How Evangelicals Moved from Supporting Environmental Stewardship to Climate Skepticism

By Neall Pogue, Assistant Professor of Instruction at the University of Texas at Dallas. His research, which was recently published as a monograph by Cornell University Press in April of 2022, is titled “The Nature of the Religious Right: The Struggle Between Conservative Evangelicals and the Environmental Movement.” Originally published at The Conversation. 

White conservative evangelicals, who make up most of the religious right movement, largely oppose government regulation to protect the environmental initiatives, including efforts to curb human-caused climate change. Multiple social scientific studies, for example, consistently reveal that this group maintains a significant level of climate skepticism.

Contrary to popular perception, however, this hasn’t always been the case.

My research reveals how white conservative evangelicals supported an environmentally friendly position from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

Christian environmental stewardship

In 1967, the idea of environmental protection became an issue for the wider Christian community after historian Lynn White Jr. published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” The article argued that growing environmental degradation was the result of Christian philosophies that encourage society to regard nature as a simple resource for the sole benefit of humanity.

One of the many Christian thinkers responding to White included popular conservative evangelical author Francis Schaeffer.

To answer White’s accusation, Schaeffer took to the lecture circuit to convince audiences of the importance of Christian environmental stewardship. According to this perspective, all of creation needed to be treated with respect and not abused for economic benefit. He argued that humans must value the nonhuman natural world because it was created by and owned by God. Consequently, humans were only caretakers, custodians or stewards of the natural environment.

Perspectives of evangelical leaders

In 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day observance, which signified the birth of the modern environmental movement, Schaeffer’s perspectives were published in his book “Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology.” Subsequently, Schaeffer’s environmental views became the standard environmental position among many conservative evangelicals for roughly the next 20 years.

Schaeffer’s ideas were reflected and expanded in major publications such as Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelical’s United Evangelical Action and the Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Monthly.

As I continued researching this topic, archival documents revealed that in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention conducted a poll reflecting the environmental views of its 12 million members. It found that 81.7% of pastors and 76.3% of Sunday school teachers surveyed believed that churches should lead efforts to solve air and water pollution problems.

In another example reflecting Schaeffer’s views, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Christian school textbook publishers included environment-friendly philosophies in material sold to parents, pastors and teachers who were helping expand the growing home-school and Christian school movement. The two most popular publishers, ABeka Book and Bob Jones University Press, both supported Christian environmental stewardship views. ABeka Book, for instance, lauded the efforts of preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir in a reader intended for sixth graders.

Respect for creation

The religious right retained its eco-friendly philosophies after the formation of its first official organization, the Moral Majority, in 1979. ABeka Book reprinted Muir’s story in 1986 and, as late as 1989, the publisher released an economics textbook that praised capitalism while warning of the environmental dangers of the free market.

After bowing out of the presidential race in 1988, well-known televangelist Pat Robertson addressed the GOP National Convention in New Orleans. During his speech, he not only stated his support for classic religious right positions, such as traditional family values, but also restated the community’s eco-friendly views, saying that he hoped for a future “where the water is pure to drink, the air clean to breathe, and the citizens respect and care for the soil, the forests, and God’s other creatures who share with us the earth, the sky and the water.”

On a politically charged national stage, Robertson reprised Schaeffer’s views of Christian environmental stewardship, emphasizing how all creation should be respected.

While Christian environmental stewardship became an accepted environmental perspective within the religious right, it existed only as an idea or philosophy – not as part of organized activism. But the reality of this support, however, challenges past understandings that this community largely ignored or opposed environmental protection efforts.

The anti-environmental campaign

In the early 1990s, segments of the religious right tried turning eco-friendly philosophies into action. The Southern Baptist Convention held an environmental seminar in 1991 at which Schaeffer’s Christian environmental stewardship views were repeated. This effort, however, faced an insurmountable obstacle.

In an attempt to crush increasing international cooperation to address human-caused climate change, U.S. political conservatives launched an anti-environmental campaign. Conservative think tanks and special advocacy groups denied the reality of human-caused global warming, and some even supported conspiracy theories alleging that environmentalists wanted to create a one-world government.

Besides finding an audience in secular conservative Americans, these outreach attempts found a home among the traditionally politically conservative religious right supporters.

