north coast that was clear-cut in 1906 so that the San Francisco fire wouldn’t burn down, well, California. In the hundred years since, those redwoods have grown back strong and are a marvel–probably not what they were a hundred years ago or so, but still breath-taking.

    Because I was  raised in such an environment, I think I learned to appreciate the works of Rich Mullins all the more, particularly his song Calling Out Your Name, which is about the Lord being sovereign over creation, and that being evident by the beauty of His work in the world. It is one of my more favorite songs of his to play (though I will readily admit that my guitar is pathetic compared to his hammered dulcimer), and I perform it for Christian audiences quite often.

    It’s too bad, though, that many of the people I play it for are more aligned with the idea presented by Ann Coulter*: “The lower species are here for our use. God said so: go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet–it’s yours.”

    *-Was briefly considering altering her name there, but since the word I was going to use derives from Cunina, the Roman goddess charged with watching over sleeping infants in their cradles, I didn’t, since Coulter is about the last person I would choose to watch over ANY sleeping infant, much less any hypothetical infants I would have.

  • stardreamer42

    That’s fine; Goddess knows there’s plenty of factual reason to slam Ann Coulter without sinking to the level of gender-based insults.

  • histrogeek

     It is astonishing that so many Christian retreat centers are clearly in beautiful natural areas for spiritual development, but many of the mouthiest Christians feel that they should just waste it all. The giant YMCA camps in the Ozarks and the Rockies are fantastic, beautiful places. The retreat center I went to as a teen was in the Pine Barrens (a lovely area of New Jersey except for the Jersey Devil and the mosquitoes the size bats, at least it always seemed that way).
    I guess they just figure nature is a decoration, it’s nice but you just add it after everything else (whatever that means) is finished.

  • Jessica_R

    Pretty much, trees and lakes and oceans are set dressing, to care about them would be guilty of putting nature over God. And before you know what’s what you’re Pagan and what could be worse than that?! /sarcasm. 

  • histrogeek

     What’s the point of being in charge if you have to restrict your actions like the lower orders do? I swear these dipshits are like a crude parody of Nietzsche.
    No wonder they have an utter terror of atheists (Humans are on top of the hierarchy? Yikes that means you’ll do anything!) and a theology of God the Abusive Sociopathic Parent with Really Shitty Aim (Hey He’s on top; He gets to do anything).  

  • Look, it’s really simple. Environmentalism in general and climate change environmentalism in particular presupposes that it is possible for the world (or at least, the world as we understand it) to end by some means other than the Christian Apocalypse. Therefore, such ideas are satanic and should be rejected and laughed at. And lest you think I am exaggerating, it was Cong. John Shimkus (R-Jesusland), the current chair of the House Subcommittee for the Environment and the Economy, who said that it was impossible for climate change to result in rising sea levels because God promised Noah he would never flood the world again.

  • SisterCoyote

    Oh God, the swallow funnel cloud – I thought I was done making myself homesick.

    That’s a beautiful video, Jessica; nthing the thanks for sharing it.

  • You know, what I don’t understand is why these particular anti-environmentalist Christians don’t treat the Earth like an apartment they’re renting from God.

    One wouldn’t trash an apartment one lives in, so why would one be careless in living in this planet?

  • MaryKaye

    Starlings are an invasive pest here in WA.  I had never seen them doing that.  Thanks for showing me–I will think more fondly about the little critters now.

    Local story:  We have a lot of trouble with pigeon and starling poop on some new buildings at the University of Washington.   One building paid to have a fine mesh put over the roosting areas.  No pigeons, no starlings.  The sparrows said YAY! to that and now they have an amazing sparrow population.  Still pooping, of course.  (At least those are native, unless they are House Sparrows–I haven’t checked.)

    My building has, for reasons known only to birds, pigeons on the west face and starlings on the east face.  The pigeons moved in right away as soon as it was built, but the starlings just last year–I don’t know why it took them so long.  Now both sides look like shit.  (I’m mad at the architects, whom I personally pointed out this problem to–they brushed me off.  I’m not mad at the birds, who are just doing the best they can with the built environment.)

    My personal favorite flock encounter was in Chico, CA.  I was walking through an oak forest at twilight, in a kind of tunnel-like trail where the trees met overhead.  I heard a strange noise and looked up to see a stream of hundreds of large bats, also using the trail, but keeping politely above my head.  I had never seen bats in large numbers before.  It was uncanny and beautiful and very impressive.

    And one day I walked down to the salmon-rearing pond behind UW.  They had put mesh over it to keep out predators:  the mesh was strung up on poles above the water, hanging down at the edges, like a big horizontal spiderweb.  And walking on it like spiders were *seven* great blue herons. 

    Not caring must involve a horrible amount of numbing yourself.  I live in a big city but it’s  easy to see impressive and beautiful wildlife, not to mention flowering trees and fields of wildflowers and so forth.

