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Climate Change and Christian Values

Seeking support from Evangelicals for climate change legislation is a bit like asking Rush Limbaugh to campaign for Arlen Specter. We should not be reframing the debate to make the issue tolerable to Evangelicals.
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Democratic leaders are initiating a media campaign targeting Christian radio stations to create support among Evangelicals for upcoming climate change legislation. While outreach is usually admirable, Democrats are barking up the wrong apple tree in this particular case.

We will not effectively address the issue of global warming if we appeal to religion. For millennia, Christianity has taught that humans are special in the eyes of the god and that the world is made for their benefit and use. This is made clear in Genesis 1:1, which states:

God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

Then Genesis 2:15 says:

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

That mandate for man to use the land to his purpose is not exactly an environmental manifesto. These biblical passages give humans the special status of being made in god's image, unlike any other creature on earth, and clearly imply human dominance over all other living things. Humans are told to "subdue" the earth and "rule over" the air, land and sea. These religious teachings not only condone but actively encourage humans to view the environment as separate from them, put here for their pleasure. In this world view, no deep moral obligation exists to preserve resources for future generations.

The explicit religious mandate to exploit natural resources remains clear and unambiguous, in spite of recent efforts to harmonize religion and environmental sciences by numerous academic and international organizations, including The Forum on Religion and Ecology, the largest international multi-religious project of its kind, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, founded in 1936 by the Vatican to promote scientific progress compatible with the Church's teachings.

The argument used by those seeking reconciliation between religion and environmental protection points to the integrity of all creation, or reverence for all things created by god, insisting that religion and concern for the environment are not only compatible, but have been so all along. Those are welcomed sentiments. In fact, as is frequently the case, the Bible contains contradictory passages about the natural world, reasonably allowing for such an interpretation. Old passages can also simply be reinterpreted to fit the facts or to be compatible with newly adopted ideas. Pope John Paul XXIII said in 1961:

Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life--'Increase and multiply'--and to bring nature into their service--'Fill the Earth, and subdue it.' These two commandments are complementary. Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature. On the contrary, it must be brought into the services of human life.

But the harsh facts of human history belie this benign revisionist interpretation of the meaning of "subdue". The preponderance of unambiguous passages in the Bible giving mankind dominion over nature's bounty argues against any idea that religion is environmentalism in disguise. As Renaissance scholar Lynn White famously wrote in 1967, "We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man."

His words remain true 40 years later, when religious conservatives in the United States view resource extraction as an inalienable right. For the past eight years our natural resources were under an accelerated threat from a torrent of new laws that encouraged mining on federal land, weakened protection for species, habitat and wetlands, encouraged deforestation, and promoted drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. All with the enthusiastic support of the Evangelical community. Perhaps such enthusiasm comes with the idea that destruction of the environment will bring on the Apocalypse, a happy thought for those awaiting Rapture, but a bit less appealing to the rest of us.

Seeking support from Evangelicals for climate change legislation is a bit like asking Rush Limbaugh to campaign for Arlen Specter. The attempt is ill-advised. We should not be reframing the debate to make the issue tolerable to Evangelicals. That type of accommodation is the dangerous first step onto a slippery slope, and soon we'll be compromising on teaching Intelligent Design next to or in place of Darwin's "theory."

Have you ever wondered why the evidence to support Einstein's idea is never questioned by Evangelicals even though his seminal work is also "just a theory" on par with evolution? Because Relativity is not widely seen by the faithful to threaten religious beliefs (although in fact the case can be made that Einstein is a greater threat than Darwin). This dichotomy between the perceptions of Relativity and evolution reveals the real problem to be that only certain scientific issues have been selectively politicized by the right, with evolution and climate change serving as exhibits A and B.

Think for a moment on what basis someone would not "believe in" climate change. For somebody to take the position that climate change is not real, he must claim that he knows more about climatology than 2500 atmospheric scientists from 166 countries. The claim is absurd, and has absurd consequences. Somewhere along the line "belief" superseded "evidence." Once that happens, science loses all meaning, and for that society suffers.

If belief replaces evidence in public debate, why not make the claim that atoms, or DNA, or black holes, or any other scientific discovery is not real? Once you agree that evidence is subservient to belief, you dismiss the entire enterprise of science. How else could we explain on what basis climate change is seen as a liberal conspiracy but not electromagnetism? If we are not professional climatologists we can no more dismiss their conclusions than we could those of a physicist working on atomic fusion. We don't have the expertise in either field, and I don't hear anybody challenging our nuclear scientists. How odd that we only dispute the science that threatens to undermine our political or religious beliefs but accept all else with no hesitation.

No, rather than reframing the issue to satisfy a faith-based approach to science, we should insist that our schools refrain from 16th century teachings. Rather than bend in the face of ignorance, we should elect politicians capable of evaluating scientific evidence at face value. That does not require a Ph.D., only common sense, and the commitment to keep god out of the laboratory. The intrusion of religion into science is every bit as dangerous as its infiltration into politics. That we still debate evolution is proof enough. Any effort to dilute the arguments about global warming to appease religious sensibilities does nothing but corrupt the integrity of science in public debate. Faith and evidence do not share equal space in the sphere of science, and we would make a terrible mistake in giving faith a seat at the table of hard data.

Democrats need to push climate change legislation by making the most cogent, fact-based, scientifically-sound arguments possible given the evidence in hand. Any deviation from that course is irresponsible. If those who wish to pursue faith-based science are left behind, then so be it. If on the other hand we fail as a country and as a species to address a changing climate, then we deserve the consequences. Let the market of ideas choose the winners.

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