For many U. S. Christians, It’s Still “Subdue the Earth”

July 18, 2014

American Christianity may not be as green as we thought in this 2008 issue.

Rank-and-file Christians seem to be less concerned about the environment than other Americans -- and also, less concerned than their pastors think they are.

Back in 2008, Free Inquiry ran a cover feature cautiously applauding a trend toward heightened environmental activism in evangelical churches ("The New Creation Stewardship," FI Apr./May 2008; most articles in the feature are not available online). Earlier leanings toward exploiting the planet and crying "God will provide" had been largely replaced, we reported, by a sense of urgency in tending the world that, as evangelicals see things, God gave us.

Well, we may have spoken too soon. Evangelical church leaders continue to champion a more green perspective, as many of them have for twenty years or more. But a study published by John M. Clements, Chenyang Xiao, and Aaron M. McCright in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion suggests that ministers' green exhortations have been falling flat in the pews. Self-identified Christians still report significantly "lower levels of environmental concern that did non-Christians and nonreligious individuals." This metric has held steady since 1993, suggesting that church leaders' dramatic change of direction on environmental stewardship is being ignored by their flocks, many of whom still seem to think that God really wants them to "subdue the earth."


#1 Code Monkey on Friday July 18, 2014 at 12:32pm

When one has in mind that God is going to destroy the planet and make it anew, it’s difficult to take seriously the need to care for it.

#2 Mario (Guest) on Friday July 18, 2014 at 5:06pm

Ahhh, “rank-and-file Christians.”  The moment I encountered that qualification, I knew where you were going.  To make a long story short, you possess no data which suggests that Christians as a group are anti-environment, so you’re focusing on evangelicals.  The goal?  To make it appear as if you possessed such data.  Maybe not your regular choir members, but those of us trained to read critically can see through such nonsense in a nanosecond or three.

Please.  Christians are a large majority of the U.S. population.  It is therefore impossible that Christians, as a group, would be at odds with the greater public on global warming.  A majority at odds with the whole wouldn’t be a majority.  To wit, suppose 7 out of 10 men hated sports in a culture in which 9 out of 10 men loved in.  Well, then, at least one of those figures would have to be incorrect.  Right?

Occam’s Razor tells us that any short essay which drowns in its own, sneaky qualifications is likely a wagonload of hooey.  Too many detours on the way to a conclusion is a bad, bad sign, especially when those detours are so obviously and cynically premeditated.

#3 Mario (Guest) on Friday July 18, 2014 at 5:11pm

Of course, I meant, “in which 9 out of ten men loved IT (sports).”  Not “loved in.”

Besides, love-ins went out with the Seventies….

#4 Code Monkey on Friday July 18, 2014 at 5:24pm

Mario, your example makes sense but it doesn’t apply to what was in this post. It wasn’t about global warming but rather about concern over the earth in general. Still, only 65% of people even believe in Global Warming (despite the 97% agreement among scientists). The latest poll showed 52% of the US population was “Christian”. This means only 13% is guaranteed to be Christians who believe in Global Warming which is only a quarter of the Christian population. Granted, that’s a minimum, but it means there’s still potential for accuracy of the post there (i.e. not drowning in its own qualifications). Further, believing in global warming isn’t the same as being concerned about the environment. As I mentioned, many Christians believe the world will end in a fiery mess of fire, brimstone, and evildoers thus is makes no sense to worry about the earth. And as the article made mention, many Christians believe God will provide. I mean, heck, he’s in control so we can’t possibly damage the earth TOO bad, right?

#5 Mario (Guest) on Friday July 18, 2014 at 6:08pm

52 percent?  Wikipedia: “The majority of Americans (73%) identify themselves as Christians and about 20% have no religious affiliation.[2] According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) (2008) 76% of the American adult population identified themselves as Christians, with 51% professing attendance at a variety of churches that could be considered Protestant or unaffiliated, and 25% professing Catholic beliefs.”

We are one heck of a majority.

