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Christians and climate change: Southern California churches preach very different messages

Crews started installing solar panels this week on the red tile roof at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. Pastor Mark Davis said the project, once complete, should easily power the church’s entire 7-acre campus.

Last year, many of St. Mark’s 550 members attended a meeting, in keeping with Presbyterian doctrine, to vote on taking out a loan to finance the $200,000 solar project. There was some spirited debate about the financial implications, Davis said with a chuckle, but in the end members gave the project an enthusiastic green light. They see the panels as key to St. Mark’s goal of going completely carbon neutral by 2030.

“My message is that it’s an ethical imperative that we focus on the common good,” Davis said. At his church, he said, congregants are regularly encouraged to think about protecting “the flora and the fauna, the dirt, the water, the air — all of the things that it takes to sustain life.”

An hour’s drive to the east, on the other side of the Santa Ana Mountains, parishioners at 412 Church Temecula Valley are getting very different guidance about climate issues.

“From the Biblical perspective, it is an exercise in futility to try and save the planet,” said Tim Thompson, pastor of the conservative Murrieta church.

Thompson preaches that climate change is a “man-made issue.” But instead of saying it’s environmental degradation caused by human activity, he describes it as a talking point invented by humans “to distract people from other issues that really matter.”

“Sadly, many Christians have bought into this wicked ideology, and have joined others in the worship of the creation, rather than worshiping the One who created it all.”

A computer screen shows Pastor Tim Thompson leading an online Sunday Service at the Christian '412 Church Murrieta' on April 19, 2020 in Murrieta, California.Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP) (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)
A computer screen shows Pastor Tim Thompson leading an online Sunday Service at the Christian ‘412 Church Murrieta’ on April 19, 2020 in Murrieta, California.Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP) (Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images)

There are, of course, climate advocates and skeptics in every religious and nonreligious community. But poll after poll shows that, while believers of most of the world’s major religions are as much or more concerned about climate change as the general public, there are — as the two Southern California churches illustrate — widespread and wild swings in climate beliefs among the nearly two-thirds of American who identify as Christians.

Just 31% of white evangelicals accept the scientific consensus that climate change is caused mostly by human activity, per an October survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. That’s vs. 54% of non-evangelical Christians; 61% of all Americans; 70% of Americans who identify as Jewish, Muslim or other religions; and 90% of atheists.

These gaps also are growing. While Americans overall are more likely to consider climate change a crisis today than they did a decade ago, the poll shows the share of white evangelicals who view climate change that way dropped this year from 13% to 8%.

The number of Americans who identify as conservative Christians also is shrinking, another recent PRRI study shows, and at a much faster clip than the broader decline in Americans’ affiliation with organized religion. The most common reason people gave for why they switched or ditched their affiliation was that they “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings.”

“It’s no secret that young people are leaving the church,” said Tori Goebel, a national organizer for the nonprofit group Young Evangelicals For Climate Action.

“In my experience, it is not necessarily out of loss of faith or even anger, but more frustration at the perceived and very real hypocrisy of not taking our calling to love our neighbor seriously, especially through the lens of climate action.”

While fewer Americans say they’re evangelical, the percentage of conservative Christians in Congress — who have the power to approve laws and funding aimed at tackling climate change — is growing. Many of these lawmakers, as with many conservative Christian churches, simply don’t discuss climate issues. Others cite their faith to explain why they oppose government action to address the problem.

“As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us,” GOP Rep. Tim Walberg has said. “And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

The issue of climate change has become so politically entangled that Emma Frances Bloomfield, a communications professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who wrote a book about climate skepticism and Christianity, said some young people told her they’re afraid to “come out” to their fellow Christians as environmentalists out of fear of being labeled too “liberal.”

“If we can move climate change out of politics and say, ‘This is an arena where religion can weigh in,’ I think that’s ultimately going to be positive,” Bloomfield said.

Younger Christians tend to be much more open to this idea, Goebel said. But she acknowledged that getting older believers, and those who’ve grown up in more conservative households, to come onboard is no easy feat given how deep the distrust of science can run in some Christian circles.

It wasn’t always that way, Bloomfield noted.

“Originally, scientists were natural philosophers, natural theologists, who are paid by the church to learn more about God’s world. So a lot of the original scientists were deeply faithful,” she said. “But then when incompatibilities started to arise between what the Bible says in a literal sense vs. what experiments and empirical data were showing, there began to be tension.”

That tension boiled over nearly a century ago during the Scopes Monkey Trial, when a teacher was accused of violating Tennessee law by discussing evolution in his classroom. That started what has become a strong anti-science sentiment in conservative Christian circles, which Bloomfield noted was clear during the debate around COVID-19 vaccines.

This schism didn’t always extend to environmentalism, though. While some conservatives have long used Bible verses that discuss humans having “dominion” over creation as justification for using the planet’s resources, efforts to address air and water quality issues had broad support for decades from Americans of all stripes.

