Acton Commentary

What is Evangelical Environmentalism?


Evangelicals are all the rage. For the last year, the media, political leaders, thought leaders, and lobbyists for various groups have been paying homage to the newly found cultural muscle of those who are described as evangelicals (I fit the category with occasional bouts of discomfort). The top 25 most influential graced the cover of Time only a few weeks ago. Pastor Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Life , seems to be perpetually on the New York Times best seller. Most major newspapers in the United States have had a feature story on the growing political clout of evangelicals.

And last week the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) sponsored an event called the “Evangelical Leaders Summit” in Washington, D.C. Over two days, leading figures from evangelical circles met to discuss pressing issues in America's religious scene.

Of course, we are not as monolithic, closed-minded, or dangerous as some, especially those who are unfamiliar with Christianity, seem to think. Nor are we as powerful as some of those who are assigned leadership positions among evangelicals would like us to think. Many evangelicals know the dangers of nuzzling too close to politics and are wary of this sudden surge in interest.

One subject has gathered particular interest in the last year: evangelicals and the environment. In the past week alone, I have been interviewed by a New York Times reporter and filmed a new piece for the BBC World News on the environment and the evangelical movement. In a unanimous vote adopting a historic statement of purpose, For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility , the directors affirmed the commitment of evangelicals to the environment. The NAE called this vote “a milestone in the movement of evangelicals from the insularity of a revival tent mind-set in the early 20th century to the political activism of the 21st century.”

In at least one sense, this is an overstatement. The Judeo-Christian community for 5,000 years or more has taken its responsibility for the environment seriously. The whole concept of “stewardship” is one that comes directly from sacred texts. It is built into the opening chapters of Genesis and woven into the whole of Scripture. Human beings, acting as God's stewards, are to provide care for the earth, remembering that it does not belong to us. Rather, we are managers.

Perhaps a concern for the environment is new to some in the evangelical movement, but I would guess that most Bible-believing evangelicals would find it odd that environmental stewardship even seems like a new idea. I am an environmentalist. I love the outdoors. I hate senseless and unproductive destruction of the earth. I have a profound sense of responsibility for the land I own and respect for land owned by others. I want clean air. I hope a day comes soon when unlimited power with little or no environmental impact is possible. I want clean water. I want all these things not simply because I am self-interested but because I believe we are all called to be stewards of the earth. I didn't learn this from a quasi-political statement put out by a body of religious leaders. I learned it from my grandparents, just as they learned it from theirs. Being concerned for the environment is nothing new.

But I don't think this is what the NAE intends. What is new here is the road taken to express concern for the environment. The direction of the NAE and others carries a distinctly political tone. Religious leaders must beware of politically-savvy ideologues who seek to exploit the moral authority of evangelicals in service of morally-questionable policy. Many of us who are pastors find all the attention lavished on us lately to be rather flattering. But it is also dangerous because it appeals to our pride and takes advantage of our naiveté in the world of public policy.

The NAE statement adequately recognizes this, and affirms that in the area of environmental concerns, “because natural systems are extremely complex, human actions can have unexpected side effects. We must therefore approach our stewardship of creation with humility and caution.” Such recognition shows that the NAE has grasped a policy truth that often escapes political insiders: the danger of unintended consequences.

How can the NAE and the evangelicals it represents avoid the pitfalls of aligning themselves with those in the more radical branch of the environmental tree? By asking at least the following questions. I have taken the liberty of suggesting some answers too.

1. What is the status of the environment? Is the water and air in the United States generally cleaner or dirtier that it was 50 years ago? The answer is that it is cleaner. We produce more goods and services for the world with less pollution every year.

2. What is the cause of this improvement? The driver has been technology and the advancement of industry. Economic development is one of the key components to improving the environmental conditions in virtually every nation.

3. To whom should we look for solutions? One of my fears (borne out in some of the religious statements I have read) is that religious leaders will lay this at the feet of politicians who will then regulate to solve a political problem rather than innovate to find an environmental one. Economic growth is the engine that has and will drive environmentally friendly goods and services. We don't need less trade and business. We need more.

Just as the complexity of environmental issues is a barrier to hasty and uncritical statements by evangelical leaders, neither can this complexity be an excuse for Christians to remain silent about God's wonderful gift of creation. In this way, evangelical environmentalism can be a biblically-sound, politically-informed approach to the task of Christian stewardship.