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Palmer writes: "Environmentalism and American evangelicals are like oil and water. Joel Hunter was one of a small number of high-profile leaders who worked, over decades, to try to mix the two."

Scott Pruitt. (photo: AP)
Scott Pruitt. (photo: AP)

God's EPA Administrator

By Brian Palmer, Slate

10 June 18

Did the politics and history of evangelical Christianity create Scott Pruitt?

n 2007, the Rev. Joel Hunter formed a creation care team at his Northland evangelical megachurch in central Florida. “Creation care” describes a movement within the U.S. Christian community to better steward God’s creation, aka the Earth—it is, in short, environmentalism for the faithful. Many embraced Hunter’s initiative. Many did not.

“What are you doing? Are you going liberal on us?” Hunter remembers some of his congregants complaining.

Ten years later, Hunter left Northland. His gentle push toward environmental responsibility wasn’t the only factor in his departure—Hunter also urged his congregation to consider its views on racism, gun violence, and homophobia, especially in light of the Pulse nightclub shooting that killed 49 people not far from the church’s campus. But his environmentalist nudge certainly contributed to the overall perception that Hunter no longer held the same views as his congregants.

Environmentalism and American evangelicals are like oil and water. Joel Hunter was one of a small number of high-profile leaders who worked, over decades, to try to mix the two. The effort has yielded minimal results: Just 20 percent of committed Christians consider themselves active participants in the environmental movement—a number that has barely moved for a quarter-century and represents less than half the proportion of environmentalists in the general population. The proportion of Christians who prioritize environmental concerns over energy production has dropped by about 20 percentage points in the last 25 years. And indications are that the more ardently Christian an American becomes, the less he or she cares about the environment. Evangelicals are the least environmentally inclined of committed U.S. Christians.

This is the biggest obstacle to the American environmental movement. About one-quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians. They also appear to turn out to vote at higher rates than other religious groups, so they wield considerable political power. Then there is the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency is currently headed by an evangelical, the now-infamous Scott Pruitt. His antics have turned him into a laughingstock for his self-dealing, science denial, and cartoonish lack of concern for environmental protection, the mission of the agency he runs. He’s unscrupulous, hypocritical, and dishonest—a walking caricature of the Trump era. He spent $1,560 on fancy fountain pens. And then there’s the bizarre hand lotion scandal.

But outside of the mainstream media and the coastal cities, Pruitt has supporters who like him so much that they’re willing to ignore his petty scandals and Napoleon complex. They like him because he thinks like them: He puts people before the environment, just like God does.

Pruitt has been polishing his evangelical bona fides for years, building a bulwark of unwavering Christian support. In 2003, as an Oklahoma state senator, he championed a bill to insert a disclaimer into school textbooks noting that evolution is just a theory. He has been photographed at religious gatherings making the face evangelicals make when they’re feeling the spirit of God wash over them. He attends Bible study with Ralph Drollinger, pastor to the Republican political elite. Pruitt’s evangelical firewall likely helps to keep him in office. And Pruitt’s evangelical faith almost certainly informs what he does with the office.

Before delving any further into the issue, I should acknowledge that I’m completely secular. I wouldn’t even call myself an atheist, because I don’t spend enough time thinking about God to have an opinion. The evangelical mind is foreign to me, which may be part of why I find this so fascinating. To me, as an outsider, it seems natural that a person of faith would want to keep God’s creation as pristine as possible. And yet that does not seem to be the case.

The conventional explanation is that this is simply due to an alignment of interests: American Protestants have cast their lot with the Republican Party, and since the business arm of the GOP opposes environmental regulation, Christians have gone along. This is Joel Hunter’s point of view. “People are so politicized that they take what is meant to be a practical and spiritual principle of caring for the gift of creation, and they park it in some sort of leftist political agenda,” Hunter laments.

The politicization is clearly a large factor here, and Hunter isn’t the only one to have been chased out of his church because of it—Richard Cizik, the former vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, walked basically the same path as Hunter. He spoke up about a cocktail of “leftist” political issues, including environmentalism, and was abruptly forced out.

