As a substitute for accepting reality about climate change, evangelicals have decided that Jesus has given them ownership of the entire planet. Thus, they really ought to take care of it so he doesn't get mad at them for breaking his gift. That sounds good—until you read the Christianese terms and conditions.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Christianese does a lot of heavy lifting for evangelicals. Everyday life becomes a godly melodrama. You aren’t the guy who carries the pastor’s stuff—you’re an armorbearer. You aren’t eating lunch, you’re breaking bread. Even a simple word-shuffle like Christ Jesus can give an insidery zhuzh to whatever you’re on about. The result can be a harmless spiritual RPG or a wolf in sheep’s clothing, bless your heart.

Now we see (some) evangelicals deploying the phrase creation care. It’s their substitute for environmental activism, a way of owning the concept and (most importantly) giving themselves permission to gut any parts of the actual meaning that they find inconvenient. Those who embrace it might not accept that humans have had anything to do with the climate’s huge changes in the modern day, but they’re still aware that not GAFF about the planet is a bad look—and they want to at least make an effort at look maintenance.

The other name for creation care, “environmental stewardship,” reveals the ideas at work here. Though this phrase isn’t technically an evangelical creation, the word stewardship conveys a great deal about evangelicals’ mindset and priorities—and what this creation care movement actually involves.

Worse, at a time when human impact on Earth’s climate grows more and more certain, this entire movement might just be a little too little, a little too late.

One degree warmer isn’t a big deal, said the homeschooling evangelical mom to her nine-year-old

A long time ago, I saw a short clip of an evangelical mother homeschooling her young son. The lad looked about nine years old and was decidedly not enthused about being filmed while engaging with substandard pseudoscience at his home’s kitchen table.

Somehow, he feigned interest in his mom’s placement of two cups of water in front of him. She’d carefully made sure that the water in the cups was exactly one degree (Fahrenheit, I assume) different.

Now, she asked him to test the temperature of the two glasses with his finger. He did so. She asked him if he could tell her which cup contained the warmer water. He could not.

“See?” she asked triumphantly. “One degree isn’t a big deal.” Then, she swooped in for the kill: Global warming is obviously fake, just some liberal ploy to, I don’t know, put oil companies out of business.

All those people saying that the Earth couldn’t get one degree warmer or bad things would happen? They were wrong. One degree is no biggie.

Tentatively, the lad agreed.

She was wrong

At the time, I didn’t quite understand myself what the whole one-degree-warmer thing meant. But I’d sure learn when the documentary Six Degrees That Could Change the World came out in 2008. Judging by the comments on one YouTube channel’s video of it, that documentary was the Zoomer version of the 1983 movie The Day After, which very effectively traumatized so many Gen X kids about nuclear war.

If so, good. Because yes, a planet that is one degree warmer is a huge freaking ginormous big deal, Homeschooling Evangelical Moms of the World. And that’s where we are now, according to several authorities: NASA, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In fact, Earth is somewhere between 1.1 degree (Celsius) warmer and 1.2 degrees warmer than it was in 1900.

Within 20 years, the IPCC thinks we’ll hit 1.5 degrees warmer. We got to see some of the ramifications of that warming just recently, in fact.

But don’t you worry none! After a long period of denial that climate change was even a real thing that is actually happening right now thanks to humans, evangelicals have swung into action to take up their divinely-given role as Earth’s stewards.

Christianese 101: Stewardship (in general)

For normies, environmental stewardship is not a new idea at all. That phrase has been around for almost a hundred years. In less religious spheres, environmental stewardship is simply direct participation in conservation efforts. A 2018 paper offers some specific activities encompassed by the phrase:

The term environmental stewardship has been used to refer to such diverse actions as creating protected areas, replanting trees, limiting harvests, reducing harmful activities or pollution, creating community gardens, restoring degraded areas, or purchasing more sustainable products. It is applied to describe strict environmental conservation actions, active restoration activities and/or the sustainable use and management of resources. Stewardship actions can also be taken at diverse scales, from local to global efforts, and in both rural and urban contexts.

Environmental Stewardship: A Conceptual Review and Analytical Framework,” 2018

But in religious spheres, the phrase “environmental stewardship” takes on a very special meaning. And it all begins with the word “stewardship.”

Evangelicals often pretend that they’re just taking care of things for Jesus until he returns. That’s why they call themselves his ambassadors, even though any real ambassadors would have been recalled a dozen times if they’d done even a fraction of what evangelicals constantly do.

As part of their self-declared role as ambassadors, evangelicals pretend that Jesus is very nicely allowing his most beloved and trusted followers to manage things for him in his absence, like parents allowing small children to help with light housework so they feel involved.

