• Aaron Thorup, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, General Social Survey

    Evangelical Christian pastors frame environmentalism in religious terms

    For the past five years, Mitch Hescox has served as president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network. For 18 years before that, he served as a local church pastor. And for 14 years before that, he worked in America's coal industry.

    Vocationally speaking, he's undergone quite a transformation from designing equipment to grind coal for use in power plants to his current role raising awareness of faith-based environmental activism. But Hescox is much more concerned with the parts of himself that have stayed the same.

    Hescox explained that the common thread throughout his life has been "following Jesus' commandment to care for the least of these" and sharing his faith with others. As his latest job title lets on, he currently lives out those principles by advocating for "creation care," or faith-centered efforts to care for the environment.

    "I believe creation care is the greatest cause in the world today," he said. "And it's the easiest way to tell the story of God to new generations of young people."

    Hescox is among a growing number of evangelical Christian pastors who are making headway with their followers on the topic of environmental stewardship. A new study (paywall) examining the "Greening of Christianity" thesis among Americans states only evangelical Protestants showed significant growth in environmental concern from 1993 to 2010. Other Christians were relatively unfazed by reports of climate change and high-profile calls from within their denominations to go green.

    The key to these counterintuitive results, explained Katharine Wilkinson, author of "Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change" is that evangelical leaders like Hescox have found a way to bring religious values into a conversation once dominated by secular, political claims. And in doing so, they've paved the way for other religious leaders to do the same.

    "Most of the discourse around climate change is around science and economics and policy. It's not often cloaked in religious terms or even really in values terms," she said. "That, I think, is one of the things that evangelical leaders have done really well. They've reframed it."

    Most Christians aren't getting greener

    The "Greening of Christianity" study, co-authored by John Clements and Aaron McCright of Michigan State University and Chenyang Xiao of American University, used data from the 1993 and 2010 General Social Surveys to detail the faith community's ongoing struggle to get rank-and-file Christians involved in efforts to improve the environment.

    By tracking respondents' reported awareness of environmental dangers, willingness to pay for "green" initiatives and private pro-environmental efforts, the researchers concluded there's been little change in Christian attitudes toward the environment over the last 20 years.

    Among all Christian respondents, 44.4 percent reported being concerned by air pollution caused by cars in 2010, a 6.1 percent drop from 1993. Similarly, there was a 6.7 percent drop in willingness to pay higher prices to improve the environment and a 7.9 percent drop in willingness to pay higher taxes.

    However, Christians did report higher levels of concern about the pesticides and chemicals used in farming (from 37.7 percent in 1993 to 51.7 percent in 2010), a stronger proclivity to buy produce grown without chemicals (from 27 percent to 33.5 percent) and a willingness to cut back on driving a car (from 8.1 percent to 16.1 percent.)

    The study's brightest spot for environmental activists was evangelical Protestants. Although the group still showed lower levels of concern than Catholics and other Protestants, evangelical opinions shifted the most from 1993 to 2010. The group showed statistically significant increases in four of the 10 pro-environmental categories.

    Overall, the results were less positive than predicted, explained Clements, who now works at Central Michigan University, given that many denominational leaders have been actively engaged in environmental efforts since the early 1990s.

    The study's main takeaway was that denomination-wide pro-environment proclamations do little to impact the lives of everyday Christians, Clements said. Instead, success comes from consistent discussions of the issue at the congregational level.

    "If the environment is not already an important issue (for Christians) and they're not hearing about it from the pulpit," then high-profile decisions like divesting from fossil fuels will completely miss them, he said.

    Finding faith in the movement

    While working for the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation in the mid-2000s, Wilkinson witnessed firsthand the strained relationship between environmental activists and Christians.

    "I was struck by how often the environmental movement just seemed to speak right past folks it ostensibly should have been trying to engage," she said. "That megachurch-, NASCAR-, country music-part of the world couldn't have been farther away from the minds of most environmental leaders on the secular side."

    Further complicating the relationship was the movement's close association with liberal politics. Symbols of environmentalism like "riding bikes, local gardening and driving a Prius" were psychologically affiliated with the Democratic Party, Wilkinson explained. Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," solidified that association.

    Ministries like the Evangelical Environmental Network, however, gradually carved out a space for faith-based engagement with the issue over the past 21 years by invoking the teachings of Jesus Christ in their calls for Christians to be involved in environmental initiatives.

    "Our job was to translate that it's not about Al Gore; it's about Jesus Christ. It's not about polar bears; it's about our children," Hescox said.

    As the "Greening of Christianity" study illustrates, the shift didn't happen overnight. But growing concern for the environment among conservative evangelicals shows that it is possible to reimagine the role of religion in the environmental movement.

    Stewardship over partisanship

    In a 2010 study on religion and politics, Pew Research Center reported that few Americans credited their faith with influencing their stance on the environment.

    "Nearly half (47 percent) say their clergy speak out on the environment, almost always to encourage environmental protection. But just 6 percent say their own views on the environment are shaped primarily by their religious beliefs," Pew reported.

    To change that and to improve the results of a study like Clements' "Greening of Christianity," Christians need to be convinced that caring for the environment is part of living a faithful life, Hescox said.

    "What we teach congregations and pastors is that caring for God's creation is an act of discipleship. If the Earth belongs to God, we cannot have a complete relationship with God unless we care for what God takes care of," he said.

    Hescox's transformation into an "evangelical environmentalist" was inspired by his becoming aware through articles and conversations about possible links between environmental degradation and health disorders like breast cancer and asthma. Additionally, he said he was struck by how the issue enlivened young people and realized that he could lead people to a life in faith through their connection with the environmental movement.

    Hescox and other EEN representatives now travel across the country meeting with congregations to talk to them about small steps individuals can take to serve as stewards for the environment.

    "It's about helping people understand that (the environment) is not a political issue. It's a biblical issue," he said. "We have a moral responsibility to deal with it as Christians."

    One of Hescox's favorite examples of a small step individual congregations can take is the "Light Up the World in the Name of the Light of the World" project, which encourages churches to switch to energy-efficient technologies and use the money they save on energy bills to fund renewable energy sources in the developing world.

    Church members who don't consider themselves part of the environmental movement get excited about saving money and expanding mission work.

    **Taking action **

    Wilkinson believes that the strength of organizations like EEN is that its leaders don't just talk about getting involved with the environmental movement. They actually take action.

    "Mindsets don't actually lead to behavior changes," she said. "It's beginning to engage in things that can actually change your mindset."

    Wilkinson said local pastors have a crucial role to play as they can organize activities to help men and women understand their individual ability to make a difference. She said that growth of environmental concern in the evangelical community can be traced to small steps taken by individual Christians.

    "If somebody can get you onto a bike, you might have a different perspective about that bike at the end of the ride," Wilkinson said.

    Additionally, projects like a church-owned community garden can get people excited about evangelistic opportunities even if they aren't excited by the local food movement. It's easier to talk to someone about Christ when you're gardening next to them than approaching them at random, she said.

    "I think when you can find these sort of win-win scenarios that let you take some action," you should, Wilkinson said.

    Success comes when you convince people they can make a difference in a bigger movement, Hescox said. "It's going to take all of us together to reach these goals of caring for the Earth."

    Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas