Bonnie Kristian is the author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community. She is a columnist at Christianity Today and has been published at outlets including The New York Times, The Week, Reason, and The Daily Beast. Read MoreRead More
How Evangelicals Became Climate Skeptics
To change minds, first you have to understand them.
Bonnie Kristian •
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images
Evangelicals have a reputation as America’s biggest climate change deniers, religious obsessives who’ve let ancient prophecies for the end of the world preclude rational acceptance of environmental science. The “climate alarmist cult want[s] you to think the world is gonna end in 12 years,” longtime Fox host Sean Hannity, apparently eager to fulfill the stereotype, said last year. “My feeling is: If it really was gonna end in 12 years, to hell with it all! Let’s have one big party for the last 10 years, and then we’ll all go home and see Jesus.”
That language won’t surprise anyone familiar with long-standing polling data and political theorizing on (white) evangelicals and climate change. “In general,” as a 2022 Pew Research study summarized, “evangelical Protestants tend to be the most likely of all major U.S. religious groups to express skeptical views” of climate science. And by Pew’s count, evangelicals are both the single largest religious group in the country and markedly more homogenous as a voting bloc than the two next largest factions, “nones” and Catholics. For environmental activists looking for the single greatest public obstacle to climate policy progress, then, evangelicals are the obvious pick.
But American evangelicals aren’t uniformly skeptical of climate science, and even among those who say climate change is real but caused by “natural patterns” (36 percent) or who deny the change altogether (17 percent), a straightforward narrative of wild-eyed apocalypticism is misleading at best. Yet so too is a simple story of political partisanship, a glib assumption that evangelicalism is irrelevant if we’re already dealing with Republicans.
For many evangelical climate skeptics, particularly those who came of age in the last quarter of the 20th century, theology, politics, history, and culture are tightly interwoven on this issue, reinforcing one another in ways that may not be apparent outside the subculture. There’s no way to untangle those factors, to address politics and ignore theology or vice versa. To understand — let alone shift — evangelical thinking on climate change, you have to see the whole tapestry of influences.
Imagine a white evangelical boomer who votes Republican and is skeptical of anthropogenic climate change. He may have first heard about global warming in the 1970s, perhaps in connection to Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, a dire prediction of explosive overpopulation, environmental degradation, and mass famine. (The book is newsy again because of Ehrlich’s recent appearance on 60 Minutes, but suffice it to say the forecasts didn’texactlyhold up.) Or maybe this boomer started paying attention to climate policy in the early 2000s, when lifestyle changes like recycling were going mainstream and the climate cause was championed by former Vice President Al Gore, newly loosed from his role as second-in-command to evangelical bête noire Bill Clinton.
It wasn’t inevitable, at this point, that our imagined evangelical Republican would reject the notion of human-caused climate change.
We can envision, for example, an alternate history in which free market types opposed pollution on private property grounds; gun-toting cultural conservatives followed in Teddy Roosevelt’s footsteps as rugged conservationists; and evangelicals — asmany have, in fact, done — became champions of “creation care” whose end times theology told them to partner with God in restoring the world.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Our evangelical boomer likely learned about climate change from people who were already his political and social opponents: people with whom he disagreed on a host of other issues, people who protested wars he supported and maybe denounced the religion that gave his life meaning, people who might have even told him he was killing the planet by having his third kid. Evangelicals see climate activism “as another political movement out to get them, one that hates big families,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson toldThe Washington Post in 2017.
Meanwhile, evangelicals’ political allies — which, with increasing uniformity, meant Republicans — insisted climate science wasn’t a sure thing. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly,” advised an early 2000s memo by GOP strategist Frank Luntz. “Therefore you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.'”
Republicans talking to evangelical constituents wouldn’t have had a hard sell here, because evangelicals’ recent history made skepticism about climate science unusually easy to swallow. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 and subsequent political scuffles over the origins of the Earth had long since primed the movement to be leery of scientific expertise.
And then there’s the eschatology: theological beliefs about the end of the world as we know it. Our imagined boomer came of age when Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earthwas “the top-selling nonfiction book” of the decade. He’d probably read it and come away convinced that signs of the nearing apocalypse would be reported on the nightly news.
“Christian fascination with the end of the world has existed for a very long time,” as evangelical scholar Mark A. Noll explained in his landmark work, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, first published in 1994, but “recent evangelical fixation on such matters — where contemporary events are labeled with great self-confidence as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies heralding the End of Time — has been particularly intense.” In the framework of Late Great and its many imitators, any crisis could be interpreted as birth pangs of the apocalypse.
But despite the many images of environmental catastrophe in the book of Revelation, Christians’ primary apocalyptic text, the end of the world couldn’t come from manmade global warming. It would come from God (and probably the Soviet Union). The scientists were talking up the wrong apocalypse. And anyway, the story ends happily, with God “making everything new.” As theologian N.T. Wright has summarized the Christian anti-environmentalist position: “Why wallpaper the house if it’s going to be knocked down tomorrow?”
For outside observers, it might appear that evangelicals’ religious beliefs are driving their policy preferences. But the reality isn’t that tidy. The Late Great mindset was inextricably about politics and current events; its interest was as much — or more — in the leaders and headlines of the day as in the meaning of centuries-old scripture. And that kind of entanglement is a constant feature of evangelical thinking about climate.
For instance, the most comprehensive recent research into the role of evangelicals’ religious beliefs in shaping their climate politics likely comes from an October 2022 paper by political scientists Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge in the Politics and Religion journal of Cambridge University Press. The authors come to two key conclusions.
First, political ideology and party affiliation are the best predictors of climate attitudes: “Democrats are more likely to agree that the [federal government should do more to fight climate change], while Tea Party and Republican identifiers are more likely to disagree.”
And second, evangelicals who accept the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change are indistinguishable from other Americans on federal climate policy. It’s only among climate skeptics that evangelicals stand out (they’re unusually opposed to federal action). This means “religious beliefs are only effective when certain secular beliefs are held,” Djupe and Burge write.
It might be tempting to thus assume that evangelical views on climate matter a lot less than Republican skepticism of science. All that stuff about God and the end times isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the main factor.
Yet that verdict rests on a big assumption: that evangelicals’ acceptance or rejection of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is indeed a secular belief. For many Americans, that’s a self-evidently nonreligious topic. But for lots of evangelicals, it’s not secular at all. It’s inseparable from explicit theological convictions about how God operates in history, from worries about whether “scientific materialism” leaves any room for divine purpose for humanity, and from a lingering, subconscious mindset that philosopher Charles Taylor called living in an “enchanted world,” a world in which invisible spiritual forces can have real influence over everything from intrusive thoughts to natural disasters.
Younger generations of American evangelicals are markedly more likely to be concerned about climate change and supportive of federal policy intervention. That tracks with generational, political shifts among Republicans, but it tracks with theological and cultural trends, too. Environmentally conscious lifestyle choices have long been normalized. Each generation’s mindset seems less enchanted than the last. And after 50 years of apocalypticism unfulfilled, millennial and gen-Z evangelicals are less interested in eschatology and prophecy-inflected politics. It’s “barely worth considering,” a 2009 essay on evangelical generation gaps explained, “unless, of course, we are mocking Left Behind among our peers.”
Evangelical climate politics were never just partisanship or just religion. For better and worse, it was always both. The rise of evangelical climate skepticism was a messy, multi-causal thing. Its decline among new generations of evangelicals will be too.