In other words, evangelicals act as Jesus’s stewards.

Christianese 201: Environmental stewardship and creation care

When I said “manage things” up there, I meant absolutely everything. Evangelicals claim to believe that Jesus owns literally everything: the planet, the universe, every government on Earth, even people themselves. That’s you and me. As his ambassadors, evangelicals are therefore his stewards in managing all of the above. They steward Jesus’ property in his name and for his benefit.

So environmental stewardship means exactly what you now think it means. Some evangelicals want to make an effort not to wreck the planet, but only because they own it and want to keep it nice—for Jesus, of course.

Creation care is simply what many evangelicals call their environmental stewardship. They’re taking care of Jesus’ creation—at least until he returns to destroy it all.

If you’d like a lot more info about this distinction between secular and religious uses of the term environmental stewardship, a 2012 paper by Jennifer Welchman might be your best bet. She describes the religious overtones of the term, offers a much more detailed overview of its history as a concept than you’ll find much of anywhere else, and details the risks inherent in using it in more secular contexts. She ends with a more nuanced definition of the term going forward. So if you have a JSTOR account, I highly recommend checking it out.

(How to get a JSTOR account to access tons of amazing journal articles for free. I have no formal relationship with this site beyond being a happy account holder.)

How evangelicals first engaged with creation care

Some evangelicals responded to early calls for creation care with enthusiasm. In January 2023, Neall Pogue wrote an interesting essay about those early days for The Conversation. He asserts that from the 1960s to the early 1990s, white evangelicals largely supported “an environmentally friendly position.”

When Francis Schaeffer père adopted environmentally-friendly views in the late 1960s, the stage was set for white evangelicals to follow suit. He was hugely influential with that crowd and would eventually lend a hand in engineering their anti-abortion culture war. (Before then, abortion wasn’t on evangelicals’ radar. They saw it as a backward Catholic thing.)

So when Schaeffer spoke on environmental stewardship and wrote books and essays urging evangelicals to adopt those ideas, evangelicals listened to him. Even Southern Baptist ministers adopted his suggestions.

By the 1980s, Pogue tells us, evangelical homeschooling resource companies like Abeka Book praised environmentalist ideas and leaders. Their materials also cautioned against the impact that capitalism could have on the environment.

In 1988, when Pat Robertson bowed out of the presidential race that year, he gave his version of the classic “City on a Hill” speech. Whereas Ronald Reagan’s idealized City had emphasized free trade, busy ports, and harmonious diversity, Pat Robertson’s resembled an extended, idealized evangelical family. And that family specifically enjoyed clean water, pure air, healthy soil, and a robust ecology.

The second phase of creation care should have given evangelicals whiplash—but it sure did not

By the 1990s, though, the political climate in evangelicalism had changed dramatically. Evangelicals now largely completely embraced both the culture wars and very conservative political and social positions. Their leaders had completely politicized them. They even trampled and drove away anyone who thought differently.

This time on the merry-go-round, evangelical leaders needed their flocks to hate environmental stewardship, not embrace it. Their reasons were twofold:

First, so the flocks would reject liberal politicians who were overwhelmingly pushing hard for environmental protection measures, along with liberal causes themselves.

Second, so the flocks would reject any ideas that might lead to changes that would negatively affect conservative donors to Republican politicians.

The anti-abortion culture war had already demonstrated that evangelical leaders could reliably deliver scads and reams of evangelical votes to conservative politicians and causes. Those leaders simply used that culture war’s rails to deliver the same kind of misinformation—this time, it simply concerned climate change instead of human rights and gynecology.

It worked, and it worked remarkably swiftly. Evangelicals were, by now, very comfortable with not only completely reversing course at their leaders’ urging, but also with forgetting they’d ever held any other position.

But creation care still, uh, found a way

I can tell you with both a quickness and a certainty that my old crowd of fundamentalists almost completely rejected environmentalism in the late 80s and early 90s. I didn’t even know that evangelicals had once thought any differently.

In fact, I had a Pentecostal friend in college who got so annoyed with Earth Day celebrations on campus that he told everyone he was going to buy a gigantic diesel pickup truck, pursue an almost-entirely beef diet, and eat a lot of beans for the rest of his life—for their intestinal effects, geddit? He didn’t do any of that in reality, but dang, that’s some real stewardship!

One creation care group online, the Evangelical Environmental Network, claims to have begun life in 1993 (close to the end of my involvement with the religion). That sounds about right for the movement as a whole. They affiliate with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), who are culture warriors trying not to be quite so political about their culture wars.

