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Environmental skepticism linked to specific factorscomment (0)

March 20, 2008

Conservative Christians have turned a cold shoulder to concerns about global warming, but ethicist David Gushee says he knows why.

"Climate change is among the most heavily reported stories — and in my view, one of the most significant human challenges — of the 21st century," said Gushee, a professor at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Macon, Ga.

Gushee spoke at the Texas Christian Life Conference, held March 3–4 in San Antonio. Attendees gathered to address a theme of Faith, Science and Ethics.

Cultural, ideological and theological factors combine to make many evangelicals skeptical about global warming, Gushee added. He said the "die-hard anti-climate-change soup" follows a recipe of disdain, distrust, mistrust, party loyalty, misunderstanding and a reluctance to "believe the unbelievable."

It all begins with disdain for the environmental movement, he said. Some conservative evangelical Christians associate environmentalists with the 1960s counterculture and "flower power" hippies, he noted.

Others equate the environmental movement in general with "non-Christian or eclectic eco-spiritualities: ‘It’s Pocahontas talking to spirits in the trees.’" A distrust of mainstream science also plays a role, because the scientific method that produces evidence for global warming also runs contrary to the biblical literalism that teaches the Earth was created in six days less than 10,000 years ago, Gushee said.

"Some use climate change as a proxy for endless fighting of evolution battles," Gushee said. And Christian talk radio thrives on generating conflict, he noted.

Furthermore many conservative evangelicals fail to understand the scientific peer-review process. They seize on a few of the findings of a few dissenting scientists rather than the peer-reviewed findings of international scientific panels.

"Think of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as [peer review] on steroids," he said.

A mistrust of mainstream media also contributes to the reluctance of some to take action. Gushee characterized the attitude as "if it’s in [The] New York Times, it must not be true."

Conservative niche news outlets and Christian talk radio reinforce preconceived perceptions that do not challenge the conventional wisdom of political ideologues, he said.

"There’s a need for Christian exposure to diverse news sources," he said. "The niching of the news has made it so that we never have to encounter an idea we don’t like."

In recent years, environmentalism has been linked to the Democratic Party. Former Vice President Al Gore "has become a lightning rod," attracting people who are skeptical about global warming because they view the issue through a political lens, Gushee said.

But that could be changing. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has bucked some in his own party by supporting legislation to reduce the level of greenhouse gasses.

"Whoever is elected president from among the remaining candidates, I believe we will have significant climate-change legislation. And it’s about time," Gushee said.

The belief in libertarian free-market economics as God’s will proves another challenge, since conservative Christians with a commitment to unfettered capitalism inherently are opposed to government intervention in the marketplace.

"Real or exaggerated worries about the economic effects of climate legislation," particularly on the poor, also figure into the equation, Gushee said. Some evangelicals genuinely fear that efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses will cause a loss of jobs and negatively impact the poor.

A resurgence of an extreme form of Calvinism "cuts the nerve of acute human responsibility," Gushee said. The belief that God ordains all things and therefore whatever occurs is destined as part of His plan leads to "the obscenity of complacency."

Dominion theology finishes the mix of reasons why some adherents to the religious right overlook global warming as a legitimate concern.

A reading of Genesis that focuses on the idea of human dominion over creation — the idea that God gave people free reign to exploit the earth for their own benefit — needs to be re-examined, Gushee urged.

Rather than sipping the stew of die-hard climate-change skepticism, Gushee offered another entrée.

"A better path is to apply the best scientific resources in conversation with the best theological reflection to discern what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ today," he said. (ABP)

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