« Return to this article

Know the West

Evangelicals are coming to the (earth's) rescue


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Being an "evangelical environmentalist" is much like being an advocate of "sustainable economic development' - both positions attract the label "oxymoronic." I drive people up a wall because I am all for all four ideals: sustainable use of resources, economic growth, evangelical theology and witness, and an environmental care and practice.

As an evangelical pastor who is also an environmentalist and an executive director of a nonprofit sustainable economic-development corporation, why am I seen by some as inhabiting two conflicting worlds? I blame it on Lynn White Jr.

White is a former professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who convincingly argued in the late 1960s that today's ecological crises can be blamed on Christian arrogance toward nature.

In a now famous article in Science magazine, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," White also pointed out that technology is not going to solve our problems because it, too, is powered by a belief in dominion over nature that leads to limitless exploitation.

On one point, White and the emerging evangelical environmental movement agree: "Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not," White wrote.

While giving Christianity some deserved criticism, White presented a very limited view of the Christian view of religion. That limited view, combined with the environmental world's already negative take on Christianity, and its desire to find a bogeyman to blame for the ecological crisis, brewed an anti-religious potion that has poisoned relationships between faith communities and conservationists. White's work has become the final word on Christianity's supposed posture toward creation, which environmentalists tell us is "dominion theology."

Interestingly, 99 out of 100 evangelical Christians have never heard of "dominion theology" and would be appalled to discover that it is attributed to us. Most of us would be shocked to learn that we are portrayed as not caring about environmental damage, because Jesus is coming and the earth is going to be burned up in "The End."

Uninformed environmentalists teach dominion theology as the predominant Christian view of the earth far more than Christian clergy ever do. In 25 years of ministry I have never heard a sermon on "dominion theology" as an excuse for mistreating the earth.

Another false perception is that all evangelicals are fundamentalists. We are also told that environmental convictions belong exclusively to liberals, and that we cannot be liberals and be faithful evangelicals.

It is time for those on both the left and the right to realize that our political loyalties are making solutions all the more difficult, and that environmentalism should be freed from political ownership.

Obviously, we all have a lot to learn, at least some of it with help from those on the other side. A growing number of us in the evangelical community are discovering that the basis of our faith - the Bible - has more than subtle references to care for the earth. Indeed, it has a steady, resounding chorus of clear earth-stewardship theology, from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation.

Why didn't we realize that earlier? Christianity's lack of earth-care theology and activism comes from selfishness, from fear that environmentalism will somehow compromise our spirituality, and from our belief that humans are the apex of all life.

It seems to me that the primary cause for humankind's disregard for the environment is not dominion theology but matters of the heart - materialism and narcissism. And there is also science. Here's what Tony Campolo, an evangelical and a sociologist, wrote in his book, How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshipping Nature:

"Those who blame Christianity for diminishing the sacredness of the world should take an honest look at the scientific rationalism that followed the Cartesian intellectual revolution ... The loss of mystery and awe about nature and the sense that we alone in all of creation have subjective feelings - these have contributed to the mindset that accepts the destruction of the environment as a necessary evil. Science has brought on a loss of emotional affinity, and that has caused all the trouble."

In short, we can throw blame at each other, and each of us can be right. Christians have not looked directly at their responsibility as caretakers. And environmentalists have not asked whether they can solve the earth's problems without religious faith.

But too much is at stake for us to allow our active sense of each other's defects to keep us apart.

Evangelicalism could be the source of the greatest impact in earth care since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring captured the minds and hearts of the American public. A solid biblical earth-care theology exists and remains to be preached. Evangelicals are Bible people, first and foremost. We'll "get it."

And once we do, you better get out of the way.

Dan'l Markham is executive director of The Willapa Alliance, in southwest Washington. He can be reached at P.O. Box 1, Ilwaco, WA 98624 (360/642-3784 or e-mail at [email protected]).