In light of the recent ecological disaster that the Gulf Coast is experiencing with the BP oil spill, I have heard renewed calls for evangelicals to become more active in promoting environmental causes. One recent call was issued by Russell Moore, one of my teachers who has been touched personally by the recent disaster as it has affected his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi. The title of his article is “Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience.” One can hear the echoes of Carl Henry, who in his own generation paved the way for evangelical engagement of cultural and political issues.
There is so much that Dr. Moore says here that is right on target. Evangelicals were slow to join the pro-life movement. For years we saw it as someone else’s issue. History could be repeating itself now with environmentalism.
But I think the environmental issue is far more complicated than abortion. Sure, the abortion issue itself is not a simple division between two opinions. There are a range of views on the question, but at least those who are pro-life can agree on several things: the number of abortions should be reduced; Roe v. Wade should be overturned; government (whether at the state or federal level) should be able to place at least some restrictions on abortion. Some will say the matter should be left to the states. Others will call for an amendment banning abortion (except perhaps in certain rare circumstances) to the United States Constitution. But all can agree on the fundamental point that women should not be able to terminate pregnancies at will, the way it is happening now.
The issue of the environment is far, far more complicated. I don’t know anyone who either (a) wants to destroy the earth or (b) thinks human beings have an unfettered right to destroy the earth if they so choose. All reasonable people agree that some measures should be taken to protect the planet and preserve its resources. But beyond that, it gets very tricky to come down firmly on anything specific. The oil spill is a disaster of epic proportions, but what should have been done to prevent it? Could it have been prevented if the government had regulated oil companies more? Short of banning offshore drilling altogether, which seems a bit extreme, I don’t know how you guarantee that an oil spill like this one could never happen again. How much power do we want to give to the government to dictate what can and cannot be done in the name of protecting the environment?
Case in point: I heard sometime back (and I assume nothing has changed) that Congress passed a law requiring all light bulbs sold in the United States to be compact florescent light bulbs by a certain date (I don’t know the particulars). Really? The government is now going to force me to buy expensive, poor quality light bulbs in the name of saving energy? Moreover, compact florescent bulbs have mercury in them, which will create mini environmental disasters whenever a bulb is broken. On top of that, these light bulbs are not supposed to be thrown in the trash when they finally burn out. They are supposed to be taken to designated disposal centers. How much fuel are Americans going to burn driving to their local light bulb disposal centers? How many Americans are going to ignore the instructions and just throw their compact florescent bulbs in the trash? How much mercury is going to leak into the environment when they do? It is apparent to me that Congress really botched this one in the name of saving the planet.
Should we save energy? Of course. Should Congress have the power to dictate to every individual American how we are going to do it? No. And this is why the issue is so tricky. I don’t know where to draw the line between legitimate concern for the environment and the ever-expanding, over-reaching grasp of the federal government. And so far as I have seen, no one calling for more evangelical engagement with environmental issues has offered a satisfactory proposal on how we navigate these waters. That’s why I’m not all gung-ho about environmentalism. The term is, to me, virtually meaningless, because the one who hears it will usually determine what he wants it to mean. If being environmentally friendly means trying to conserve water and energy in your home, then count me in. If it means supporting cap-and-trade legislation, count me out. Generic calls for engagement don’t get us past this dilemma. I resonate with most everything Dr. Moore has said, but I find his proposal quite vague without any specific discussion of what evangelicals should do about their uneasy conscience.