Evangelicals and the Environment

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.

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3 Responses to Evangelicals and the Environment

  1. Ginger says:

    Do you think that this issue is like the welfare issue? We know the poor need to be cared for but there are many ways to do that. Just like environmentalism we could let the government do everything, or we could do our own little bit in our small piece of the planet. Either way, it seems that we are dealing with the benefactors’ heart rather than actual issue. The government feels a need to enforce all of these laws in order to set a precedent of morality for the public. It seems as though this desire to be a great example would be better illustrated by those individuals in government themselves giving to the poor and saving energy. Maybe I’m way off, but for me, I would rather follow the conviction in my own heart that comes when I choose to be greedy or wasteful.

  2. Hi Ginger. I’m glad to hear from you (as you can see around here, I’m glad to hear from anyone!).

    I think the two issues are similar in many ways. The federal government seems to be overstepping its bounds in each case and trying to do things that government would better leave to others. It has now been over forty years since President Johnson began the “War on Poverty,” but poverty is still alive and well because it is not a problem that can be solved by government intervention alone. In many cases, government intervention only creates a culture of dependency where real solutions to poverty (steady employment, a good work ethic, and expanding opportunities for businesses) are hindered rather than advanced.

    But the two issues are also very different in some ways. Only the government has the power to regulate certain aspects of our society where the environment is particularly affected. We cannot expect businesses to police themselves when it comes to limiting environmental impact. So I am thankful for many of the regulations that have protected our cities in particular from being overrun with pollution.

    But when government begins to dictate what kind of light bulbs we can buy, or when we are forced to remain dependent on Middle Eastern oil because our own government won’t let us drill for it here, or when farmers in California watch their fields dry up and die because regulations designed to protect a certain species of fish prevent the farmers from irrigating, it seems that the government has assumed too much power. That is why I want to see more specifics from evangelicals calling for environmental stewardship. I would like to see a proposal with about a dozen or so propositions that define a philosophy for evangelical action on this issue, including some guiding principles for the role of government.

  3. Chuck Flurry says:

    I enjoyed your post. I agree with your view on this issue. I think Dr. Moore let his emotions get the best of him on this particular issue. Maybe I’m wrong and he will elaborate more in the future and convince me otherwise.

    Keep up the blogging!

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