"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
March 7, 2007

Evangelicals, Ecology And The Diluting Of Ethics

Here’s a story that’s starting to get a lot of traction. The New York Times has highlighted a letter from some “concerned” evangelicals about the direction the National Association of Evangelicals is taking on the issue of climate change and environmentalism. You can read the letter for yourself here. I’d like to highlight a few […]

Here’s a story that’s starting to get a lot of traction. The New York Times has highlighted a letter from some “concerned” evangelicals about the direction the National Association of Evangelicals is taking on the issue of climate change and environmentalism. You can read the letter for yourself here.

I’d like to highlight a few quotes,

“It does appear that the earth is warming…”

“…the issue should be addressed scientifically and not theologically”

“…we have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the
great moral issues of our time, notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children.”

There is a lot I find disturbing about the petty politics of the letter, but in one sense that is really dirty laundry for the evangelicals in the US to sort out. What is of more direct relevance to the rest of us, outside those formal structures and around the world, is the framing of this debate. That’s why in a broad sense those three quotes stand out. The “concerned” evangelicals are saying – climate change is happening (though we’ll still try to deny it), but it’s not a theological issue and really we shouldn’t talk about it because it will confuse people about the ethical issues that “really matter.”

Glenn Hager has a great comment on this entitled Stupid and Uncaring, where he tracks some responses from Jim Wallis and also some follow-up comments by Jerry Falwell (also read the discussion in the comments section). I agree with Glenn that it is sad to see evangelicals (again!) needing to tear down in order to make a point and also that there are a host of other important ethical issues that seem to be missing from the evangelicals’ list (“Why were poverty, starvation, disease, war, and AIDS not mentioned in the list of ‚Äúgreat moral issues?‚Äù”). Also, check out The Earth Is Not Flat and Ryan Dueck for some thoughtful reflections and comment-discussion.

I should clarify that what I find alarming about the letter in question is not so much the skepticism about climate change, there’s a place for tha kind of debate. Rather, it is the assumption that the environment is not a theological issue and in particular that talking about ecological issues will dilute the ethical agenda.

That really is another way of saying that the evangelical constituency, the people in the pews every Sunday, are kind of dumb and stupid. They can’t keep too many things in their head and if they start thinking about climate change they’ll suddenly forget about the other ethical issues they’ve been pounded with for the past two decades. It’s an ugly secret, but one I’ve encountered on several occasions; the propensity of some conservative Christian leaders to underestimate the intelligence of their flock.

There are important ways in which the mission of the church and the task of theology are neither like a centralised advertising campaign or a poltical party platform. “Staying on message,” being “a safe pair of hands” and “single-minded communication” might be essential and helpful for public relations, but it can be fundamentally unhelpful for the church.

By way of contrast one of the reasons why evangelicals and all Christians ought to address environmental questions (apart from the obvious Biblical mandate) is because doing so requires an integrative approach to human activity on this world. Consider the piece Jeremy Paxman wrote this week for The Guardian – Green and pleasant land?. It’s a rambling piece, but there is an important ethical and frankly, theological issue at work here; how enviromental failure reflects the sickness and selfishness at work in a nation’s soul.

In that light it is worthwhile to consider Next Reformation’s post, “The Single Largest Issue – Environment, reflecting on Alan Hirsch’s claim that the environment will be the single biggest issue for the church in this coming decade. I’m not sure that taken alone, enviromental concerns are as singularly important as that. But, considered in a more holisitic and intergrative way, there is no question they demand our attention as a central concern of social ethics.

This is because, as NExt Reformation points out, that there is a growing body of literature that connects the decay of civilisations with the failure to address ethical concerns. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, seems to be the flavour of the month in this regard, but for me I’m far more influenced by the older and more economically compelling work from Joseph Tainter. His suggestion is that civilisations fall because of reduced return on social and economic investment in the face of increasing complexity. For Tainter violence and ecological disaster are the clear markers of social decay, rather than the causes. You can hear the man briefly introduce his ideas here.

Rather than shutting down the debate, I believe we need to be having this discussion at the level of thought and considered reflection that Tainter introduces. The state of our enviroment, like the plight of the poor amongst us, always speaks to conflicts within our society and to our true ethical nature.

[tags] Climate Change, Enviromentalism, Evangelicals, Ethics [/tags]

Paul 17 years ago

Thanks Fernando – personally i find that quite hopeful – if the NAE is doing enough to start generating debate amongst the wider evangelical constituency then that can only be a good thing – particularly if they already acknowledge climate change as happening.

I guess on their focus of issues, the number of undersigned with “family” in their organisations title might be a clue as to their particular focus and selection.

In the documentary God is Green that was shown on the C4 in the UK i think the presenter interviewed someone from NAE, i liked how he said evangelicals need to consider now WWJD as What Would Jesus Drive.

My response as someone from the wider community is to pray that this conversation continues and convinces more and more evangelics in America that this is a key life moral/ethical issue

brodie 17 years ago

Fernando – your post reminds me of converations I had with church leaders when I was in New Orleans last year. One said, “issues to do with the poor just don’t do it for me, after all Jesus said you’d have the poor with you always, I’d prefer to get involved with issues like abortion that realy matter”. AHHHH…there’s so much in this statement that shows a particular and IMHO reading of scripture. That someone can say that the environment is not a theological demonstrates a narrowness of thinking, theology and interacting with scripture.

Toni 17 years ago

I’m still thinking through what this means, both personally and for society. I DO agree that environmental abuse (pre-dated by the abuse of the environments of others to provide wealth for ones own society) are a sign of ethical deterioration.

There is, however, a danger that we disregard the ‘specialists’ (and they write themselves off too) who focus on particular areas, simply because they don’t take a holistic approach. Like Brodie’s quote, they may open themselves to negation rather than promoting the cause they ARE concerned about. As Christians we are very inclined to write off each others concerns as trivial because they don’t align with our own set of significant issues. I’ve certainly heard Methodists put down with the words ‘social gospel’ for trying to reach the poor instead of dealing with the ‘real issues’.

Sometimes being a Christian is rather like walking a tightrope. :-/

brad wright 17 years ago

I had a similar reaction when I read about the opposition to the environmental concerns… rolled my eyes pretty good.

It’s interesting to think about which issues get defined as important and which not for Evangelicals. Unfortunately, the environment tends to be a “not” issue.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago


What I’m starting to realise is how much of a theological failure it is to say that environmental issues don’t matter.

If we really want to take an expansive view of human activity and compare that to God’s “will” for this earth, to talk in a fullsome sense about the consequences of sin and what a repudiation of sin might mean, to really unravel what selfishness and idolatry are all about, then it seems to me impossible not to bring environmental issues into focus.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Toni, I tend to agree, but was wondering if you had any more examples of issues that some view as trival and others view as central. It seems like an important thing for all of us to be aware of in our thinking and how others think about things as well.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago


The way these issues get defined seems like it it not just a way to unravel the ethical commitments, but also the theological ones.

It’s a delicious irony that the environment’s non-definition as an “important” issue is actually revealing the paucity of some contemporary evangelical thought.

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