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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By David Howard Davis
October 23, 2015
Pope Francis’s visit to the United States last month brought attention to his views on global warming, which he considers real and caused by humans. To ensure Americans got the message, he reiterated it at the White House, the Capitol and the United Nations. The message amplified an encyclical he issued last June. Not mincing words, he said, “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” After all, the Pope had chosen his pontifical name after St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th century friend of animals and nature. Environmentalists applauded the Pope’s declarations.
On the other hand, some thought the Pope was getting a lot of credit for accepting scientific conclusions already widely known. The theory was first proposed in 1895 and validated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1987. His predecessor, Pope Benedict, said the same in 2011 and Pope John Paul II said it in 1990.
Biblical scholars often point to the second creation story in Genesis where, “The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it” is an admonition to protect the environment. Quibblers point to the first creation story where the Lord created man to have “dominion” over nature, suggesting this was more than just tending the garden. In any case, the Pope has placed the Roman Catholic Church squarely on the side of protection.
Virtually all mainline Protestant churches share this view. Citing Leviticus 25, the United Methodist Church states, “God is the owner of the land; thus it is a gift in covenant which involves the stewardship of keeping and tending the land.” The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church denounced people who denied climate change based on “political interests” or “willful blindness,” adding, “The Judeo-Christian tradition has always called those motivations sinful.” The Lutheran Church says, “The gravity of climate change requires us to act with urgency.” In its own words, “The United Church of Christ admits Christian complicity in the damage human beings have caused to the earth’s climate system.”
Less than a decade ago, many evangelical Protestants did not agree. In 2007, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution saying attempting to limit global warming would be dangerous and harmful to the economy. Yet public perception of the evangelicals often cited individual pastors or self-declared representatives for churches rather than official statements of a denomination. For a long time, Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church denied the fact and danger of global warming. Billy Graham, 94 years old, rolled warming in with hurricanes and earthquakes to predict the end times of the second coming of Jesus. Rush Limbaugh has told his devoted listeners, “If you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in man-made global warming.”
On the other hand, examining recent official statements shows new acceptance of the science and a search for theological responses. The Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change says that while the science may not be completely certain, nevertheless “Christian moral convictions and our Southern Baptist doctrines demand our environmental stewardship.” “We must care about environmental and climate issues because of our love for God.”
Individual pastors have changed their views. Reverend Warren joined the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Long-time lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) Richard Cizik left the NAE and, in 2012, became the chief representative for the Good Steward Campaign, advocating controlling climate change.
These trends suggest organized Christianity is moving toward confronting the threat of global warming. Even the evangelicals are coming around. Yet environmentalists should not be too sanguine. Churches can pray, but they can’t legislate and they can’t implement.
Author: David Davis teaches public administration at the University of Toledo. He is the author of “American Environmental Politics.” Email: [email protected]