Dr. Gushee is an internationally recognized Holocaust scholar and ethicist. His current research interests focus on issues emerging at the intersection between Christian faith, ethics and public policy. He has written or edited 12 books, including:
- Religious Faith, Torture, and Our National Soul
- The Future of Faith in American Politics
- Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context.
- Christians and Politics Beyond the Culture Wars
Dr. Gushee has engaged as an activist and public intellectual on a number of controversial issues. Of particular relevance here, Dr. Gushee was the principal drafter of the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative and remains deeply involved in efforts to address climate change and other environmental issues. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he was contacted by candidate Barack Obama and he spoke at the 2008 Democratic Convention.
There is an interesting story behind how I met Dr. Gushee. In December 2006, the Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard Medical School and the National Association of Evangelicals held a first-of-its-kind retreat to unite 30 faith leaders and scientists on issues of climate change and global warming. Among the scientists attending were E.O. Wilson, Jim Hansen, and Gus Spaeth. The retreat was held at an old plantation in Malvern, GA, and I was privileged to attend. Not knowing much about evangelicals, I had no idea what to expect of this meeting. One thing that I did not expect was to encounter such a deep and profound thinker as Dr. David Gushee. When Dr. Gushee moved to to Mercer University (in Atlanta), we reconnected and we have participated in events at each other’s institution.
One thing that I learned from this retreat was that many evangelicals view their religion as being consistent with evolution, and one of the participants, Reverend Ken Wilson, send me the book by Francis Collins entitled The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Without further ado, lets hear from Dr. Gushee.
JC: Can you characterize evangelicalism, and give us some demographics (both in the U.S. and if relevant world wide)
DG: Evangelicalism is a term generally used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians. There are a variety of more technical definitions of the characteristics of evangelicalism. In my book, The Future of Faith in American Politics (http://tinyurl.com/29tm6gj), I name three possible approaches for defining evangelicals: one is by denominations (ex. Southern Baptists), one is by the specific content of religious beliefs (ex: high view of the authority of the Bible, belief that Christ died for the salvation of all), and one is by self-definition (ex: when asked what they believe, the person says that they are “evangelical”). Combining these measures and various surveys, it is estimated that some 25% of the US population is evangelical. Ninety percent of these evangelicals are white, but there are also a very large number of black and Hispanic evangelicals. Globally, it is estimated that there are 420,000,000 evangelicals, over half of them non-white. Evangelicalism, especially the highly emotive and Spirit-oriented version of evnagelicalism known as Pentecostalism, is the fastest growing form of Christianity in the world by far. Evangelicalism should not be confused with fundamentalism, which is a rigidly conservative version of religion that surfaces in every religious tradition, including Protestantism.
JC: Give us some history on the involvement of evangelicals in the climate change debate (and politics).
DG: Evangelicals are politically divided even if one can broadly describe a shared religious paradigm. In the popular mind, most associate American evangelicalism with conservative politics, and this has been largely the case since the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1970s. But even during the headiest days of the Christian Right, there were always alternative and dissenting voices. This is a reminder that evangelical theology doesn’t have to mean conservative politics; indeed, there is quite a ferocious debate within evangelicalism over what kind of politics is best read off of the witness of the Bible whose authority we all believe in.
In my book on faith and politics, I suggest that as of 2008 roughly half of white evangelicals remained politically conservative, perhaps 15% liberal, and 35% centrist. Recent conservative gains would probably shrink the center category in favor of the conservative. I think it is predictable that no matter who runs in the 2012 presidential election against Barack Obama, around 70% of white evangelicals will vote for the Republican. Latino evangelicals are more fluid in their voting patterns at this stage and black voters are more liberal in their voting even while theologically conservative.
So a strong majority of white evangelicals in the United States (every term there is significant–this is a white, US pattern) tend to vote Republican and to hold to a politically conservative ideology. Therefore it is not a surprise (sadly) that going back to the emergence of environmentalism in the 1960s-1970s, most white evangelicals were either disinterested or opposed to environmentalism. Sometimes this was due to (in my view, spurious) religious reasons, such as the fear that environmentalism as a whole was characterized by non-Christian or anti-Christian eligious beliefs or presuppositions. Other times it was clearly related to a generalized anti-“left” politics, with environmentalism being treated as a cause of the left.
The climate change debate didn’t really surface in evangelicalism until the early part of the 21st century. Few American evangelicals knew much about the ongoing development of climate science and the growing consensus that the climate was changing primarily due to human activity. Few of us had even heard of the IPCC and a UN process to study the climate and to trigger policy responses as the science solidified.
