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“What has brought about the ugly destruction of the environment? There is one reason: man’s greed.” Today some evangelical power brokers might roll their eyes at such a statement, dismissing it as the hyperbolic ramblings of a tree-hugging leftist. If told that this came from a Christian, they might doubt the person’s faith, or warn of what liberal positions would follow now that the person has been “blinded by the green light and lost his sense of direction,” as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins once put it.
Those opening words, though, were penned by Francis Schaeffer – a pastor who read the Bible through a literalist lens but who with his wife Edith extended hospitality to all sorts at their L’Abri home in the Swiss Alps. Schaeffer, a best-selling author, reshaped the trajectory of evangelical cultural engagement and inspired right-wing culture warriors from the Reverend Jerry Falwell to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Schaeffer’s plea for creation was followed not by an embrace of the left’s sexual permissiveness but by a call to elevate evangelical concern for the unborn.
Abortion went on to become the primary “glue which holds religiosity and partisanship together,” according to Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace, an influential exploration into religion and civic life. Environmentalism, meanwhile, became bonded to liberalism despite having diverse and deep roots that extend across the philosophical spectrum.
Russell Kirk, whose The Conservative Mind remains a classic text of the modern right, once said: “The issue of environmental quality is one which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a cause which can attract, and very sincerely, liberals, conservatives, radicals, reactionaries, freaks, and middle class straights.” While some conservatives such as Roger Scruton, author of How to Think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism, still demonstrate the truth of Kirk’s sentiment, a squeamishness about being seen with liberals has led most to abandon the field. What’s more, many now feel it is their duty to disparage those conservatives who stayed behind.
Political tribalism split apart concerns that, as Schaeffer demonstrated, can be held consistently and passionately within a biblical worldview. Schaeffer wrote of once going out of his way to compliment the residents of a lushly landscaped hippie commune which stood on the other side of a deep valley from a treeless Christian school campus he was visiting. Those who warmly greeted him noted that he was the first to come from “across the ravine.” In the decades since, the chasm between socially conservative evangelicals and planet-conserving environmentalists has only grown wider.
That Seventies Show
The current political blocs that have greens and gays on one side and pro-lifers chanting “drill baby drill” on the other can seem set in stone, but the cement was wet and malleable as recently as the 1970s. Evangelicals for McGovern existed well before the Moral Majority. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and enthusiastically signed major bipartisan bills such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, the latter sailing through the House on a 355–4 vote. Roe v. Wade was initially deemed a proper balance of church–state relations by prominent Southern Baptists. A favorite politician for both Jim Wallis and Billy Graham was Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, a pro-life, antiwar, liberal, evangelical, often environmentalist Republican. Two Earth Days competed on the calendar: a spring-equinox date that was championed by a pro-life Pentecostal pacifist named John McConnell, and a larger April celebration linked to the liberal Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson. Pat Robertson, who would seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, backed Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid in 1976.
One does wonder how things might have turned out if Carter, the former Navy man at the helm of the Democratic ship when the abortion storm arose in earnest, had steered a different course. Up till then, abortion had not yet cracked party platforms, but in 1972, traditionally Democratic Catholics had beaten back a pro-choice platform proposal and gained a pro-lifer on the ticket in Sargent Shriver. These voters were stunned when their party’s 1976 platform came out explicitly opposing a human-life amendment.
Though he would later identify as pro-choice, the politically pragmatic President Ford saw an opening. His prospective Republican running mate Bob Dole consulted with the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Ellen McCormack, a New York pro-life activist who had garnered up to nine percent of the vote in several primaries. The GOP followed McCormack’s advice and went on record as officially supporting a constitutional “right to life for unborn children.” Nevertheless, the Democrats’ openly “born again” Sunday school teacher was still able to garner significant evangelical support and nip Ford overall.
President Carter thought his personal piety would be enough to keep evangelicals on board in 1980. But Francis Schaeffer had been busy expanding concern about abortion through his books and films How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? Perhaps pressured by Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge from the left – Kennedy became the first of many pro-life Democrats to flip to a pro-choice position once they set their eyes on the Oval Office – Carter offered little more than lip service to his conservative Christian critics. Many of the evangelicals who backed Carter in 1976 now wore buttons touting a life amendment and bluntly declaring, “Abort Carter.”