Anti-environmental messages increasingly relied on ridicule, which some leading pastors endorsed. Jerry Falwell, one of the founders of the religious right movement, for instance, began calling environmentalists “tree huggers” as early as 1992. At Pat Robertson’s Regent University’s newspaper, political cartoons mocked sympathy for the environment as left-wing extremism.

By 1993, the idea of Christian environmental stewardship had all but disappeared from the rhetoric of the religious right. In its place emerged firm opposition to environmental protection efforts, including the denial of anthropogenic climate change, which the majority of this community supports today.

Although religious right supporters largely reject Schaeffer’s Christian environmental stewardship today, a small but noticeable number of voices within the community are keeping it alive. Perhaps the largest eco-friendly organization is the Evangelical Environmental Network, which originated in 1993. Other notable developments include the signing of the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2006 by well-known religious leaders.

These are remarkable developments that often employ theological arguments to support environmental activism. But they are largely overshadowed by the continuing nontheological anti-environmental arguments founded in misinformation.

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  1. rjs

    the left made the mistake of politicizing it (think Al Gore)
    they’ve made the same mistake with Covid

    neither issue should have a political aspect.

    1. Spider Monkey

      I agree, I think the messaging has to be tailored to each group as well. If we started telling them that plthalates are making their kids hormonally have problems, infertile and possibly gay then they would care about plastic pollution.

      I think the environmentalism of the 70s though was a lot more clear to the naked eye; polluted water ways, brown cloud phenomena, smog, acid rain etc.

      Some of those issues were improved on a bit, but I’m my opinion AGW is not the same as that, it’s not highly visible. I still think there are issues that are out there and obvious, maybe such as a non-existent bee population but now people don’t even go outside for recreation….people are technological hermits.

    2. Marshall Massey

      Al Gore (vice president 1993-2000) was preceded by Ronald Reagan (president 1981-1988), and Reagan by the Sagebrush Rebellion (1974 onward), some of whose leading members Reagan elevated to Cabinet status (James Watt, Anne Gorsuch Burford) or to “kitchen cabinet” status (Joseph Coors). It was with the Sagebrush Rebellion, a right wing anti-environment-in-the-name-of-anti-federal-government campaign, that the politicization of environmental issues gained real momentum, and it was with Reagan that the fights began in earnest in Washington. Right wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, right wing newspaper publishers like Scripps-Howard, and right wing columnists like Thomas Sowell played a big part in politicizing the matter during the 1980s, too, hammering at endangered-species debates over obscure species like the snail darter and Furbish’s lousewort.

    3. Peter Nightingale

      The comment that “neither should have a political aspect”—with the reference to Al Gore in particular—is way too simplistic for my taste. Bill Moyers had been talking about Dominionism—a term I miss in this NC skepticism post—long before his Welcome to Doomsday, March 24, 2005 speech.

      Gore’s Inconvenient Truth dates back to 2006, and as Moyers mentions:

      The result is what the Italian scholar Emilio Gentile, quoted in Silk’s newsletter, calls “political religion”—religion as an instrument of political combat. On gay marriage and abortion— the most conspicuous of the “non-negotiable” items in a widely distributed Catholic voter’s guide—no one should be surprised what this political religion portends. The agenda has been foreshadowed for years, ever since Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other right-wing Protestants set out to turn white evangelicals into a solid Republican voting bloc and reached out to make allies of their former antagonists, conservative Catholics.

      I remember hearing about John Hagee from Moyers in those days, before Gore and COVID. That Hagee was at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem Pastor John Hagee Delivers Benediction at Opening of US Embassy in Jerusalem, Israel is part of the same conservative Christian fascist syndrome.

    4. Grumpy Engineer

      Yeah, the politicization hasn’t helped.

      The reality is that most people don’t have the technical background to judge the risks associated with AGW, or to evaluate the various schemes that have been proposed to address it. So they fall back to this: “Who do I trust?

      Do the Evangelicals trust the Republicans who embody Christian values poorly (sometimes shockingly so) but at least are courting the Evangelical vote, or do they trust the Democrats who are sometimes actively hostile? There are liberals out there who try to “cancel” those who refuse to participate in gay weddings, who berate those who use pronouns based on biological sex instead of self-identified gender identity, and who accuse those objecting to the library’s “drag queen reading hour” of being filled with hate. I would expect Evangelicals to be skeptical of those liberals’ statements on pretty much anything else, and this would include AGW.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Of course, this didn’t happen organically. Much of the right was to some degree pro-environment up to the 1990’s. I can remember when some of the most interesting climate and environmental reporting was in The Economist (yes, they were keen on carbon trading, etc., but they still reported the science). In many ways, the right was more responsive on environmental matters than the orthodox left up to a couple of decades ago.