  • seniorcit

    Christian environmentalism is incompatible with Christian Rapture Theology.  Why should we care when any moment, any day, we might be zapped upward and not have to worry about the earth any longer.  Let those who are left behind (i.e. those who weren’t Real True Christians) do the worrying. 

  • Jenora Feuer

    […] perpetually just a few years away from maybe, kind of, almost being able
    to begin considering possibly thinking about someday giving a damn.

    “The slightest thought hadn’t even begun to speculate about the merest possibility of crossing my mind.”  — Douglas Adams, via Mr. Prosser.

  • Worthless Beast

    When I’m home, I tend to be a bit of a slob (even in an apartment, though we will work hard to get rid of any paint stains left by my artistic endeavors when the eventuality comes that we move)… but when I’m staying in a hotel, I take extra care to be nice and neat because it’s not mine and other people will be coming to use it after I vacate.

    I use this metaphor as someone who has and plans to have no children to leave the Earth to… There are still other people who will be using the planet after me, even if they’re strangers.  And, well, it doesn’t matter if the End is Near, even Near is not Now.  Why should I hasten it?

    It’s not even an attitude for “the religious” to watch out for.  There’s a recent episode of The Simpsons that had the characters at a Walking with Dinosaurs show and the moral that Bart and Homer took away from it was “An asteroid from space can kill us all at any time, so let’s live it up and wreck up the place!” (they proceeded to litter the auditorium).  

    If you don’t really care about who is using the hotel after you, whether you use a “religious” or secular justification, you aren’t going to take care of it as well as someone who is mindful of others.

  •  Somewhat related – what do people make of this?

    (I have to say it doesn’t especially surprise me  – I’ve noticed that people tend to disprefer facts that don’t fit their ideology regardless of how well they understand said facts. I would imagine I do the same.)

  • histrogeek

    I think that the actual hostility towards environmentalism doesn’t come from any theological inclination. Rapture theology gives them and out, but by the same logic they should run up their credit card bills, never exercise, eat really fatty foods, not invest in pensions, ignore the deficit and national debt, etc. I’m not seeing them attack austerity or fitness (except to go after the First Lady) as being unfaithful. For that matter Rapture enthusiasts are the most likely to freak over the imaginary Social Security crisis, which is an issue of long-term solvency (albeit one based on shoddy demographics). The Noah analogy is sort of an alibi, but it’s pretty far removed from a serious theological statement, even by the schlocky standards of these bozos.

    So I’m going to go with good, old-fashioned hippie punching. If liberals/progressives/leftists/people-who-aren’t-us want it, it must be EEEEEEVVVVVVIIIIIIILLLLLL, or at least it should be stopped. Every other alibi they give is just a weak excuse to get on with the hippie punching. Like opposing anti-bullying education, it makes no sense as something you would ever conclude based on any non-mangled reading of the Scriptures.
    Absent the hippie punching imperative, I suspect most of fundies would treat environmentalism like other Americans, that is with a kind of vague concern mixed with a profound desire to not inconvenience themselves.

  • Nequam

    Besides, she lacks the depth, the charm, and the warmth.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     One wouldn’t trash an apartment one lives in, so why would one be careless in living in this planet?

    I don’t have a citation, but I’ve heard of at least some Christian doomsday cultists who claim that if they can just trash the planet badly enough, Jesus will be FORCED to swoop in and save them.

    Most of them are legally allowed to vote, drive motor vehicles, and own handguns.  Pleasant thought, isn’t it?

  • mud man

    “If they won’t listen, and they won’t help, and they won’t get out of the way, then let’s move on.”
    To what, if not changing peoples’ heads? To a new planet, maybe? To recycling our plastic milk jugs? To listening to Johnny Cash records? 

  • Vermic

    Agreed, histrogeek.  I’ve long felt that a lot of the anti-environmentalist attitude is simply tribalism and spite: that if we reduce pollution and successfully preserve natural beauty, the hippies win.  And that can’t be allowed to happen!  And this stance is enough to sway the opinions of intelligent people who would otherwise know better.

    When I was a kid, growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it appeared to me that most folks agreed on the obvious stuff.  Pollution is bad because having dirty air and water sucks.  Fossil fuels will eventually run out, so let’s be aware of alternatives.  Heck, environmentalism is even built into our science fiction — the USS Enterprise doesn’t run on oil.  In our fiction, we uniformly associate clean energy and a clean planet with an advanced, non-fucked-up society.  Staying reliant on fossil fuels is like hiding from the future.  It’s keeping us from going into space and creating the Federation and meeting green-skinned space babes, dammit.

    These are all observations that are obvious when you’re ten years old, and except for the space babes, they’re still common sense today.  I don’t care how much of an arch-conservative you are, nobody likes stinky air and tap water you can light on fire.  The only way you can pretend to like these things is if you have a strong enough emotional stake in doing so.  And one way that can happen is if you’ve been taught that the world is a zero-sum place, where there is Your Side and The Other Side and nothing is worse than letting The Other Side get what they want, even if it’s what you want too, so if The Other Side wants something you must find a reason to be against it, and you’ll grasp any shady talking point offered to justify it.

