Robert Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Shippensburg University. See All Articles –
Among the many issues that separate conservative evangelicals from progressive Christians, few may be as perplexing to the latter as conservative opposition to environmentalism. It is almost second nature to liberal Christians that human beings have a responsibility to “care for our common home,” as Pope Francis put it in his 2015 encyclical on climate change, or that Christians are called “to steward God’s creation,” as the National Council of Churches declared in 2006.
Mike Pence, on the other hand, perhaps the most prominent conservative evangelical among recent American politicians, “spent his time in the House [of Representatives] representing the view that polluters should have few restrictions and clean energy should get less support,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund, and these priorities guided his actions as governor of Indiana and as vice president. Jerry Falwell Sr. summarized the reigning view among conservative evangelicals about climate change in a well-publicized 2007 sermon, dismissing it as a fraud.
In The Nature of the Religious Right, historian Neall Pogue delves deeply into the ideology and actions of conservative evangelicals on these issues in order to understand their antipathy to “Christian environmental stewardship.” Tracing such ideas and actions from the 1960s to the 2010s, Pogue finds not only fissures in their stance but a significant shift, beginning in the late 1970s and culminating in 1993–1994.
In the earlier period, Pogue demonstrates, major conservative evangelical institutions—the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Christianity Today, among many others—participated in Earth Day events, worked on conservation initiatives, and even issued warnings about global warming. The shift, according to Pogue, was due largely to the conservative evangelical embrace of the broader right-wing Republican agenda. This change of opinion also demonstrates, he suggests, that it is possible that conservative evangelicals—if approached with sensitivity by secular and liberal Christian environmentalists—could be won over once again to a green perspective.
The author provides numerous examples of environmentalist concerns among conservative evangelicals prior to 1990. Eternity magazine marked the first Earth Day with an entire issue bemoaning disrespect for the environment and urging Christians to teach “children how to be conscientious stewards by conserving resources and not polluting.” In his 1988 Republican National Convention address, presidential candidate Pat Robertson called upon Americans to “respect and care for the soil, the forests, and God’s other creatures who share with us the earth, the sky, and the water.”