In fact, they base their entire creation care movement on their conceptualization of evangelicals’ beloved anti-abortion culture war. They think it requires evangelicals to focus on all human life, not just on forcing pregnant women to give birth against their consent:

Creation Care as a Matter of Life

In the United States, air pollution alone kills an estimated 200,000 people each year., Approximately 6,000 unborn children die from soot (fine airborne pollution) in the U.S., while another 10,000 are born premature from soot exposure. Additionally, a Lancet Commission on Pollution and Human Health found that in 2015, pollution resulted in over 9 million deaths worldwide. This represents 3 times more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined and 10 times more deaths than all forms of violence and conflict. Pollution’s threat to life continues and is projected to at least double by 2050 unless we act.

As pro-life Christians, our mission demands that we defend life in every way. Our faith and our values will never be compromised.

Creation Care Statement on Development (archive)

Francis Schaeffer clearly has a lot to answer for.

The culture wars wreck everything, even creation care

By the Aughts, though, climate change was starting to become a big topic. More and more, the scientific consensus looked not only compelling but overwhelming. And some evangelicals accepted their assertions.

But by now, evangelicals had begun their big decline in membership and cultural power. They were far more sensitive to their growing vulnerability to their many enemies.

If you ever saw that classic Key & Peele sketch about President Obama goading Republicans into supporting all kinds of liberal causes by pretending to reject them, then know that the same thinking governed evangelicals at the time.

YouTube video
“Ain’t I a stinker?”

Whatever leading scientists asserted, evangelicals seemed to delight in rejecting. That definitely included climate change. Rejecting any care for the environment had become as certain a belief marker as opposition to legal, accessible abortion was.

Creation care emerges from the ashes

In 2006, almost 100 evangelical leaders signed a major statement about global warming. These included Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, which just got booted from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for being friendly to the idea of women pastors. The letter, addressed to the NAE, asked its leaders to support legislation that would help ease global warming. To support their requests, the signers met with various congress members and ran advertisements supporting climate change science and environmentalism.

However, an opposition group soon formed to push back against this letter’s requests. The opposition included Richard Land, the leader of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Notably, the organizer of this opposition effort, E. Calvin Beisner, said he felt driven to do it because he denied climate change science:

He said Tuesday that “the science is not settled” on whether global warming was actually a problem or even that human beings were causing it. And he said that the solutions advocated by global warming opponents would only cause the cost of energy to rise, with the burden falling most heavily on the poor.

Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative,” New York Times, 2006 (archive)

(Yes, because extremely conservative, science-denying white evangelicals have always been so very very very concerned with the plight of poor people.)

In 2008, creation care gained a whole new set of supporters.

Nowadays, Jonathan Merritt is a big-name religion writer and the son of an SBC pastor who is, in turn, one of the denomination’s former presidents. But back in the Aughts, when he was just a seminary student, Merritt spearheaded the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative (SBECI). In 2008, the new group released a powerful statement:

We have recently engaged in study, reflection and prayer related to the challenges presented by environmental and climate change issues. These things have not always been treated with pressing concern as major issues. Indeed, some of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that these are real problems that deserve our attention. But now we have seen and heard enough to be persuaded that these issues are among the current era’s challenges that require a unified moral voice.

We believe our current denominational engagement with these issues have often been too timid, failing to produce a unified moral voice.

A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change, 2008 (archive)

Merritt’s declaration garnered 45 high-profile SBC signatures, including his dad’s, that of the SBC’s current president, Frank Page, and that of the president of Merritt’s seminary, Danny Akin.

Despite its name, though, the SBECI was not an official endeavor of the SBC itself. And it revealed that Southern Baptists weren’t at all unified behind the idea of creation care as a priority—or even as a real necessity.

When money gets involved, creation care stops mattering

Then, in 2010, Daily Mail famously reported on John Shimkus, then a Republican Congressman from Illinois. That year, Shimkus campaigned to chair the House Energy Committee despite being a climate change denier. In fact, he thought Jesus had implicitly promised humans that they’d never destroy the planet because Jesus had already claimed that privilege for himself. Naturally, Shimkus not only won the position but also became the Republican Leader of the committee’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee.

But take heart. He lost the position in 2016 to Greg Walden

… Who is an Oregon Republican who did quite a lot to ensure that climate change will only continue to worsen, and who seems to deny that climate change is an urgent problem at all. (He appears to have profited handsomely from these stances.)

And if you’re wondering, the current Chair of the Energy Committee since January 2023 is Cathy McMorris Rodgers

… Who is a Creationist and therefore a denier of all established biological science.

