Progressive Christian Social Action
Paris, Trump, and the Religious Right
Note: This article includes excerpts from my book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, to be released by Fortress Press in July.
Like many of you, I am appalled by many things that Donald Trump has said and done in the first months of his presidency, including his announcement that he’s pulling the United States out of the (largely symbolic) Paris Climate Agreement. But we must look beyond the daily spectacles of the Trump Administration to see what’s really going on. Now that Republicans dominate Congress, they are quietly working to enact regressive policies that have been in the works for decades, policies that target the poor, people who are sick, people of color, immigrants, women, our young and aged, and yes, the environment.
Donald Trump didn’t get elected in a vacuum. He has lots of backers, including the Religious Right. This primarily Christian constituency is aligned with conservative social, political, and economic interests and is a powerful and organized force in the Republican Party. The cruel policies supported by those who espouse right-wing Christian beliefs are the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings about loving God and loving our neighbors.
The Religious Right also exerts a strong influence on the debate about climate change in the United States. This conservative religious lobby’s talking points and policy proposals on energy and climate are largely indistinguishable from those of the fossil fuel industry. Recent initiatives have focused on Academic Freedom legislation, designed to “teach the controversy” about climate change in public schools. Legislation to this effect has been drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative secular organization that brings corporate leaders together with conservative lawmakers to draft model legislation on various issues to be presented in state legislatures. Teach the controversy legislation has also been supported by the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group, and the Discovery Institute—a creationist think tank. This uninformed and deliberately confusing approach to climate change was reflected by then-candidate Donald Trump in a 2016 New York Times interview, when he said, “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind…. It’s a very complex subject. I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know.”
Right-wing Christian groups deny climate science and evolutionary science on the basis that they are unbiblical. The Cornwall Alliance’s website hosts a sign-on declaration, “An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming,” stating that “there is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.” The Cornwall Alliance also offers a DVD called “Resisting the Green Dragon: A Biblical Response to one of the Greatest Deceptions of our Day,” which outlines the dangers of the new and false “religion” of environmentalism. Not surprisingly, the organization also works to prevent the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Although political and economic interests help fund and influence the Christian Right’s opposition to climate science, there are also theological factors at work. An analysis of anti-environmental sentiment within the Religious Right reveals that some are convinced that concern for the environment is based on the worship of nature. Others, who believe in apocalyptic prophesies about the coming end times, feel that it is pointless to worry about climate change. What they hold in common, however, is their insistence that the creation stories in the book of Genesis must be taken literally.
Creationism, the belief that the creation stories of Genesis are scientific fact, is widespread among conservative Christians, who seek to introduce this doctrine even in public schools. This sets the creation stories in scripture in opposition to the scientific story of the origins and nature of the universe. Was the universe created in fifteen billion years or in seven days? In pre-scientific times, most believers did take the creation stories in Genesis literally, but times have changed. Scientific discoveries have revealed aspects of the universe unknown in ancient times.
One form of denial at work in these and other conversations about climate change is people’s refusal to consider facts or evidence that contradicts their worldview. Science is continually revealing new information about the natural world, its origins and interconnectedness, and the causes and impacts of planetary warming. Reason enables us to weigh the evidence, reflect on its implications, form rational conclusions, and make informed decisions as we consider how to respond to the earth’s changing climate in a reasonable way. But in the words of Naomi Klein, “it is always easier to deny reality than to watch your worldview get shattered…”
The debate about climate change is political, not scientific, and confusion need not hold us back. Faith in the One who brought creation into being enables us to overcome denial, fear, and confusion as we seek truth about these issues. Jesus insisted that the most important measure of human life is loving God above all and our earthly neighbors as ourselves. In this time of climate change, love of God and neighbor requires honoring creation and working to establish justice for our human family, especially those who are most vulnerable, for our young and future generations, and for all creation.
Sharon’s new book, Love in a Time of Climate Change, describes some of the ways that the Religious Right has impacted US climate policy, and explores the topic of climate change in a way that takes climate science seriously and is grounded in Jesus’ teachings and example.
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For more information and an analysis on the Religious Right’s backing of Donald Trump’s policies on climate change, see “Politics, culture, or theology? Why evangelicals back Trump on global warming,” by David Gibson.
Sharon’s other blog postings about climate change can be found here.