Creation Gets Left Behind
During the 1980 presidential election campaign, care for creation was not showing up prominently on most evangelicals’ radar, either as an action item or a bogeyman. The National Association of Evangelicals had called environmental degradation sinful as early as 1970, but there was little mobilization on the issue. While Ron Sider would help launch the Evangelical Environmental Network in the 1990s, the social-justice-focused Chicago Declaration of 1973 that he also coordinated had said nothing about pollution or species extinction, key issues propelling the broader wave of environmentalism.
For its part, the green movement’s leadership read Lynn White’s famous essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” which laid the blame for environmental devastation on Christian “dominion” theology. As the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope would later lament, “We rejected the churches.”
Environmentalists also increasingly rejected economic conservatives, and vice versa. Fear of GOP nominee Ronald Reagan, who had aligned himself with the anti-regulatory and pro-development “Sagebrush Rebellion,” drove many conservation groups to adopt an “all in with the Dems” strategy. The result was the weakening of bipartisan bridges.
After a convincing win, the new president began what historian Samuel P. Hays somewhat breathlessly called “the Reagan anti-environmental revolution.” The solar panels that Carter had installed on the White House roof came down, and a business-backed narrative about the high costs of overregulation increasingly won the day. Although Reagan eventually shifted back toward the center after 1983, the dominos had already been set in motion. Even his undeniably green efforts like spearheading the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to preserve the ozone layer, would not garner laurels from embittered environmentalists until decades later.
In short, concern about abortion and other moral issues sent evangelicals towards an increasingly welcoming GOP, while a tough-talking Reagan sent environmentalists running the other direction. In 1980, the average Republican House member scored about 40 percent from the League of Conservation Voters; the average Democrat was just a bit better at 50 percent. By the year 2000, Democrats were scoring 80 percent while Republicans had fallen to around 15 percent, and in recent years the split has approached 90 to 10.
Exit polls tell a similar tale on abortion. The average Democratic voter was actually slightly more pro-life than the average Republican in 1980. Soon thereafter, though, a steady divergence set in as pro-lifers moved to the GOP camp. The number of pro-life Democrats in the House has fallen from upwards of one hundred in 1976 to the single digits today.
Currently, those interested in protecting babies in the womb and the world into which these babies will be born get pushed into a political no man’s land, taking mortar fire from both sides. Ask Al Gore about how he squares his “choose life” language on climate change with his support of Roe, and you might find yourself being verbally accosted by his chief of staff. Blog on one conservative site that Gore does raise a valid scientific point or two, and get ready to be labeled the “idiot of the day” on another.
Meanwhile, Christian conservatives just helped to return the Senate to a party led by one happy to identify himself as a “friend of coal,” yet campaigning Republicans showed far less enthusiasm towards marriage and unborn life. Is this our reward for thirty-five years of loyalty: mountaintop removal mining and membership in the “it’s a hoax” club? Would anyone have struck this bargain in 1980?
It bears repeating that the current partisan dividing lines were hardly inevitable. In fact, it would seem quite logical for the party of the little guy to champion the littlest guys and gals, or for conservatives to stand up for conservation.
Thanks to Francis, and Francis
The smoke has cleared a bit from the days when climate change was the top media obsession, and the relative calm presents an opportunity for broader reflection on the role of Christians as global and cultural caretakers. It’s both timely and heartening, then, that Pope Francis has announced the 2015 release of an environmental encyclical. With this step, he will be continuing the tradition of both family- and earth-friendly exhortations that flowed from his recent predecessors. Consider Pope Benedict XVI’s words in Caritas in Veritate: “Our duties toward the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other.” The legacy of Benedict, the very pro-life “Green Pope” who brought solar energy to the Vatican, seems to imply that we should care for the unborn in the womb, the communities they will be born into, and for the world that will be theirs to steward after we are gone. You don’t have to believe in papal infallibility to hear that as pretty good advice.The cannons of the culture war were never meant to obliterate a Christian concern for creation.
Evangelicals have no popes, but the man whom a 1997 Christianity Today cover declared to be “Our Saint Francis” does loom large in recent history. Schaeffer, who died in 1984, helped to load the cannons of the culture war, but they were never meant to obliterate a Christian concern for creation. All along he knew that the church had a bigger role than just being a reliable party precinct. In Christian Manifesto, one of his final works, Schaeffer warned, “We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag,” and the same could be said of a party label. Christians are called to find our identity first and foremost in Christ and the kingdom of God, regardless of how much that matches or conflicts with a political platform.