    But there has been a concerted and to a large degree successful multi-level campaign by fossil fuel interests to twist and distort the message, and actively politicise issues that should never have been politicised. A lot, of course, comes down to evangelical churches relying very heavily on wealthy donors – its notice able that while they’ve come much more overtly anti-environmentalist the more traditional churches have to some extent gone the other way.

  3. Henry Moon Pie

    I was a little surprised to see no mention of Richard Mellon Scaife, the funder of right-wing efforts to manipulate and control Christian denominations.

    Here are some of Scaife’s funding activities:

    A 2004 exposé by the late Methodist pastor Andrew Weaver was titled “Church & Scaife: Secular Conservative Philanthropies Waging Unethical Campaign to Take Over United Methodist Church.” Weaver described IRD as a pseudo-religious, neo-conservative organization with a goal of undermining the liberal, social and economic justice mission of mainline Protestant denominations. Christian Century exposed the fact that 89 percent of IRD’s early funding came from three foundations, and the largest block from the Scaife foundations. Infiltration of the Mainline Protestant denominations came in the guise of renewal groups, as described by PRA fellow Frederick Clarkson, also featured in the documentary “Renewal or Ruin.”

    The largest single block of funding for think tanks promoting climate change denial has come from Donors Trust, according to a 2013 study by Drexel University, but a close second is the Scaife foundations at over $39 million dollars (well ahead of the funding from the Koch Brothers’ foundations).

    Merging plutocratic interests with religion has been key to promoting climate change denial, including in the 2010 DVD series “Resisting the Green Dragon,” a product of the Cornwall Alliance. The 12-part teaching series, used in churches nationwide and featuring major Religious Right leaders, claims that environmentalism is a religion in opposition to Christianity. Funding is hidden behind Donors Trust, but the Cornwall Alliance is a project of the James Partnership, founded by E. Calvin Beisner, a fellow with several Scaife-funded entities, including the Atlas Economic Research Institute, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and IRD.

    1. Mike Mc

      Thanks HMP! Sharing this link and the Wiki link to the Lewis Powell memo to as many people as possible.

      We need another pair of Roosevelts – Trust Buster Teddy and his cousin FDR – to keep the oligarchs from destroying our society and our planet. Sure don’t see any on the horizon… doesn’t mean we stop looking!

      1. orlbucfan

        Don’t forget our two Far Right Wing Nut “heroes”: Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. Viguerie, the Heartland Institute messiah, is still and kicking, unfortunately. Weyrich croaked in 2008.

    2. elkern

      YES, HMP, thank you! This is the “How” that I had hoped the OP would deliver, but sadly, it’s merely a chronical of “when”.

      I look forward to reading the article you linked. IMO, articles like this need to be shared widely; they describe the actual process whereby groups of Zillionaires have undermined our political system, to increase their profits and power.

      Got any other links or sources which might give a good overview of that process?

  4. GramSci

    Evangelicals Christians were piously opposed to water and air pollution until CO2 became pollution. If CO2 is all that bad, He never would have blessed us with the automobile. Science is ok until it starts messing with the Sacraments.

  5. Rob Urie

    Propaganda has been used by capital in the US to engineer political outcomes since the early twentieth century.

    My Republican friends believe the tenets of the Formula because it has been instantiated by talk radio for the last half century,

    Below is an explanation of the Mohawk Valley Formula in an area I know well. Here is the link:

    The Mohawk Valley Formula
    An Example of the Use of Propaganda (from 1937)

    Lee recounts an incident in Ilion, NY and a National Labor Relations Board ruling in 1937. The incident involved a labor strike and management tactics used to crush the union. Not one of the greater chapters in U.S industrial history, but instructive for our purposes. Here’s an outline of the “Mohawk Valley Formula” as used to break a strike. Note the role played by propaganda.

    Via threats to close the factory, form, a “citizen’s committee.”
    Use established media to distribute propaganda portraying union leaders as “agitators” that threaten the law and order of the community.
    Under #2, induce the community to prepare for violence. Extra weapons for the police are needed.
    Organize mass meetings of citizens to show apparent support for the company.
    Promote the formation of a large force of auxiliary police officers (armed).
    Set up a company-controlled organization of “loyal employees” to encourage strikers to return to work.
    Publish a plant-reopening date.
    Use the resources developed in #s 1, 3, 5, and 6 to attack and demoralize the striking workers and almost compel them to return to work.
    Reopen the plant with supporters present. Have lots of appropriate speeches.
    Keep up the show of force; this demoralizes holdout strikers.
    Maintain the flood of propaganda.