The climate issue was brought to my attention through the work of the Evangelical Environmental Network, led by Rev. Jim Ball. This small evangelical group had been around since the early ’90s and was indeed paying attention to climate science. EEN played a convening role in 2004 in getting some leading evangelicals together to listen to the findings of climate scientists like the evangelical Briton Sir John Houghton, who played a key role in the IPCC. Many of us found Dr. Houghton and others quite convincing. We agreed together to try to mobilize the evangelical community from what was, at the time, mainly a stance of apathy and disinterest.
JC: Tell us about your own involvement in the climate change debate
DG: The 2004 creation care conference that I just mentioned was followed by an effort to draft a simple but significant statement on climate change. It came to be known as the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and I was the principal drafter of the statement. See http://christiansandclimate.org/. The statement, which was released in 2006, basically says: 1) human-induced climate change is real, 2) the consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest, 3) Christian moral convictions demand our response to the climate change problem, and 4) We need to act now–governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play. It should be noted that the IPCC was treated as foundational for the claims of this document, though the statements of the various national scientific academies were also cited.
About six dozen key evangelical leaders signed the original statement, and it made a major media splash. But then the pushback came, and it was fierce. A newly organized group, eventually known as the Cornwall Alliance (http://www.cornwallalliance.org/), offered a counter-statement and now exists as a counter-voice to the Evangelical Environmental Network. This group questions mainstream climate science, questions the seriousness of the impact of climate change, expresses worry that the major policy responses under consideration will actually hurt the poor, and is especially negative about government regulation of business activity in the name of climate. I read them as being motivated by a strongly libertarian, laissez-faire economic ideology and a strongly Calvinist theology which leads them to doubt that God would permit human beings to have any serious impact on the climate.
It seems to me that the general turn toward climate skepticism in the US setting over the last couple of years has been influenced by the efforts of this group and others like it. The economic downturn has everyone concerned about doing anything that might negatively affect business and prosperity, and American evangelicalism has tended to revert toward its instinctive political conservatism. For now at least, the ECI looks to have been a high water mark of evangelical environmental activism as it relates to climate change.
JC: What are the ingredients of evangelical climate skepticism? How does creationism play into this?
DG: I have suggested in some public lectures that there are several ingredients of evangelical climate skepticism:
1) Disdain for the environmental movement
2) Distrust of mainstream science in general (evolution vs. creationism is indeed a factor here for some)
3) Distrust of the mainstream media (nicely captured by Sarah Palin’s derisive term “lamestream media”)
4) Loyalty to the Republican Party
5) Libertarian economics as God’s will–God is opposed to government regulation or taxation
6) Misunderstandings of divine sovereignty–God won’t let us ruin creation
7) Unreconstructed Dominion theology–Genesis 1–God calls human beings to subdue and rule creation
To summarize, then: God is sovereign over creation and therefore humans can do no permanent damage. God entrusted the earth to human dominion and we should not be afraid of economic development or other uses of human creativity. God established government for very limited purposes such as providing for the common defense–government should not intervene much in the workings of a free market economy. The Republican Party has taken a skeptical posture toward climate and we support that posture and that party. The media is overplaying climate change worries, at the behest of scientists who cannot be trusted anyway; it may all be a conspiracy to limit our personal and business freedoms and tax us even more. The environmental movement is secular/pagan and has always been a threat to American liberties and has always been anti-business and exaggerated environmental problems.
Nice worldview, huh? I disagree with just about every word of it.
JC: Tell us about Creation Care and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
DG: My one-year-old activist organization, the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (www.nepcg.org ) includes commitment to care of God’s creation as one of its core planks. We never thought that climate change was the only environmental concern worth caring about but we do believe that climate remains at risk and that the broad patterns identified by the IPCC and others are indisputable. We are looking for creative ways to reach the hearts and minds of evangelicals in a time when many remain highly skeptical of the entire climate issue.
Can I say one thing for the scientists who read this? Laypeople like us (in terms of science) need good science from your side. We depend on the accuracy and credibility of your findings. To the extent, for example, that ECI’s claims were based on IPCC, and to the extent that IPCC got a little sloppy or a little carried away with advocacy, our own efforts to work within our community have been damaged.
I am the son of an MIT-trained chemical engineer who did environmental policy analysis for the Congressional Research Service. I am among those evangelicals who can handle the push and pull, ebb and flow, and constantly unfinished nature of real scientific research. I trust this kind of science and need to be able to trust it to do good teaching and advocacy. So let’s agree on a division of labor in which climatologists and other scientists offer the unvarnished truth about where your research stands at any given moment, what is both known and unknown, and we can craft our advocacy claims realistically based on what you are finding. I fear that in the white-hot spotlight of climate science sometimes this care has been lost on all sides. It has to some extent set back progress toward the shared human task of environmental stewardship and responsibility. But I remain at least tentatively confident that human beings will get their act together on climate change before it is too late.
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