The church, as Schaeffer urged in Pollution and the Death of Man, should be striving to be a “pilot plant” demonstrating to the world (including its flawed political institutions) the possibility of “substantial healing in every area affected by the Fall.” Regarding the breach between humanity and the rest of creation, Schaeffer said believers should “exercise dominion over nature without being destructive,” and he wanted to see the situation he experienced at the ravine reversed: Christians should outshine the pagans in the care of the earth. Schaeffer feared that “unless something like this happens, I do not believe the world will listen to what we have to say.”
A Way Forward
Echoing Schaeffer, how should we then live? Upstream from politics, the first step may well be to get our own houses in order. Personal, family, and community life matters. The decisions we make about how we feed our families, fuel our locomotion, and fashion our sense of the good life may seem inconsequential in the face of worldwide environmental problems. Yet by embracing local particulars we begin to free ourselves from the despair of global abstraction.
One place to start is at the table. To some it may seem surprising that Joel Salatin, the hero of Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma and films such as the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., is a man of deep Christian faith whose politics hardly match those of the left. The slow foodies’ favorite farmer does his work rooted in a love of his family, of the land and animals entrusted to him, and ultimately of the Creator of it all.
Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century father of conservatism, spoke of loving “the little platoon we belong to in society” as “the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” A very Burkean Roger Scruton describes this as oikophilia, or the love of home, and he sees it as a necessary motivation above and beyond the libertarian focus on rational self-interest. Admirers of the American farmer-philosopher-poet Wendell Berry will no doubt be familiar with such thinking as well. Upon receiving one of our nation’s highest honors in the humanities, Berry entitled his Jefferson Lecture “It All Turns on Affection.”The gospel is good news for all of the world that God so loved.
Our churches can play a role, too, both in word and deed. The gospel is good news for all of the world that God so loved, but the Christ who reconciles “all things” is too often reduced to a Star Trek–style savior who will teleport us away to a wispy heaven. N.T. Wright, the New Testament scholar, writes of Romans 8 that “when humans are put right, creation will be put right.” We need a cosmic vision of salvation, one that does not jettison personal redemption but expands it. Better proclamation is key, to be sure, but there is also a very material aspect to becoming the “pilot plant” that Schaeffer urged as essential. The intentional cultivation of beauty plays an important role, as was seen in Schaeffer’s ravine story. So do things that are less obvious, like insulation and LED lighting.
Kingdom and Democracy
Can we then just ignore politics if we hike the Appalachian Trail, switch to pastured eggs and grass-fed beef, wrap our water heater, and put solar panels on the roof? Not quite. Even if too much emphasis has been put on politics during recent decades, in a democratic republic Christians do not have the option of simply washing their hands of public affairs.
Of course, the relationship of Christians to politics has often been a point of friction between Anabaptists and the more politically engaged wings of Christianity. Some would argue that we serve Christ better by being “the quiet in the land” rather than by putting signs in our hands. Perhaps the tension is overstated, though. Ron Sider, for example, has spent decades as an Anabaptist activist, and has done so without contorting his beliefs to toe a party line. Operating primarily in political circles on the left, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action has nevertheless continued to affirm the importance of things such as evangelism, unborn life, and traditional marriage. Though one may disagree with some of Sider’s political priorities and policy suggestions, his witness bespeaks a man striving first for fidelity to the kingdom, not a party.
Sider told Christianity Today in 1992 of a trip to Switzerland he initiated after being criticized by the post-Schaeffer leadership at L’Abri. Unable to crack their perception that he was a dangerous man, an exasperated Sider later lamented, “Francis Schaeffer – I’m so close to him!” At least on the protection of unborn children and the care of creation, the views of the godfather of the evangelical left and the godfather of the religious right were indeed rather close. It is time for their political progeny to get close again. Instead of arm-wrestling with itself, the body of Christ should be extending both hands to a broken culture and a broken creation.
John Murdock, a self-styled “Christian conservative tree-hugger,” worked as a natural-resources attorney in Washington, DC for over a decade and now writes from a family farmhouse deep in the heart of his native Texas. www.johnmurdock.org