But there’s something that bothers me about the simplicity and convenience of explaining this all by the transitive logic of evangelicals are Republicans, Republicans hate environmental regulation, so evangelicals hate environmental regulation. It suggests that Christians are willing to cast off their moral obligations for political convenience. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe they don’t feel a moral obligation to protect Earth in the first place.

It’s useful to look back to the dawn of the modern environmental movement, which began in the late 1960s, a time of terrible environmental degradation. American cities were choking in smog thick enough to obscure buildings on the same block, toxic waste flowed out of exposed drainpipes, and rivers were catching fire. The Republican Party of the 1960s wasn’t ideologically opposed to environmental regulation. Richard Nixon helped create the Environmental Protection Agency. Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey co-chaired the first Earth Day. But even then, American Christians were leery of the environmental movement. Why?

Historian Lynn White Jr. offered a theory that remains explosive today: Christianity is inherently anti-environmental. He pointed out that many pre-Christian religions worshipped the natural world, and Christianity defined itself partially in opposition to that worldview. Writing in 1967 in Science, White argued, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. … By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

White’s bombshell has reverberated through the decades. Scholars still write entire books about it. And it came up in most of the interviews I conducted with academics and pastors.

“Christianity has been competing for market share against nature-venerating pagan groups from its inception, and that continues today,” says Lucas Johnston, a Wake Forest University professor who studies evangelicals and the environmental movement. “The Christians who rejected the environmental consciousness in the 1960s and ’70s perceived a dangerous, nature-venerating, pagan-esque religious sentiment.”

Although his theory has an off-putting whiff of anti-Christian bias, White was onto something. Browse the aggressive anti-environmentalist writing in Christianity today, and you’ll hear echoes of anti-animism.

Read the Cornwall Declaration, for example, a statement signed in 2000 by a collection of Christian leaders opposed to what they perceived to be a runaway environmental crusade. It’s sort of the Constitution of Christian anti-environmentalism. “We deny that forests and trees, mountains and rocks, oceans and lakes and streams, and animals are persons,” the declaration states. Without the context of Christianity’s anti-animist past, that statement seems wholly unnecessary.

Hunter, though, doesn’t buy any of this. “The animism idea means nothing to an average person,” he says. “That’s a theologically esoteric approach. No one I know thinks or talks about it.”

I talked to a series of evangelical Christians, none of whom agreed to be named. Many are obviously uncomfortable with the leftness of environmentalism—one of them told me that conservationists aren’t really “our people.” And while none of my “evangelical on the street” interviews revealed an explicit aversion to animism, there was an inchoate sense that aggressive environmentalism was somehow ungodly.

“What’s animism?” a New York evangelical asked when I probed him about White’s theory. After I told him it was the idea that animals and plants have spirits, he shrugged it off as an irrelevance. But he still added, “People are more important than animals or trees.” It was as if he had intuited White’s theory without knowing the fancy academic jargon.

Calvin Beisner, the primary author of the Cornwall Declaration, wrote to me in an email, “Plenty of environmentalists … have a pretty derogatory view of human beings. That results in phrases like ‘people pollution,’ ‘population bomb,’ or, as Rockefeller Foundation spokesman Merton Lambert put it in 1962, ‘The world has a cancer, and that cancer is man.’ I think a little differently. People aren’t pollution, they’re the solution.”

It’s so hard to tease apart the politics, the theology, and the simple indifference. Just as I spend very little time thinking about God, many Christians spend very little time thinking about the environment—so little time that maybe even they don’t understand the sources of their instincts.

“It is just not something that is discussed too often in the average Evangelical church,” says Hannah James, a Ph.D. candidate who studies these issues with Johnston. “It’s not vocally denounced, nor actively rejected, but it’s just not a concern or even on most churches’ theological radars.”

This is the challenge facing environmentalists. A large number of evangelicals, arguably the most powerful voting bloc in America, barely ever think about the environment. And when they do, the framework they’re working through suggests that they might be committing a venial sin by putting trees above people.

Thirty-seven years ago, in a discussion of conservation, Interior Secretary James G. Watt mused to Congress, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” You can draw a straight line backward from Scott Pruitt’s scripture-based support for oil exploration, through Watt’s wait-for-Jesus stewardship philosophy, to evangelical ambivalence for the environmental movement of the early 1970s. And if Lynn White Jr. is correct, you can keep drawing that line backward 2,000 years.

In other words, Scott Pruitt isn’t an anomaly. He’s carrying forth a tradition. your social media marketing partner


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+6 # Wise woman 2018-06-10 15:52
I may be wrong but I don't believe that evangelicals make up 25% of the population. That seems like an awfully high number. As one who does see the divinity in creation, I'm hard pressed to understand how so-called Christians can destroy something that even they acknowledge was created by their God. That they don't understand science either is of no surprise to me as their line of reasoning shows us. Everything on this planet is created from the same stuff including humans. Everything is made up of cells including humans. To believe that one thing is more important than another is sheer folly. We can't live without water. Yet it can and will destroy us in a heartbeat if we continue on this path. Stupid people are everywhere and too many of them are Christians. Somehow I think even the Pope agrees.
+7 # PABLO DIABLO 2018-06-10 22:35
These people believe in God without a shred of evidence. But they don't believe in "Climate Change" with mounting evidence. More important, do they want to take a chance that it's not real.
+8 # Blackjack 2018-06-10 23:50
When you're waiting for the "rapture" to sweep you up to the Heaven that you believe you have rightfully inherited, then you don't have to worry about the degradation that man brings to the planet. You will be immune to it and only the godless will be left to suffer the consequences. What's more, you are eager for that to happen. Truly pathological thinking, but try convincing the true believers otherwise. Their brains are frozen in an alternate universe.
+4 # lorenbliss 2018-06-11 00:47
Pruitt is most assuredly "not an anomaly," and he is infinitely more apocalyptic than Mr. Palmer realizes.

I first encountered Pruitt's views on church reader board c. 1970: "Organic Is Satanic"; the other side said, "Environmental Is Of The Devil."

That ecocidal malevolence originated in the era of talking snakes, loquacious burning bushes, fiery wheels from the malevolent male supremacy -- i.e., patriarchy -- so imposed.

Patriarchy's core principle is misogyny -- murderous hatred and sadistic contempt for all femaleness.

This was rank heresy to our ancient ancestors, who regarded femaleness -- particularly that of our Mother Earth -- as the sacred source of life and being.

But patriarchy won because its adherents were the JesuNazis of their time: better weapons and the god-is-on-our-s ide moral imbecility to find joy in genocide.

From that victory came not only Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), but all its associated misogyny, "Environmental Is Of The Devil" included.

Thus the "line backward" goes not to Muhammad or Jesus or Moses but straight back maybe 6,000 years to that first talking snake who sold our species on patriarchy -- the apocalyptic toxin that (just as I suspect was intended) -- will soon render us extinct and reduce our Mother Earth to a bug planet.

(Patriarchy as the theological equivalent of smallpox-infect ed blankets? That raises all sorts of questions...)
+5 # tedrey 2018-06-11 02:58
I think the connection is more direct. Christianity always denigrated the natural world. The faithful are not supposed to be confortable in it, it is given over to Satan, the true life of the believer will be in heaven, and he must not spend time worrying about the fate of this one. Some of those who still believe such things are actually hoping for a nuclear war over Jerusalem with all its environmental horrors -- that will fulfil their version of scripture, and God won't leave *them* behind on Earth to experience them.
+5 # RLF 2018-06-11 05:21
This is like Europe in the 1700's. Religious people thought that nature was was everything man fought to not be. The only good nature was an English garden where it was trained absolutely.
+3 # Kootenay Coyote 2018-06-11 08:25
‘God’: or Mammon? Fundamentalists appear grimly devoid of discernment here. & singularly: the ‘This world is not my home….’ attitude is rejection of the gift of the Cosmos, & profoundly Antichristian. The Early & Mediaeval, at least Celtic, church had very different ideas.
+3 # Jim Rocket 2018-06-11 09:20
Wow! So many strange ideas. “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” This seems to be, at its heart, a death cult. What we do on Earth has no effect because God is going to destroy it all soon anyway.

