Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Ninth place — Grad student essay contest: Neil Heacox

Vol. 36 No. 09 November 2019
Neil Heacox                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Evangelicals and environmental responsibility

FFRF awarded Neal $400.

By Neil Heacox

Bible passages are common justifications used by evangelical climate-change denialists to excuse harming our planet for personal gain. This religious group uses the bible and its outsized political strength to quash science-based public policy and the functioning of our government, hurting society and everyone on Earth.

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report finally roused mainstream politicians to acknowledge the urgent threat of human-caused climate change. Since then, we get seemingly daily reports of increased frequency of extreme weather events, higher levels of carbon dioxide contributing to lung disease and respiratory problems, and even warnings that corn production could fall 50 percent by century’s end.

Findings from scientific research on climate change have become so dire it can almost seem fictional, but fact-based, peer-reviewed analyses are the only logical sources for governmental guidance.

Sadly, the White House sided with climate denialists, despite compelling evidence from its own scientists. Trump’s administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, approved new mining leases for coal, cut water and air pollution regulations, proposed expanding offshore drilling, and more. Why? His administration is chock-full of evangelicals, the one voting block consistently resistant to climate change. As Vice has reported, Trump has put a number of biblical literalists in his cabinet, giving fundamentalists an enormous amount of power. It’s been argued, in fact, that biblical literalism is what’s keeping Americans from an agreement to fight climate change.

The most influential evangelicals in his administration have included Vice President Mike Pence, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who questioned the link between climate change and weather events), former EPA head Scott Pruitt (a climate-change denier), and former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“We’ll leave climate change to a much, much higher authority.”).

With evangelists in power, environmental progress is backsliding. Two core evangelical beliefs (biblical literalism and Jesus’ return / apocalyptic imminence) are taught in a way that discourages concern for nature’s stewardship.

Biblical literalism is the first defense evangelicals use to shirk responsibility.Genesis 1:28 is the most popular verse, in which God instructs humans to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all living things that crawl on the Earth.” At first glance, this translation seems straightforward, but scholars don’t agree. The bible often uses dominion as a synonym for authority and self-sacrificial love, rather than exploitation, as when it mentions parents’ dominion over their children and God’s relationship with humans. Unfortunately, fundamentalists use biblical texts in an overly literalistic way, ignoring cultural, historical or literary context. Another passage contradicts the “exploitation” argument: “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Evangelical leaders are promoting particular verses over others to advance their denialist agendas.

The next most commonly used passages are apocalyptic. Some evangelicals point to God’s promise to Noah that he won’t flood the Earth again. Others cite the apocalypse in Revelation, Hosea and Psalms as a good thing: that the Earth giving way, animals dying, and seas frothing are God’s plan to save the righteous while Earth and everyone else are disposable collateral. Some even use Jesus to excuse responsibility: Luke 21:25-28 states that roaring seas and nations in peril signal his second coming, so the faithful need not fear.

Evangelicals pick and choose what God has promised them — will he not destroy the Earth, or is it a sign they’ll be saved when he does? Bible verses can function like horoscopes: You can change their meaning to fit your worldview. Using such an ambiguous text for public policy is dangerous. Our laws and Constitution, while not perfect, are generally better guides for lawmakers. The Constitution strongly advocates for separation of church and state, something the forefathers considered a necessary safeguard for a multicultural society. Using a bible for public policy then is not only unfair and problematic, but unpatriotic.

The undue political influence these evangelical denialists have is troubling.

Our current leaders justify corruption and greed at the expense of destroying our planet as their win-win ticket into heaven, while the rest of us face environmental collapse and death. The fact that this is our current reality and not some fictional horror movie should terrify everyone.

Neil, 29, is from San Diego and attends Cal Poly Pomona, where he is working toward a master’s degree in landscape architecture. “I moved to New York City to work in graphic design and along the way was disheartened by the lack of nature in the lives of everyday urbanites,” he writes. “When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 2018 report, I decided rearranging pixels on a screen wasn’t enough of a purpose, and decided to pursue a major in landscape architecture with the goal of better interweaving the natural world with the human world.”