Image courtesy Roberto Rizzato at Flickr
A recent Gallup poll found "historically low levels of public worry about environmental problems," and more than a third of those polled believe the environmental movement "has done more harm than good." Once upon a time, Americans responded to environmental disasters by passing landmark laws like the Clean Air Act. Now it seems our support for the environment decreases with each new oil spill. What happened?
The Fossil Fuel Industry/Corrupt Politicians/McMedia Complex undoubtedly deserve some credit for this surreal situation. Environmentalists may also be faulted for their continuing elitism and hypocrisy -- we tend to care far more about remote wildernesses than inner city drinking water, and are all for wind turbines until someone wants to put them in our backyard. But all these problems were around when environmental catastrophes galvanized rather than eroded the public's support for progressive environmental policies.
One thing that has changed is the rising influence of the Christian Right, which appears to have helped convince an increasing number of Americans that there is no need to worry about urgent environmental problems such as climate change because "God has the reins, and He will save us."
Such thinking is skillfully nurtured and inflamed by some powerful evangelical Christian organizations and their often well-heeled allies. For example, as detailed in a Huffington Post blog last December, several conservative Christian leaders recently joined with the Cornwall Alliance to promote Resisting The Green Dragon, a 12-part DVD series featuring prominent religious leaders bashing the environmental movement for "seducing and scaring" our children and "trumpeting exaggerations and myths." They and other Christian Right leaders also accuse environmentalists of "worshiping the creation rather than the Creator" and believing that humans should "serve the earth rather than the other way around."
Another recent article noted that the Cornwall Alliance, Focus on the Family and other conservative groups are now pushing Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death, a new book about environmentalists' "anti-human" and "anti-Christian" philosophies. Among many other things, this book claims that:
• Savage wolves have come to be among the church... No one can serve two masters...
• The Litany of the Green Dragon provides some certainty for people without God, who drift steadily from their rational moorings...
• Christians must resist Green overtures to recast true religion, nor allow themselves to be prey for teachers of pagan heresies...
• We humans are special creatures, in a class of our own, quite separate from, and superior to, trees and animals...
Many religious leaders and scholars within and outside the Christian church have denounced such anti-environmental theology. For instance, Fred Bahnson, a former Kellogg Food & Society Fellow and graduate of Duke Divinity School, stated that "The Cornwall Alliance is dressing up right-wing ideology and baptizing it with their own wacky brand of religiosity, a small-minded and incipient religiosity at that."
Dr. Benjamin Zeller, Professor of Religious Studies at Brevard College and author of a recent book about new religious movements, argued that this extreme anti-environmentalism within some evangelical communities stems from their belief that "sin" is a personal rather than social evil. Consequently, their theological worldview is that because "God controls history and nature, everything happens according to His plans. Their language is also less carefully developed theology than emotional attacks meant to appeal to the "us/them" thinking that is prevalent among all fundamentalists."
Yet despite such criticisms and the good work of more moderate, pro-environment Christian groups, until the larger environmental movement more effectively counters this kind of extreme anti-environmental theology, neither more tornadoes nor floods nor oil spills may awaken the Green Dragon and catalyze us into action again.