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Evangelicals & environmentalists cooperate?

NASHVILLE (BP) — Amid polarized debate on climate change, Southern Baptists’ lead ethicist has called conservative evangelicals and secular environmentalists to cooperate on issues of creation care.

“I could prompt a cascade of ‘Amens’ in a sermon — or retweets on a Twitter feed — by noting that our legal system protects darter snails but not unborn humans,” Russell D. Moore wrote in the latest issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. “A secular environmentalist could evoke cheers on ‘The Daily Show’ by lampooning conservative Christians for claiming to be ‘pro-life’ while ignoring toxins in the atmosphere that produce birth defects or spontaneous abortions. These are appeals to the conscience, but they are rarely a conversation from one conscience to the other so much as they are self-reinforcing ‘red meat’ (or, I guess, ‘green leaf’ as the case might be) for the already-convinced bases.”

Yet “as those in the environmentalist activist community and those in the evangelical Christian community find themselves up close and personal together, we can learn some things from one another, and learn some things together,” Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote.

Like feminists and evangelicals have joined forces to combat pornography and human trafficking, environmentalists and evangelicals should work together to emphasize proper stewardship of the earth, Moore said in an interview with Baptist Press.

Followers of Jesus must listen “to our neighbors, including those who are environmentalists, in order to provide a Christian perspective on caring for the creation,” Moore said.

He acknowledged that evangelicals and secular environmentalists disagree in many instances on “huge global” issues like climate change. But such disagreement does not preclude cooperation to confront “local” problems like air and water pollution, proper land use and preserving natural resources for the next generation, he said.

“Climate change is an issue,” Moore said. “But I think that defining the issue [of environmental protection] solely in terms of climate change undercuts the means that we have to address [other] issues, which will have to happen at the level of consciences formed to care about the creation around them.”

In his journal article, Moore outlined three tenets of a balanced theology of the environment and pointed out common ground among evangelicals and environmentalists related to each area.

— Because part of Jesus’ saving work is to redeem the entire creation from the ruin of sin, His followers should likewise care about the material world.

“Orthodox (with a small ‘o’) Christians believe in the ‘end of the world,’ if by ‘world’ one means the present evil system under the tyranny of the criminal spirits,” Moore wrote. “But orthodox Christianity does not believe in the ‘end of the world,’ if by ‘world’ one means the destruction of the ecosystem or of the material cosmos…. The permanence of the creation, as redeemed in Christ, matters to the task of environmental protection because it grounds the activity of earth-keeping in optimism and hope.”

Christians who ignore creation care because they believe God will destroy the material world and environmentalists who warn that global warming will destroy earth are both misguided, Moore wrote. Exaggerated doomsday scenarios on both sides are less helpful than negotiated remedies to smaller scale environmental problems, he argued.

— The biblical concept of human dominion over creation means cultivating the earth for useful purposes. It precludes both predatory abuse of the creation and denial of humanity’s unique position in God’s economy.

“The concept of ‘dominion,’ found first in the opening passages of Genesis, sometimes alarms non-Christians because it seems to connote a sense of rapacious power,” Moore wrote. “But that is not what the Christian tradition intends. Biblical dominion is not, in Carl Henry’s words, ‘pharaoh-like,’ but instead is Christlike. Jesus, the One who fully restores human nature in his person, does not come to serve his own appetites but to serve others. The dominion over the creation is in the context of cultivation, and that in the context of a mandate to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28). Dominion, then, by definition, is done with future generations, with others, in view.”

— A balanced political approach to creation care must neither reject environmental regulations altogether nor advocate regulations based solely on abstractions like global warming.

“Evangelical and environmentalist cooperation will begin in the small and long-term cultivation of communities learning to rethink connection and stewardship rather than primarily in the short-term activism of signed manifestoes and legislative checklists,” Moore wrote. “Evangelicals learning to ‘save the earth’ will do little good for the earth, or for evangelicals. But evangelicals learning about how … to ‘live upstream’ with love for those who are living ‘downstream’ can bring about long-lasting change.”

Calvin Beisner, founder and national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance, said Moore’s theological discussion is a good starting point for evangelical reflection on creation care, but a robust environmental ethic must also consider science and economics.

“Theology is my main area of expertise, but extensive studies in the relevant science and economics over the past quarter of a century persuade me that many scientific claims about ecological disasters, and many economic policy prescriptions to address ecological problems, are mistaken — the scientific claims often exaggerated or simply counterfactual, and the policies often having harmful unintended consequences that outweigh the beneficial intended ones. Dr. Moore understandably avoids explicit affirmations about most such matters,” Beisner told BP in written comments.

“Just as in theology and ethics there are contrasting voices, so are there in the science and economics of environmental stewardship. We all need to be aware of the spectrum and the reasoning along it, and test that reasoning (1 Thessalonians 5:21) in developing our own understanding. That’s why the Cornwall Alliance always seeks the interdisciplinary input of scientists, economists, theologians, ethicists and others in developing our positions on environmental issues,” Beisner said.

While Moore acknowledged the need to formulate specific policies in light of multiple fields, he said the most pressing issue for modern evangelicals is training believers’ consciences to care about creation rather than hammering out national or state legislation.

“The primary issue,” Moore told BP, “is being aware of our responsibilities of shepherding, cultivating and leaving the creation for the next generation.”

He added, “Most of the discussion about the environment these days seems to be about huge global issues. I don’t think that’s where our primary problems lie. I think they’re primarily local questions of Christians engaged in the communities around them.”