by Ken Wilson
It’s not been a good year for the environment or for evangelicalism. I received an especially pained email from Carl Safina, our church’s “adopted scientist.” Carl and I, secular scientist and evangelical pastor, have worked together to bridge the historic divide between our respective communities. But my team isn’t making that easy lately. Case in point: Carl bemoaned the fact that prominent evangelical presidential candidates are anti-science; Governor Perry of Texas, for example, denies climate change while calling constituents to pray for rain in a time of drought (a predicted effect of climate change.)
Yes, well, what can I say? The anti-science posture of many Evangelical Christians in the United States is a major reason that we’re sitting idly by while the climate warms, threatening future generations and the vulnerable poor. I must confess the truth: The good news people are bad news for the environment.
If they had a voice those future generations would say, “Could you let up a little on the fossil fuels?” In response, many of my co-religionists insist on absolute-incontrovertible proof (rare in science) that climate change is caused by human activity. “I need absolute proof that I’m hurting you” is not a morally responsible response to someone who says, “What you are doing is hurting me.” When morality is thrown into the polarized cauldron of a culture war, moral reflection suffers.
But I could also say simply: some evangelicals don’t read their Bibles enough. That’s right. In a recent Baylor University study, the more people actually read their Bibles (which is a different activity than asserting without evidence, “The Bible says!”) the more likely they are to support modern science. Go figure.
That bit of encouraging news from Baylor University got me thinking. Is there any good news that I can offer scientists who are befuddled by what seems to be an electrified fence of resistance to science from people of evangelical faith?
Yes, in fact there is. Mind you, it doesn’t make me giddy. I wish I didn’t have to look so hard for some encouraging news for you. But we have to work together to keep our spirits up.
First, younger evangelicals are getting older and will eventually take over leadership from Baby Boomer evangelicals steeped in a culture war mentality.
Boomers are the children of the last “good war.” We adopted the culture war as a ruling metaphor, and rule it has through us. Younger evangelicals have lived with the fruits of inflamed polarization in a community. They are the children of divorce run wild. Problems that might have been addressed by their Baby Boomer parents will get worse and require more suffering and heroic leadership from younger generations as a result. So they are tired of the culture wars and don’t consider them worth winning. They realize one can win a culture war and lose a culture. They are more interested in culture repair.
Younger evangelicals are friendlier to science and the environment than are their elders. Yes, even that dread word “evolution” is losing its sting for younger evangelicals.
Major breakthroughs in this old and wearying fight are quietly emerging. For example Billy Graham, the progenitor of modern evangelicalism said this about evolution: “I don’t think there’s any conflict at all between Science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say. I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man….whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” (Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, by David Frost and Fred Bauer)
Francis Collins, a scientist of evangelical faith received the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in 2007 for The Language of God: A Scientists Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006). In his book, Collins offers a compelling defense of evolution as posing no threat to faith. This book is making its way through the evangelical world, especially among younger evangelicals tired of their parents’ culture wars.
Second, evangelicals who care about the spread of the gospel (which is supposed to be a concern of our movement) are waking up to some brutal facts.
Evangelicalism’s growth surge is over. Robert Putnam and David Campbell report in their recent demographic tour de force, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, that evangelicalism stopped growing in 1993 and is now in a period of slow decline. At the same time, the fastest growing group on the American religious landscape is called “the nones” (the religiously unaffiliated.) This group is right behind Roman Catholics and Evangelicals as the third largest “religious group” and gaining on them both because it’s the fastest growing group on the landscape. Somehow the current presentation of the evangelical good news is not perceived to be good by a growing number of people.
And the last time I checked, those receiving news have a vote on whether or not it is perceived to be good news or bad. (Theological aside: What would be the point of describing one’s message with the term “good news” if it weren’t perceived as good by those who hear it? Better to call it something conventional like “the way things are–so get used to it.”)
I’m in touch with hundreds of evangelical pastors. A growing number of them (especially younger ones) aren’t content to gather the already saved into evangelical ghetto churches. They want to learn how to be and bring good news to those on the outside of faith looking in. They know that hostility to science is not the way to do it.
Third, major evangelical leaders are rethinking the culture war approach.
They don’t know what to replace it with, but they know it’s not working and that’s the beginning of wisdom for those who believe that it is in the nature of good news to spread. These leaders may not be ready to come out and say, “We need a reboot” but they are thinking more deeply than ever about what’s wrong with their movement that it is not growing.
You’re simply not learning about this through the media. Religious coverage is getting worse, not better. Many newspapers have laid-off excellent religion reporters who specialized in this part of our world. (The same phenomenon has affected science reporting.) Much of the “new media” simply aggregates old media reporting and there’s not much left to aggregate. One notable exception to that rule: if you’re looking for a new media news source on all things religious, try www.readthespirit.com, run by David Crumm, one of the top religion writers who left the old media for the new.
Finally, there’s been a shift among American evangelicals in recent years: creation care is on the radar screen again.
Even those who deny climate science (and there are still many among us—and they have a media megaphone in this election year) are beginning to realize that environmental stewardship is a biblical mandate. In fact, in order to deny climate science, many evangelicals feel a need to add, “But we do have a biblical mandate to care for creation.” The felt need to acknowledge the legitimacy of creation care is new. Or better said, recovering. (Before the culture wars took hold, evangelicals supported conservation.) But once it’s (back) in the camp, creation care will exert its own logic; the burden of proof will slowly but inexorably shift toward facing, not denying environmental abuse.
An Appeal to Scientists to Have Mercy on Evangelicals
So it might appear to you that American evangelicalism is a monolithic powerhouse that’s entrenched in it’s cultural alignment with a political conservatism that has lost it’s way on conservation. Good Lord, it seems we are doing everything possible to give that impression. But beneath the surface the tectonic plates are shifting. Leaders who are aware of the big trends are thinking new thoughts and new thoughts do eventually lead to new actions.
So if you are person of science who cares about the moral implications of the global and growing environmental crisis, don’t give up on evangelicals. Don’t count on us just yet, but don’t give up on us. Our movement has a history of surprising people. It has a paradigm for change called “repentance”—a turning, a change of course.
I know it’s asking a lot. I’m asking for your mercy and your patience (mercy over time) at a time when urgency is the order of the day. I would understand if you decided not to extend it. That’s why it’s mercy I’m asking for.
Don’t believe the worst about us—it may only empower the worst in us. Keep the faith in building bridges. Reach out. Speak the truth in love to evangelicals you know. That will require looking for openness to conversation with evangelicals wherever it can be found.
We all should have been building this bridge fifty years ago when the impact of this divide and it’s potential for harm was clear. We’re paying the piper now for the fact that we didn’t then.
Besides, we simply have no other rational choice. The world is getting warmer and smaller. Blessed are the peacemakers, whoever they are.
Biosketch: Ken Wilson is the senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. He is the author most recently of Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back and Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer. Carl Safina and Ken Wilson are co-founders of the Friendship Collaborative, bringing together evangelical pastors and environmental scientists on University campuses.
JC note: As discussed on the previous evangelical thread (see also here), I attended a retreat in 2006 that included both faith leaders and scientists on the issue of global warming. The two faith leaders that made the biggest impression on me were David Gushee and Ken Wilson. I am delighted that Ken Wilson has agreed to engage with the Climate Etc. community.