    The use of propaganda is clear. The union leaders were portrayed as “outside agitators” and troublemakers. Other examples should be easy to find.

    1. Adam Eran

      Try Adam Hochschild’s American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis for many such examples. The ’30s was at the end of the persecution of the political left that Woodrow Wilson blessed as a way to persuade a peaceful population to join a European war. Many examples of vigilante organizations like the Klan initiating lynchings, torture, beatings, etc. on the flimsiest of evidence. Eugene Debs imprisoned for speaking freely, etc.

      The tradition of American violence is long and deep.

    2. elkern

      Link failed (404 Not Found). I hope that’s just because of a typo or such, not something more sinister, like SMU cleansing its site of work which it doesn’t like…

  6. Cetra Ess

    You’d think the book of Genesis would provide the guiding principles here, the oldest profession is gardening after all, but I think the way the story has been (mis)translated and interpreted accounts for why some Christians have lost their way on environmentalism, essentially plants the ideological seeds for this situation. When you compare the creation stories of other cultures, e.g. the various Turtle Island stories which are all joyous and elevating, Genesis contains violence and conflict rather than joy – we have the fall of man, subjugation of women and inflicted pain, but more importantly the portrayal of toiling or working of the earth as a punishment rather than something of joy. “Be fruitful and multiply” is human productivity centered as opposed to what it could have been, “continue my work, take care of my garden” which would be earth centered. So I think from very early on a Christian is essentially indoctrinated to understand that the earth is a punishment, is not the more preferable garden of Eden from which we have been banished, and therefore should be held in contempt.

    1. Adam Eran

      Leviticus notes that humans can’t get clear title to real estate (the quintessential property) because Jehovah owns it all. It also has some very sensible advice about farming (don’t plant fenceline to fenceline) and poverty programs (leave some grain for the poor to glean)…not to mention a requirement for a Jubilee at specified intervals.

      Meanwhile, “Christians” are very selective and changeable about what public policies they support. Falwell endorsed abortion when he thought it would mean fewer babies of color. His political managers quickly persuaded him to change his mind when it was clear it would be a wedge issue. Reverend Barber of the current Poor People’s Campaign calls this kind of thinking “theological malpractice.”

      My personal feeling is that such wedge issues are distractions and misdirection. If it were the law tomorrow that all pregnancies be terminated by abortion, or that none be terminated, the actual difference between those two policies would be a statistical insignificance.

      One more: In the state of California you can now get drivers licenses that aren’t gender specific. Eight thousand people applied for these … out of what? 40 million residents? Another statistical insignificance.

      One the other hand…a job guarantee would impact a lot of unemployed people. It’s not even up for discussion. As Boss Tweed used to say: “I don’t care who people vote for as long as I can pick the candidates.”

  7. Wukchumni

    Why would you care about the climate when the likelihood of a thousand year life loomed large?

    One of the cabin owners is a year older than me and quite the confirmed evang and then some, along with her mom & siblings.

    I don’t call the Central Valley ‘Godzone’ for nothin’…

    So we’re talking about things and she tells me she’s going to heaven and will live for a thousand years, and i’m thinking of that Adolf fellow some 90 years ago and where is this heading?

    Well, its in the bible, it says right there that true believers get to hang out with the big cheese for 1,000 years, while its hell on earth for us heathen.

    Why you want to in any way ‘fix’ or even care about somebody else’s hell?

    The wicked remain in their graves for a thousand years. It’s in the Bible, Revelation 20:4-5, NIV. “[God’s people] came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.)”

    While the saints are in heaven and the wicked are dead, the devil is confined to the desolate earth for 1000 years. It’s in the Bible, Revelation 20:1-3, NIV. “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him in the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.”

    At the close of the 1000 years the holy city of God will descend from heaven to earth. It’s in the Bible, Revelation 21:1-3, NIV. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.”

    1. kareninca

      But the question is, what is her actual carbon footprint? If she gives most of her money to her church, it might be pretty small. I see a lot of that with the evangelical Christians I know.