In a way, though, these ferocious examples of pushback against climate change only highlighted how inevitable the movement was among the most important demographic of all:

The newest crop of voting-age Americans, especially those who still affiliated with evangelicalism.

Creation care gains a foothold in Gen Z

Despite older evangelicals’ now-decades-old rejection of creation care, gradually younger evangelicals adopted its ideas. A year or so ago, a writer for Wayland Baptist University explained the school’s fairly-new recycling program with this strong statement:

[M]any Christians today believe the environment (God’s creation) is an exploitable commodity, given to us to use as we see fit. Christian environmental stewardship, also known as “Creation Care” takes a different view, reminding us that we cannot honestly declare that we love God, nor love Jesus, while at the same time destroying His creation, which He declared to be good and exists to glorify Him.

Wayland Baptist University Green Initiative, “Biblical Foundations for Christian Environmental Stewardship” (archive)

A photo of the program’s volunteers taken last year reveals some very youthful, smiling faces. I’m not surprised to see them, either. In 2021, Pew Research discovered that Gen Z tends to feel the most strongly—and to take action most often—about climate change than earlier generations have. Millennials got that ball rolling years earlier. It could well be that when their older Christian leaders refused to join them in their concerns, that became a sticking point for Millennial Christians.

In turn, those older Christian leaders can only (incorrectly) sneer that young environmental activists have “picked up a new religion.”

No no, Padre, tell us more about how sour those grapes must be.

I bet they’re totally sour.

Why Christian leaders have to talk like that

Generally, the big-name evangelical Christian leaders have not changed at all from their mid-1990s course. They’re still lip-locked with Republican priorities, still tasked with delivering votes to Republican politicians and causes, still flogging misinformation through the culture war’s established rails.

Very clearly, Republicans still need evangelicals to reject any progress regarding the environment. And so that is exactly what evangelical leaders are telling the flocks to do.

But a few have broken ranks. I spotted some of them on a 2020 editorial. In it, these pastors discussed grants for solar panels for churches through their new group Creation Care Partners. In a separate interview with Christianity Today, one of the editorial writers, Bob Whitaker, had this to say about why he’s involved with the group:

“This whole thing for me has been a bit of a conversion,” said Whitaker, who has pastored at Evangelical Community Church for 22 years. “I didn’t grow up thinking this way. I didn’t begin serving this church with this mentality…. Among evangelicals—churches, pastors, even theologians—we’ve focused on the salvation of the soul to the exclusion of other parts I now consider to be part of the Good News.”

His change was gradual—an expansion of his understanding of how the gospel applies to everyday life and a growing sense that God’s people should treat the earth not as consumers but as caretakers.

Creation Care Movement Takes Action with Solar Panels and Petitions,” Christianity Today, 2020 (archive)

Looking at his church’s website, it becomes abundantly clear that he’s got a lot of younger Millennial and Zoomer congregants going there. Mystery solved!

And now, just look at that horse run!

Perhaps because of the pandemic, creation care seems like it’s everywhere in 2023. Here’s a very small sampling of creation care events and happenings that are either going to happen or that have occurred already this year:

Creation Care: It’s What’s For Dinner™.

The problem with creation care

So here we are, with younger evangelicals loving creation care and many older ones still rejecting the idea that climate change is even a thing that humans have caused and need to fix now.

Even if evangelicals as a whole finally get on board with what creation care advocates want, there’s still one huge, glaring dealbreaker problem with the idea:

Creation care will never be anything but completely optional for evangelicals.

The situation reminds me of being in grade school in the American public school system. Whenever the school got new textbooks, teachers begged students not to trash them.

Some students listened (like, ahem, me—a sweet, dreamy, quiet little girl who already treasured books) and took perfect care of these perfect new textbooks. Others didn’t quite achieve that standard. And a few trashed the books on principle, because what exactly was the school gonna do to them if they did? Fine their parents? It’s not like they’d ever suffer any penalties themselves.

That’s exactly what’s going on here with creation care.

If evangelicals choose to reject creation care, it’s not like Jesus will do anything to them. They’ll still go to Heaven, after all. Creation care is purely optional, just like every other behavioral demand evangelicals make of other evangelicals. It’s not like anyone’s going to do anything to them if they ignore the demand.

If evangelicals are not forced to do the right thing, they have shown us time and again that they simply will not do it. In fact, they’ll do its opposite if they can. Wanting their grandchildren to have a clean, livable planet doesn’t matter, either, to the large number of evangelicals who believe that Jesus will kick-start the Endtimes before too long.

They might as well drive huge diesel pickup trucks and eat steak every day—along with a lot of beans.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

Notify of
1 Comment
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments