I was, frankly, nervous about speaking to people of faith in the south about climate change. I wrestled with my own preconceived notions and past experiences, and was surprised when conversations took inspiring, if not transcendent, turns.
Secular as I am now, I still think fondly of my childhood minister, Dr Lehman, who loved college basketball and Honda Accords (he drove 13 of them during his lifetime). At the conclusion of each Lakeside Baptist service, he’d call the eastern North Carolina congregation to action.
“Go forth,” he said as the organ began to play, “and be involved in the world.”
My family later moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and my high school experience felt ripped from the pages of the Footloose script. Local parents disowned gay sons; classmates openly questioned the science of evolution in biology class; Young Life leaders plastered an Abstinence Pledge on the wall of our public school cafeteria.
My frustration from those years has at times stopped me from reaching out to those in the faith-based community, especially regarding political issues like climate change. I’m aware of my own bias, the way it was formed by negative experiences, and how it limits my understanding of believers and their choices. This realization helps me understand why believers might in turn have problems connecting with someone like me.
But if we’re going to address climate change in time to prevent catastrophic results, we’re going to do it by taking cooperative action with those with whom we disagree. I find myself wondering if similar discussions are happening in faith-based communities, and why there hasn’t been a more palpable response to climate change among people of faith in the south.
While climate change scenarios have all the hallmarks of biblical narrative – violent storms, epic floods, plagues, resource scarcity, the displacement of people – it’s considered liberal political terrain. Scott Coleman, a practicing Baptist and the amiable environmental manager of Little St Simons Island, a mostly undeveloped strip of shoreline off the coast of Georgia, tells me that “environmental stewardship is often associated with liberal politics, thus looked upon negatively”.
The political power of the pulpit is undeniable, even in the post-Billy Graham south, where in many states nearly half of all citizens attend church services.
I can’t help but imagine the sheer impact a faith-based movement could have on expediting climate action. Scott Coleman agrees. “I think that if our faith leaders in the south were more outspoken about the importance of creation care, it would go a long way in helping to depoliticize environmental issues in our region,” he says. “And if we could depoliticize environmental stewardship in the south, imagine the progress we could make with elevating environmental stewardship in southern culture.”
I spoke with people of faith in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia, and it became clear that the primary barrier to climate action is the fact that it’s been yoked with the liberal agenda. Climate activist and author Anna Jane Joyner, whose father is the pastor of a megachurch in North Carolina, writes that she grew up lumping “environmentalists in with hippies and liberals and all the other people who were probably going to hell”.
Dr Lucas Johnston, a professor of religion and environment at Wake Forest University, explains that “there is a longstanding antipathy toward environmental sentiments in Christian, and especially evangelical circles, because they have, for centuries, been imagined as pernicious and dangerous, and possibly bordering on paganism.”
I asked former six-term South Carolina Republican congressman Bob Inglis why discussing climate change is so difficult in the south. A proponent of growing the eco-right and setting the free market upon the challenges of climate change, he called the environmental movement a bird with a left wing so large it can’t fly straight. Climate change is “rarely talked about in the language of conservatism”, he explained. “If you want someone to have a conversion moment, it helps for them to hear it in their own language, from someone they trust.”
Inglis has been trying to start the conversation in conservative southern circles since having his own conversion moment on a trip to Antarctica in 2006. A scientist drilled into the ice, and Inglis saw, firsthand, the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the ice record, which revealed a long period of stability with a sudden uptick in carbon dioxide levels. He accepted then that burning fossil fuels changed the chemistry of the atmosphere. He was later booed at public events for stating his belief in climate change.
While in office, Inglis introduced a Raise Wages, Cut Carbon bill. Though grounded in science and conservative economic principles, his efforts were seen as subversive by Tea Party opponents, who essentially implied his bill would destroy civilization. “I had crossed the line of orthodoxy,” he said.
There’s a perceived social and political cost to speaking up about climate issues among people of faith in the south. Roughly half of the southerners I spoke with felt that people in the south avoided talking about climate change altogether because it was awkward and politically divisive. Mary Beene, a pastor in Savannah, notes that “in our congregation, it was a more controversial topic than race or sexuality”. She observed that some women in the south who believed in climate change worried “it simply would not be polite to challenge what the men … were saying in public.”
Indeed, white male evangelicals are still dominating the conversation and decision-making power structures.
Watch, for example, this clip from a 2014 GOP Senate primary debate in North Carolina, where four contenders, including Senator Thom Tillis, deny that manmade activity influences climate change in under one minute. Tillis, whom the Center for Responsive Politics reports as having received over $260,000 from oil, gas and coal interests, won the Senate seat, with 63% of his voters identifying as evangelicals or born-again Christians. Ninety-five percent of them were white.
According to Pew, 77% of Hispanic Catholics are likely to say human activity has contributed to the Earth’s warming. Religiously unaffiliated (64%) and black Protestants (56%) are also likely to tie climate change to human activity. Pew points out that “fewer white mainline Protestants (41%) view climate change as primarily due to human activity … white evangelical Protestants are least likely to hold this view.”
When Rabbi Rachael Bregman moved to Brunswick, Georgia, she was told: hurricanes don’t happen here. Then she evacuated for both Irma and Matthew. “Both of the evacuations were on top of the holy days where we say the words of the Unataneh Tokef,” she tells me. “It’s a prayer which asks, ‘who by fire, who by water … who by drowning’ regarding the end of one’s life. Those questions felt very real and not metaphorical.”
Her synagogue is 12 feet above sea level and a half-mile from the ocean’s edge. During recent hurricanes, they “evacuated our five Torah scrolls, locked the doors and hoped for the best for our 130-year-old building. What has surprised me,” she says, “is how little has changed and how little environmental activism sprang up as a result.”
Bregman, like many I talked to, has witnessed climate change firsthand and is eager to see more responsiveness in the faith-based community. She has made personal changes, like switching to an electric car; greening up at the synagogue; and offering a sermon on climate change.
Tony Lankford, the senior pastor at the First Baptist church in Saint Simons, has also improved the church’s energy and water use, and organized a Coastal Green Team Summit for faith leaders to discuss climate change.
Lankford feels that “regardless of political or theological leanings, there is agreement upon the basic tenet that God formed all of this beauty around us, and scripture [Genesis 1-2] gives us a responsibility to be stewards of that creation. For me, thus, mismanagement and abuse of creation is not only immoral or unethical, but is sinful.”
The majority of southern believers I spoke to reported never hearing climate change mentioned in a sermon, but, like Lankford, could ground feelings about protecting the Earth in scripture, and felt that there was a strong moral imperative to protect the planet and its inhabitants.
Several mentioned Dr Katharine Wilkinson’s book Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change as helping them articulate a scriptural basis for taking climate action in the future.
When Bob Inglis – someone with whom I probably disagree on several core issues – spoke with reverence about seeing an Australian scientist evangelize about the natural world at the Great Barrier Reef, I could recognize his passion for the natural world as my own. Sometimes, common ground gets lost in semantics.
Inglis gave me the rational and the emotional case for his conversion from skeptic to climate change believer. The emotional case is what has stayed with me most since our talk, and is one I hope other skeptics manage to hear from their children, like Inglis did.
His son once told him, lovingly: “Be relevant to my future. Show some courage.”
A note from the author: I started this column with the intention of joining a conversation I knew was already happening in the south, and your emails helped make that a reality last week.
I heard from retired marine biologists in Arkansas, philanthropists in Georgia, theologists in Virginia, poets and boat captains in Louisiana, lawyers in Florida, clean air activists in Mississippi. I also heard from climate change deniers, brand marketers, and … an old boyfriend.
I want to witness and listen to the south as it really is – not just how I want it to be. I’m doing my best to stay curious and open-minded and look forward to your continued responses. I hit the road in January, with an eye toward Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. What should I see there?
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