    Everyone was ten years old at some point, but on the road to adulthood some people detour from “pollution is bad” to “pollution is the heady, macho scent of PROGRESS”.  It’s not because they got dumber.  It’s because there are factors at work that supersede smartness and dumbness, and one of the strongest is Victory for Our Side.


    Christian environmentalism is incompatible with Christian Rapture
    Theology.  Why should we care when any moment, any day, we might be
    zapped upward and not have to worry about the earth any longer.  Let
    those who are left behind (i.e. those who weren’t Real True Christians)
    do the worrying.

    I think a way to debate that kind of thinking would be this kind of analogy:

    Suppose one has a terminal disease. One does not “know the day or the hour” when the end will come, but it will come.

    Does that obviate the reasonable notion of living one’s life in a safe, sensible manner with regard for oneself and one’s surroundings?

    If I had a terminal disease I don’t think I’d be the kind of person to start treating the remainder of my life like it didn’t matter how I acted.

  • AnonymousSam

    Except that quite a few of them are nihilists who live only for the afterlife. They don’t like this world. It belongs to Satan, after all!

  • Edo

    If they won’t listen, and they won’t help, and they won’t get out of the way, then let’s move on. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
    GodDAMN, Fred. I’ve followed you since halfway through Left Behind vol. 1, and I’ve NEVER seen you slam your tribe-of-birth so brutally before. It’s like witnessing Mister Rogers lose his cool and drop a cluster F-bomb on camera, or a third of the stars in the sky suddenly going dark: a portent of something awesome and terrible.

    I’ll respond to the comments when I recover from those last two paragraphs.

  • Daughter

    The first time I ever saw/used a composting toilet was at a YMCA camp in Massachusetts, circa 1995. That camp was very low carbon footprint: they composted everything, used cloth napkins and real plates/utensils in the dining hall, solar panels, and of course, the composting toilets.

  • Amy

     I’ve always liked “The Message” translation of the “have dominion over” verse (Gen. 1:26):
    God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can BE RESPONSIBLE for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of the earth.”

  • AnonymousSam

    The same went through my head. This from the guy who continually gives people the benefit of the doubt to the point that we scream at how blind he seems to the wrongs of others?

    But I guess after so many years of the benefit of the doubt being rebuffed again and again…

  • Lliira

    Look at the way these patriarchal assholes treat their families and towns. To them, being on top means having all the power, all the perks, and zero responsibility. So why should they act any differently about the environment? It’s called entitlement and selfishness, and they’ll bend and spindle the Bible any way they can to justify it, because you can’t be king in this country without also being Christian. They do the same to the Constitution, history, science, everything. Their ideas do not flow from anything but dick-swinging grandstanding me-first assholery.

  • Edo

    Amen, and more than amen: Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Genesis 1 is the work of a master jeweler. I don’t own or need the Message, but when I *want* to his Genesis 1 (and my response to it) is a big reason why.
    And it’s little details like the word choice in 1:26 that make me support its writing at least as much as I oppose its liturgical use. The Message is meant to be read against church, not in it; like the Geneva Bible and its footnotes, it was written to let the reader challenge the reading.

  • P J Evans

     ‘Lead. follow, get out of the way, or be run over by the history train.’

  • St. Louis Woman

    In St. Louis we’ve got Rev. Larry Rice.  To say he is polarizing, is an understatement.  From an article about Rev. Rice:  “The ultimate goal is to be earth keepers, not earth breakers,” said Rice, adding that people “are slaves to AmerenUE,” and he wants to make the world energy-independent for Christ. “The church needs to wake up to this.”

    He dumped the prosperity ministers, like Joyce Meyer,  from his TV station (“Meyer has become the Rush Limbaugh of the Christian Right,” Rice said. “She’s charming and clever. She makes greed into a virtue. She speaks just enough truth to be persuasive with people, but that is especially dangerous.”)

    He’s got a sub-channel of his TV station devoted to Renewable Energy and is in an ongoing battle with local governments about services for the homeless.  A lot of people think he likes being in front of the news cameras a little too much, but I get a kick out of him.  He may be a ham, but he’s a sincere ham.

  • Chloe Lewis

    And upon my heart asleep
    All the things I ever knew!–
    “Holds Heaven not some cranny, Lord,
    For a flower so tall and blue?”

    All’s well and all’s well!
    Gay the lights of Heaven show!
    In some moist and Heavenly place
    We will set it out to grow.

    (Millay, The Blue-Flag)

  • Albanaeon

    For some reason this post keeps me thinking of this big, shiny, fully loaded (with all connotations…) truck I saw with one of those “Not of This World” stickers on it.  It seemed so ridiculous because this person seemed very much “of this world” but wanted that tribal identification to show somehow he wasn’t.

    Guess its that the evangelicals seem to want it both ways.  Get to enjoy all the advantages of the modern world without taking any responsibility for it and then get an easy pass into the next and leave the cleaning up to the rest of us.  Something I really can’t abide by.