And the point of Mr. Flynn’s piece can be found in the opening sentence: “Rank-and-file Christians seem to be less concerned about the environment than other Americans—and also, less concerned than their pastors think they are.”  That he had to qualify “Christians” with “rank-and-file” should be a red light to the critical reader.

#6 Code Monkey on Friday July 18, 2014 at 6:17pm

From Gallup:
The large majority of Americans—77% of the adult population—identify with a Christian religion, including 52% who are Protestants or some other non-Catholic Christian religion, 23% who are Catholic, and 2% who affiliate with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Flynn said Evangelicals. I could be wrong, but to me this precludes Catholics and LDS thus leaving 52% that specifically identify as “Christian.” Plus, of those 52%, do you really think they are all Christian despite their professing it? Let’s face the fact: true Christians who actually try to follow Jesus are very few and far between among the vast population of proclaimed Christians. “Rank-and-File” Christians is a way of saying, “Those who follow or take orders” (i.e. not clergy/pastors). He’s merely referring to the common evangelical Christian.

#7 Mario (Guest) on Friday July 18, 2014 at 7:18pm

“Flynn said Evangelicals.” 

Yes.  And he also said, “rank-and-file Christians.”  He also said, “self-identified Christians.”  Then he concluded by saying, “church leaders” and “their flocks.”  He clogs his piece with qualifiers which, by the close of the piece, mean nothing, because he has used them so carelessly.  I think the lack of care is deliberate.  You’re free to draw your own conclusions.

#8 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Tuesday July 22, 2014 at 11:28am

Just to clarify: By “rank-and-file Christians” I meant churchgoers, that is, not the clergy, not the hierarchy—the folks in the pews, not the folks in the pulpits. The April/May 2008 FREE INQUIRY feature focused on evangelicals because evangelical Christianity had historically had more than its share of ministers and other leaders who opposed environmentalism because God would provide or Jesus was coming soon so it didn’t matter if we polluted the air. In 2008, the emergence of a strong green movement among evangelical leaders was news. It brought evangelical churches closer to more liberal and mainstream churches that had favored environmentalism for some time.

The study by Clements et. al. was based on General Society Survey data and used “self-identified Christians,” that is anyone who checked the Christian box. Presumably this sample includes evangelicals, mainstream Christians, and liberals in ratios similar to those that prevail among the general population. (No question, it’s not the same sample of Christians discussed in the 2008 magazine feature, and I never suggested that it was.)

If anything, the fact that the sample of churchgoers is broader (i.e. not just evangelicals) makes it more newsworthy: despite the perception that more liberal Christian churches have been green-friendly longer than evangelical churches, when you look at the flocks rather than the shepherds, they score lower on environmental concern than Americans as a whole. Not only “rank and file” evangelicals, but “rank and file” Christians generally are less concerned for the environment than you’d expect from listening to church leaders.
—Tom Flynn

#9 Mario (Guest) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 at 12:15am

From the abstract for the Clements, Xiao, and McCright piece: “Indeed, the patterns of our results are quite similar to those from earlier decades, which documented that self-identified Christians reported lower levels of environmental concern than did non-Christians and nonreligious individuals.”

In fact, you use part of this quote in your piece.  Problem is, it doesn’t match your claim that rank and file Christians “score lower on environmental concern than Americans as a whole.”  Which claim is true?  That Christians care less about the environment than non-Christians and the non-religious, or that they care less than the public as a whole?  There’s a huge difference between the two claims.

And I’d like to clarify that you’re not conflating flock members vs. leadership with flock members vs. the public at large, as these are also two different realities.  You’re not, are you?  Re flock vs. leaders, clergy are better educated, as a rule, than the flock, so we’d logically expect clergy, as a group, to hold more liberal—hence, more science-friendly—views. 

I think this whole situation can be summed up with this syllogism: Americans as a whole are science-dumb.  Christians are Americans.  Therefore….

#10 Mario (Guest) on Wednesday July 23, 2014 at 12:31am

Apologies for that failed syllogism—“Christians are Americans” was not what I meant to type.  Needless to say, only American Christians are American.  My corrected syllogism:

Americans as a group are science-dumb.

American Christians are part of that group.


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