By Aaron Taylor
First, a disclaimer. Not all evangelicals are resistant to climate change. The root word of "evangelical" is "evangel", which means "good news." Roughly speaking, an evangelical is anyone who believes that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, and that sharing this good news should be a normative part of what it means to live out a Biblically-informed faith. There are about 600 million evangelicals worldwide, and they (we) are found in every major Christian denomination. And while most evangelicals aren't American, the majority of American evangelicals are unique in that they, unlike their counterparts around the world, tend to intertwine Biblical faith with right-wing politics, and in extreme cases, might actually believe that they're one and the same. Even here we have to be careful though, because American evangelicals are not a monolith (there is, in fact, an American evangelical left), and even the National Association of Evangelicals, though socially conservative, has spoken definitively on the need to address climate change.
Disclaimers and stereotypes aside, I'd like to address what comes to mind when the average American evangelical—your next-door neighbor, your boss, your friend or co-worker, the couple that puts gospel tracts in your kids' Halloween buckets—is thinking when they hear the words "environment", "environmental", or "environmentalist."
This is what they're thinking.
As David Gushee, one of the authors of the Evangelical Climate Initiative puts it, for most (American) evangelicals, when they hear anything that smacks of environmentalism, to them it's "Pocahontas talking to spirits in the trees" and "flower-power." Think Betty White in The Proposal dressed in fig leaves and dancing to the universe. Or Steve Martin in Out of Towners hugging a tree while singing Age of Aquarius.
In American evangelical parlance, an environmentalist is an eccentric tree-hugging fruit loop who worships the earth...and is probably a socialist.
To be sure, crass stereotyping isn't the only reason why so many American evangelicals are resistant to the idea of climate change. It may not even be the primary reason. But it is a reason. And as I begin this series for New Mexico Inter-Faith Power and Light on addressing evangelicals and climate change, I think it's helpful to start with the issue of stereotypes, because if we want to reverse the Koch brothers-financed climate denial trend in American evangelicalism, nothing will hinder the cause more than failing to address the issue of stereotypes. We all do it. We all think we're right when we do it. And we all deny that we do it...even while we're doing it.
The problem with stereotyping is that when we engage in it, we fail to see people as individuals. We view them primarily through the prism of what we think they believe because we "know" what people "like" them believe. Stereotyping can also blind us from the reality that giftings, personalities, and interests can lead people to transcend their socio-religious-political backgrounds.
Take my wife Rhiannon for example. My wife's parents (both now deceased) were hard-core Republicans (not that being a Republican necessarily means anti-climate change, but in this case, it did). My father-in-law, Eliot O'Brien, was a zealous student of end-times prophecy, so he was highly susceptible to conspiracy theories suggesting that the U.N. is an anti-Christ organization using an environmental agenda as a ruse for imposing a one-world socialist dictatorship. And, based on my conversations with Eliot, he was 100% pro-fossil fuels. Eliot felt that any attempt to reign in the fossil fuel industry was "job-killing regulations." Based on my wife's background, and the fact that she attends a fairly standard run-of-the-mill evangelical church today, anyone outside the evangelical fold could easily peg her as a climate doubter based on what they "know" about evangelicals.
And they wouldn't be more wrong.
Despite her upbringing, when my wife was a little girl, she was wearing "Save the Rainforest" T-shirts. My wife has always been interested in animals, recycling, saving the rainforest, nature, and conservation. When Rhiannon was growing up, her dream was to be either a veterinarian or a wildlife photographer. She got stuck with me instead.
The lesson: People are individuals with various gifts, talents, interests, and personalities, so don't write people off based on what you think you "know" about "them."
Besides, most American Evangelicals feel that they're a persecuted minority fighting against a culture that barely tolerates them, much less understands them. So even if an evangelical largely resembles a certain stereotype, they still don't like to be called out on it for the simple reason that nobody likes to be reduced to a stereotype. All stereotypes do is reinforce the "us" verses "them" way of worldly thinking, which leads to further stereotyping on both sides of the "us" verses "them" divide.
To illustrate this, I leave you with a video of Jon Stewart's Daily Show correspondents at the 2012 Democratic convention. Stewart's correspondents discovered that many people at the convention prided themselves about being non-prejudiced against everyone but....well, you can probably guess.
If you want to reach evangelicals for the cause of climate change, then—for the love of polar bears—don’t be like the people in this video!