    2. Henry Moon Pie

      Wuk, there’s not much unanimity in Christendom when it comes to end times prophecy otherwise known as matters of eschatology (study of last things). The article you excerpted comes from a Seventh Day Adventist organization, and their views are a bit peculiar.

      Doctrine re: the end times can be put into three groups:

      1) Amillennial–the “1,000 years” are metaphorical and refer to the current time when the church is active on Earth. This view comes from Augustine and is followed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans, among others.

      2) Postmillennial–this view was more predominant a century ago, especially among mainline Protestants. Christians are expected to establish God’s kingdom here on Earth. When the job is done, Jesus will return to reign.

      3) Premillennial–this interpretation is quite recent. It comes from a Brit named Darby in the 19th century. It was popularized by the Scofield Bible. It’s the one with the Rapture and Tribulation made popular by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series.

      The truth is that references in the Hebrew and Greek bibles to end times are few, scattered and inconsistent with one another. For example, there is no such thing as “heaven” in the Hebrew Bible. After death, people continue existence in a shadowy domain called Sheol. Augustine probably had the right idea. Say it’s metaphorical and don’t worry about it too much. Basing anything on Revelation, a book whose inclusion in the biblical canon has been questioned throughout history, is very shaky.

  8. Marshall Massey

    Francis Schaeffer was indeed an influential spokesperson in the evangelical world in the 1970s and 1980s. But he was not the only such voice in the 1980s and 1990s. I would particularly point to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, whose book A Worldly Spirituality: The Call to Redeem Life on Earth appeared in 1984, and to Robert Parham, whose book Loving Neighbors Across Time. A Christian Guide to Protecting the Earth appeared in 1991. There was quite a lively pro-environmental movement in the evangelical world in those days.

    I would also add that the environmental movement lost ground after 1990, not only in the evangelical world, but pretty much throughout the Jewish and Christian world. In 1990 there were at least a dozen major denominations with significant environmental programs in the U.S.; ten years later, the only audible denominational voice remaining was that of the liberal Quakers. This was a matter of real frustration to environmental leaders in other denominations. Much of this lost ground was due, not to right-wing secular activism, but to the leadership within the denominations themselves. From what several environmentalists in different denominations told me, the denominations’ top officers became a little alarmed by the energetic organizing coming from lay environmentalists in the pews, and felt that it might get out of control. So they set up denominational offices that (with the help of at least one major liberal foundation) first replaced the grassroots networks, then disempowered the grassroots activists, and finally dialed down the discussion.

  9. Glossolalia

    If you believe that you’re trudging though life on earth temporarily on your way to paradise in heaven then there’s not much reason to worry about the environment. Plus the bible says that humans are superior to animals in all ways so why worry about them, either?

  10. jefemt

    Great article and comments. I was wondering where the other significant organized faiths are on this same front? After all, it is a closed loop finite system.

    Me, of little faith, seem to either be stuck on, seek out, or discover little gems that deepen my resolve that we are gonna jackpot, sooner that later.
    The most recent— Elon and Jeff better find some solid undisturbed launch pad bore we completely swiss cheese of earth.
    Pardon me, thou bleeding earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers (The Bard, Julius Cesar)

    Really, the chaotic faith and problem is capitalism operated by ewwwman beans.

  11. Cetra Ess

    I was just thinking I wonder where in the scriptures it makes entrance to heaven conditional on good caretaking of the earth, then it struck me that each of the seven deadly sins contributes in its own way to destruction of the earth. Well, except for lust, that is.

  12. Susan the other

    The health of the environment should never be a political or religious football. It would be absurd to make the essentials of life just politics. But loggerheads it is, and everybody is talking their own agenda for as long as they can. Henrik Svensmark to the rescue. He is a Danish astrophysicist with some very meticulous evidence to prove climate change is very real. He has clarified his position since his run-in with the British scientists who accused him of claiming that human pollution doesn’t matter. He now says that AGW should be addressed, he has no argument with that. His research looks rock solid now. And it demonstrates clearly that changes are afoot. So his proof can at least serve to defuse all the scatterbrained political arguments that AGW is a fascist plot, etc.

  13. MarkT

    As a gay person who’s had personal experience of evangelical practises (a teenager in Pretoria in the 1980s), I’m surprised anyone takes them seriously anymore. Clearly a recent American invention involving legitimising greed. Aka wealth is a blessing and we await our rapturous reward

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