Goebel cites Genesis 2:15, where God instructs Adam and Eve to tend to the Garden of Eden.

“I like to refer to that as one of our first job descriptions,” she said. “Right away, we see that there is a connection and a command to care for creation.”

Goebel said she feels closest to God when she’s outside, in nature.

“For evangelicals, for people who are passionate about sharing the love of Christ with those around them, protecting nature can be a really meaningful way to do that,” she said.

Many evangelicals still support this view, and environmental science programs are offered at local Christian colleges such as California Baptist University. But one thing the program’s website doesn’t mention is climate change, a disconnect that Goebel attributes to years of “misinformation campaigns.”

In the early 1990s, as the science around climate change started to become clear, so did the media campaigns to call that science into question. Much of that messaging was economically motivated, study after study shows, with fossil fuel companies funding studies and conservative think tanks that cast doubt on the idea that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.

Some tactics were particularly directed at Christians. In 1992, when Pres. George H.W. Bush signed a document with leaders of 177 other countries calling for global action around sustainability right-wing groups like the John Birch Society, which had deep roots in Orange County, suggested it was paving the way for the “one-world government” prophesized in Revelations.

So while St. Mark Pastor Davis and other evangelicals are celebrating the fact that the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference will have the first-ever “Faith Pavilion” — bringing together leaders from many faiths to discuss climate issues — some evangelicals see it as another step on the march toward end times.

The belief that this world will soon end is another reason some Christians cite for dismissing climate concerns. If the planet is warming, the reasoning goes, then that’s God’s will. And who are we to interfere or think we can change anything?

“Whether or not the climate is changing is irrelevant,” Thompson said. “According to the Bible, God is going to destroy this planet and create a new one.”

He cites 2nd Peter 3:10, which says “both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”

Asked to respond to such interpretations, Davis paused and looked down before saying quietly, “I find that a very disheartening view of God.”

“Part of the challenge is to discern the difference between trusting in a providential God and throwing everything into the wind as fate.” Yes, Davis said, God is providential and powerful. But Davis said the whole message of Jesus Christ is that instead of God overriding our free will, he visits us and invites us to make “powerful, moral, sacrificial, courageous decisions.” Davis believes that includes the decision to act on climate change for the good of all people.

Pastor Mark Davis at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, on Wednesday, November 15, 2023. The church is in the process of installing solar panels on some of its buildings. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Pastor Mark Davis at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, on Wednesday, November 15, 2023. The church is in the process of installing solar panels on some of its buildings. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“Environmental issues are, by nature, issues of justice,” he said, citing how climate-impacted natural disasters are already hitting poor people hardest. As climate change continues to unfold, he said, we’ll increasingly be tempted to “take care of us and ours” alone. “If that happens, we all lose. That anxiety typically leads to a fear that often leads to violence. And that’s why it’s so important that we imprint upon ourselves this idea that because of who God is, because of who we are as created by God, we are in this together.”

To that end, along with installing solar panels, St. Mark’s has stopped printing programs for Sunday services or offering single-use tableware for events. They also have a team auditing how they use energy. And Sallie Jane Super, who’s chairing the church’s Carbon Neutral Task Force, said they’re planning a sustainability fair on campus next year that will be open to the public.

Leaders from a variety of Christian denominations have spoken about these issues. Rick Warren, who founded the Lake Forest-based megachurch Saddleback, joined 86 Christian leaders in 2006 to form the Evangelical Climate Initiative to fight global warming. Pope Francis has continued to build on his 2015 encyclical that presented dire warnings on climate change and said believers have a moral obligation to act. And in 2021, the Pope, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox church and the head of the global Anglican communion took the unprecedented step of issuing a joint declaration on climate change.

One challenge for evangelicals who believe in fighting climate change is finding political leaders they can get behind, Bloomfield said. She noted that some are still deeply conservative politically, perhaps even seeing climate action as part of a broader “pro-life” mandate that includes opposition to abortion rights. There haven’t been many candidates who fit both bills in recent elections, as both parties move further from the center on a range of issues.

A key tenant of Young Evangelicals For Climate Action is encouraging believers to make it known that they want to combat climate change, Goebel said. They train young people to effectively broach the subject, with students from Pepperdine University and Point Loma recent fellows.

“We’ve been thankful to see an increase in interest and support from young folks in Southern California specifically,” she said.

Often, Goebel said, Christians only hear climate change messages from the media or from secular institutions that they might be inclined to distrust. So her group’s aim is to equip fellow Christians to be “trusted messengers” capable of having tough conversations with fellow believers.

A key, she said, is to approach these conversations with grace.

She often shares that she really wasn’t aware of the climate crisis until college, to show other Christians that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing something and then taking a different position based on new information.

“As we grow in our faith and in our journeys towards loving God,” she said, “it’s OK to change our minds.”

Source: Orange County Register

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