Also there seems to be a big divide in followers of Jesus. Some seem to follow the actual teachings of Jesus and others seem to be down with Emperor Constantine's vision of Christianity... as a useful tool in manipulating the masses and running a smooth Empire. Fairly big difference!
+2 # chrisconno 2018-06-11 10:24
Do these christians really believe god created us in the vacuum of space. If I were to believe in god I would also have to believe that the Earth was his gift of life to us and that we must be good stewards of that gift of life. Do these christians really believe that there were no good christians in Flint Michigan? Do they really believe we can poison our food with toxins and never have to worry? It seems as if to be a good christian one just has to be blind to all that isn't profitable in the moment. Evangelicals also seem to value only their selfish little circle as if Jesus and god were exclusive to them. I thought they didn't believe in suicide.
+3 # Kiwikid 2018-06-11 15:47
The problem is eschatological. The Evangelical mind believes that this world will end in a blaze of all consuming fire. Fortunately for them, they won't be here to see it - they'll have been taken to heaven to be with Jesus. So, they don't really care about the earth - its doomed for destruction anyway. It's the people that matter.
In my own view, they have misread the Bible, seeing its word's through fear based lenses and come to the conclusions drawn above.
+3 # Wise woman 2018-06-12 04:46
Thank you lorenbliss for giving us this his-tory lesson. You are absolutely correct but coming from a man in our misogynistic environment is vital. Anti-feminists might consider your words before they would mine.
I think it's very difficult for most men to own up to what they've done and continue to do. That they've convinced many women that their ways are correct and shouldn't be questioned, is tragic. It's led us down this sorry path.
0 # lorenbliss 2018-06-12 22:29
Thank you, Wise Woman. I got my initial education in this realm from some remarkably strong independent women in my own family, particularly a maternal aunt who was the first woman in the U.S. to head a collegiate fine-arts department and my paternal grandmother, a Scot who simply because of her Celtic genes was a feminist long before the word existed.

But the lessons implicit in their lives were not refined by personal-to-pol itical transformation until I spent summer 1970 on a rural Pacific Northwest agricultural commune where my bedtime reading was the one book I had impulsively run back inside to snatch from my fairly extensive Manhattan home library, Robert Graves' "White Goddess."

It had seemed incomprehensibl e when I had read it c. 1967 in the City; a colleague had given it to me after I (without truly knowing what I was saying) asserted the Easter Be-In was ritual "older than god."

But three years later amidst riverside Red Alders grown huge in back-country isolation and cedars and firs darkly tall and stately on mountains that almost literally dance into the sea; proximity of ravens (and therefore of Raven); and perhaps most of all the Northern Lights so intense you could sometimes hear them (crackle and hiss) -- under those conditions nearly everything Graves says makes perfect sense.

Since then, Barbara Mor's "Great Cosmic Mother" reveals our same suppressed history in much more accessible form.
0 # lorenbliss 2018-06-12 23:03
Continuing my response to WiseWoman:

My own contribution to the dialogue of which we were speaking – 24 years of after-work and weekend research that culminated in a book entitled “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer” – was destroyed by fire at the same instant I was dinner-meeting with a longtime publishing-indu stry friend who believed it would be one of the pivotal books of the 20th Century and intended to mother it to mainstream publication.

Arguing from evidence within the folk music renaissance and its transitions and the cultural consciousness so nurtured, “Dancer” defined the Counterculture as the first wave of a revolution against patriarchy and so (potentially) united environmentalis ts and feminists and anti-war activists and back-to-the-lan ders in hitherto-imposs ible solidarity

Point being, the destruction of my own work illustrates both sides of what you are saying: the absolute necessity of dissemination by males, and the equally absolute lengths to which our overlords will go to prevent that from happening.

Let us therefore most profoundly hope they don't conjure up some means of eradicating oral tradition.

That said, again thanks.

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