Conservative Christianity and the Environment

Generally speaking, the political right is far less amiable to environmentalism than the left. Of course there are exceptions, and there wasn’t always a political divide when it came to environmental issues. But nowadays, American conservatives are more hostile than ever towards environmental causes: they are more likely to deny climate change, support the curtailment or outright abolishment of the EPA (which was established by the Nixon administration), and oppose policies related to environmental regulations in general.

Again, these are generalizations of a very broad ideology, and there are certainly nuances in each of these debates – for example, some conservatives support environmental causes in principle, but disagree with the way they’re addressed. They may prefer free-market solutions rather than statist ones. We can argue about the efficacy of their proposed alternatives, but at least we’d have common cause.

Unfortunately, many conservatives do oppose ecological considerations as a matter of principle, and they’re especially likely to do so when their conservative politics is intertwined with fundamentalist faith: as most polls have shown, the Christian Right is far less concerned with the environment than their secular co-conservatives, let alone the rest of the population.

No one embodies this better than current (as if this writing) GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who embodies the ascendant social conservatism of his party. While I try to keep my blog postings timeless, and thereby avoid narrowly topical events, I feel that the following example is and will remain relevant for some time.

Columnist James Wood of the New Yorker analyzes Santorum’s views on the environment and in the process makes a larger case about the impact of Christianity (namely the fundamentalist kind) on humanity’s attitude about our ecological role.

If Rick Santorum is so staunch a Catholic, why does he often sound such a Protestant, not to say puritanical, note? His remarks about how President Obama’s world view is just “some phony theology” have received a lot of attention but too little examination. It turned out that Santorum was talking, in general terms, about “radical environmentalists,” and using environmentalism as a synecdoche for everything he abominates in secular progressive politics. “This idea that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth” is, he maintained on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “a phony ideal. I don’t believe that’s what we’re here to do. That man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the earth, to be a steward of the earth. But we’re not here to serve the earth. The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.” That kind of ideology, he complained, “elevates the earth above man.

Put aside theology for a moment. Just intellectually, there are many peculiarities here. According to Santorum, environmentalists and leftists believe in serving the earth, while proper Christians “should have dominion over it, and should be good stewards of it.” The distinction Santorum is working here is between a very narrow definition of service as idol-worship (in which the earth becomes our fetish), and stewardship as responsible husbandry. He means, in effect: “Secularists have made a false idol of the earth, whereas God is the only true object of worship.” (And note that he can make this point only by taking the cherished Christian term “service” and casting secular dirt on it.)

I’m not quite sure why Santorum believes that service to the Earth is mutually exclusive to service to mankind. This is a false dichotomy: we have a duty to both humankind and the planet in which resides. After all, we cannot thrive on a planet where ecosystems are degraded, temperatures are rising, and resources are being depleted.

His claim about environmentalists putting the concerns Earth above humanity is also a straw man. Again, few environmentalists believe in sacrificing our race for the good of the planet. True, many of them do advocate that we make some sacrifices: investing more in government efforts to reign down on pollution for example, or changing our lifestyle habits. But most causes necessarily ask something of us, and I don’t think we’re being self-destructive in trying to make Earth more livable for us and the ecosystems we depend on.

Of course, some of you will point out that Santorum specifically highlighted “radical environmentalists,” not the movement as a whole. But he strongly alluded to the fact that the secular progressive left as a whole, including Obama, fall under the description. The president has hardly been radical in his environmental policies, nor are mainstream leftists. Clearly, Santorum has a very low standard for what he defines as radical.

Also note that, as usual, different Christians will derive dissimilar if not outright contradictory meanings from the same Biblical source. I’ve met my share of Christians who are staunch environmentalists, and who can point to all sorts of Biblical lines that they’ve interpreted to be pro-environment. Even those whose actions are not explicitly grounded in religious doctrine nonetheless see no conflict between “radical” environmentalism and their faith.

Semantics is a big part of this. As Woods points out, Santorum is using the term “service” in his own way, and no doubt his idea of being “good stewards” of the Earth is far different from that of many of his coreligionists, who can and do take the same phrase to mean exactly the opposite: that we should indeed care for this God-given planet, rather than despoil it.

But the views of Santorum and his fellow religious conservatives is not merely the result of political ideological or contrary interpretation. It stems from the very nature of religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular, and the subsequent effect on the human psyche.

Christianity, with its emphasis on the afterlife, has always had a tendency to derogate earthly living as a kind of spectral vanity. And the early Christians, who like St. Paul were convinced that Jesus’s return, and thus the end of the known world, was imminent, had particular reason to treat life as a ghostly antechamber to the joys of eternity. There is a sharp difference between the other-worldly asceticism of Christianity and the life-filled practicality of Biblical Judaism, which has a vague or non-existent notion of the afterlife. It was this asceticism, among other irritants, that caused Nietzsche to accuse Christianity of turning life upside-down—of privileging sickness over health, weakness over strength, the life to come over the life here. “Christianity was, from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life,” he wrote in “The Birth of Tragedy.” As the secularist might see it, Santorum is the one who has got things upside-down.

….It is there in the works of John Hooper (c. 1500-1555), considered the father of English Puritanism, when he writes that we must “see, know and understand the vanities of this world, the shortness and misery of this life, and the treasures of the life to come.” It is there in John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and omni-present in Jonathan Edwards’s work, notably in “The Christian Pilgrim,” when he writes that the enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied:

“To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodation here. Fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows; but God is the substance.”

Indeed, this has long been one of my biggest qualms with Christianity, which is its tendency to breed a sort of underlying nihilism among its adherents. Salvation is not predicated on taking care of this material Earth – which is essentially nothing more than testing ground for our souls – or on improving the human condition. Belief and acceptance of Christ trumps all other considerations.

Of course, many Christians do care about this planet and its inhabitants, and do make an effort to help both. But the point is that they don’thave to, and many of their fellow believers seem fatally unconcerned about such “worldly” issues. After all, the fate of their eternal souls is far more consequential than that of this finite, ultimately unimportant world.

Why else would the US, the most religious of the world’s developed nations, also be the most skeptical of climate change, the most tolerant of social inequity, and the most dysfunctional as far as high rates of crime, poverty, teen pregnancy, and the like. Certainly, many other factors are responsible. But the fact that religious piety, for all its purported merits, has not led to greater overall progress on these fronts highlights that negative consequences of being too steeped in transcendent ideologies.

Santorum may claim, as he did in 2008, that “mainline Protestantism in this country … is gone from the world of Christianity, as I see it,” but, with his attacks on “Satan” and “sensuality,” and his apocalyptic or even post-millennial Christianity, he often sounds like an eighteenth-century American Puritan.

Hence a particular impatience with the values of environmental conservation. For the apocalyptic Christian, sights set firmly on heavenly life, the earth might indeed be a finite and transitory thing, what William Blake wonderfully called a “mundane egg.” Man is what needs to be protected, because each of us is a soul, whose eternal fate is up for grabs.

So when Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.

Woods identifies the crux of the problem that I was alluding to: that religions are generally more concerned with the world thereafter, than with the here and now. Santorum’s view is hardly a unique one, which is precisely why our society has higher rates of climate change denial, among other things.

This sort of worldview is obviously dangerous, for at best, it leads us to be indifferent to the existential plight of this planet, and at worst, abets self-destructive behavior on both an individual and societal level. The world will end anyway, and that’ll be God’s call. So why worry?

In practice, many Christians, even those who prescribe to this worldview, don’t actually act in this way (thankfully). But the fact that such a belief system exists at all is a matter of great concern, as it seeks to gamble away the fate of our one and only existence on the basis of an unevidenced divine master plan.

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