Religious Americans say they care about the environment, but it's less clear that this feel-good claim translates into action.

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Everyone has a stake in the future.

No matter how much we might argue with each other, we all have to share this planet, and we have reason to protect it. Every human being needs clean air and clean water, fertile land that produces food, energy to light and heat our homes. We all take pleasure in nature’s beauty. We all want our kids and grandkids to grow up healthy and safe.

To put this logic to the test, Pew Research has published a study on how religion influences Americans’ views on the environment. Their findings are based on 10,000 American adults surveyed in April 2022.

The headline result is that a large majority of Americans, regardless of how religious they are, agree the Earth is “sacred”. Highly religious Americans (those who pray each day and attend church frequently) say overwhelmingly that “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth”.

On paper, this is a good thing. Environmental protection has strong bipartisan support. It’s a cause that crosses party lines. It should offer common ground to build on.

However, there’s an asterisk: for millions of believers, that belief exists only on paper.

A feel-good answer

Like saying you’re pro-family or that you support the troops, saying you care about the environment is a feel-good slogan that almost no one opposes out loud. No one says that they’re in favor of wrecking and spoiling the Earth.

The bigger question is whether this belief translates into any meaningful political stance. And there, the answer is less hopeful. The more religious Americans are, the more likely they are to deny that climate change is a serious problem or even that it’s happening at all:

If you break down the responses, the picture is more nuanced. Nonreligious Americans are overwhelmingly likely to agree that climate change is a real and serious problem and that humans are causing it. Black Protestants say the same, by almost identical margins. So do adherents of non-Christian religions. Mainline white Protestants and Catholics are almost evenly divided.

There’s only one religious group where majorities reject the science of global warming, and that’s white evangelical Christians:

For example, a third of all evangelical Protestants say climate change is not a serious problem because there are much bigger problems in the world (34%). Nearly as many say it’s not a problem because God is in control of the climate (29%). Both of these explanations are more common than the belief that climate change is not happening, which 15% of all evangelicals say is their position.

Just to make one correction here: the belief that “God is in control of the climate” works out to the same thing as saying that climate change isn’t happening. If God is changing the climate, he can change it back whenever he pleases. Either way, there’s nothing we can or should do, which is the point.

As should be obvious, this is another case of the “white evangelicals versus everybody else” divide that sums up 21st-century American politics. Climate-change deniers aren’t getting this view from the Bible—a collection of ancient folktales has nothing, good or bad, to say about greenhouse gas emissions—but from the Republican party platform. Among religious conservatives, religious beliefs and political ideology have fused. Both are held as articles of faith not subject to evidence.

Gimme my freedom

There’s one more statistic in the Pew survey that shows why theoretical attitudes about protecting the planet don’t give rise to action:

Fewer (42%) expect a gradual loss of individual freedoms within the next 30 years due to environmental regulations—although this is the majority view among evangelical Protestants (56%) and Republicans (63%).

Whatever pro-environment views conservatives hold in the abstract, their highest practical priority is continuing to live the way they’re used to, however unsustainable it is. That means huge detached houses, fuel-guzzling trucks, red meat all the time, rural regions flush with oil and coal wealth, and the other hallmarks of America’s extravagant consumption.

They frame it as valuing “freedom”, but what it’s really about is preserving their own privilege. They start with “I don’t wanna!” and reason backwards from there to come up with justifications for why they don’t have to do anything about climate change.

Incidentally, this also explains why Black and non-Christian believers are more supportive of climate policy. Historically, they haven’t had that privilege to lose. And, as communities who pay a disproportionate share of the cost for America’s heedless lifestyle, they have every reason to want change.

Could evangelical attitudes on climate change be softening?

There are reasons to be hopeful about the future of climate policy.

The biggest of these is the Inflation Reduction Act, far and away the most ambitious program America has ever enacted to cut carbon emissions. The passage of the IRA was a massive triumph for President Biden and the Democrats, succeeding where all previous presidents failed.

Like almost all major Democratic initiatives of the last twenty years, Republicans made a political calculation to stonewall the IRA. They refused to negotiate, even though they could have gotten huge concessions in exchange for even a few votes. They voted in lockstep against the bill every step of the way.

However, they failed to prevent its passage. And then a remarkable thing happened… or rather, didn’t happen. The IRA was a non-issue in the midterms. Republicans scarcely even tried to campaign against it:

…missing from most GOP attacks has been any mention of the Inflation Reduction Act and the roughly $370 billion it steers toward renewable energy subsidies and other climate programs. Republican ads largely have ignored Democrats’ landmark climate bill, according to political strategists from both parties and an E&E News review of campaign ad data from AdImpact.

“There’s not a single race where a Democrat is vulnerable because she or he voted for IRA or was pro-climate,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund.

That’s a far cry from 2010, when a flood of GOP ads targeted Democrats’ failed carbon cap-and-trade bill.

More than two dozen climate-friendly lawmakers lost that year, and many blamed their defeats on the cap-and-trade legislation, which passed the House in 2009 but died in the Senate.

Missing from GOP attack ads? Dems’ big climate bill.” Adam Aton & Scott Waldman, EE News, 8 November 2022.

To add another layer of nuance, it’s possible that religious-right attitudes on climate policy are softening. Evangelical hostility toward science hasn’t abated, but they might not hold these beliefs with sufficient intensity to drive their votes anymore.

If this is true, then future climate laws, like the IRA, might be greeted with resignation rather than rage. Granted, that’s a very tiny step in the right direction. But when America as so evenly divided as it is, even a small step could be a politically significant one.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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