By Charles Redfern, cross-published with www.creedible.com
Does anyone hear the ominous background music? A window-shopping couple smiles; a mother pushes a baby carriage; a child plays in a sandbox. Everyone’s happy. But the slow drumroll and dissonant cellos betray the inexorable menace: A Palinized version of the Republican Party – that formerly stuffy but reasonable gent now gone wild – will soon run the House of Representatives, with Illinois Republican John Shimkus possibly heading up the powerful Energy Commerce Committee. The obvious evidence for climate change, one of humanity’s gravest challenges, will lie buried beneath a heap of Bible verses stolen from their context. GOP leaders have already said they’ll axe the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
Shimkus’ name kills rational theological-spiritual discussion as fast as you say “Pat Robertson.” Skeptics fear we’re like him, forcing us into verbal back-pedaling: “I’m sure the Congressman is a sincere man … bla-blah-blah … No doubt he’s a fine Christian brother … blah-blah-blah … I don’t question his motives, but … blah-blah … blah … blah … blabiddy-blah-blah-BAH!” They’ve heard he wants the committee chair and they tremble at his statements of March 2009. He began by reading from Genesis 8:21-22: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though all inclinations of his heart are evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.” Then a passage from Matthew 24: “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” He interpreted: “The earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood. … I do believe that God’s word is infallible. Unchanging. Perfect.”
Hear the cellos groan: “Today we have about 388 parts per million [of carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere. I think in the age of the dinosaurs, when we had most flora and fauna, we were probably at 4,000 parts per million. There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon.”
Wake up, America. This is grim. The House now belongs to those normally niched with the Flat Earth Society. Fringe thinking is encroaching and throttling the mainstream – and we may pay a cataclysmic price for our own dumbing down.
First of all, Shimkus does no one any favors, especially evangelical Christians, when he invokes the Bible’s perfection and infallibility. For the record, I agree with those doctrines, but I also know they need nuanced explanation: no, I do not believe in a literal eye for eye and tooth for tooth (it’s an idiomatic expression meaning punishment that fits the crime); no, I don’t believe the “days” in Genesis 1 are literal (the text itself suggests otherwise). And I know those terms lose secular audiences. We’re branded “fanatics” and placed in the Taliban file. Argue for the Bible’s accuracy, John. Leave the in-house debates over infallibility, inerrancy, or “inerrancy in matters of faith and practice” for the house itself.
More important, Shimkus is blowing down a straw man. Witness the plea of PZ Myers, a University of Minnesota biologist. I include his snootiness in the interest of warts and all: “Could one of you voters out there in Illinois take Shimkus aside and explain to him with short, simple words and short, simple sentences that global warming isn’t going to destroy the world? It’s not an argument anyone is making. It could very well make the world more tropical, and it could be of some advantage to certain kinds of plants … However, please note: human beings aren’t plants … The concern with global warming is change that will cause economic disruption and environmental disturbances and damage to places we like…like cities. Honestly, if nations collapse, we know that algae will still thrive. We just happen to generally take the side of humanity.” Myers added that dinosaur-era sea levels were 550 feet higher than today’s. Much of the current-day United States was under water (click here for a Wikipedia map showing the shorelines).
Still more crucial, Shimkus defies the spirit of the Bible while he quotes a passage irrelevant to the issue at hand. We’re called to stewardship and sacrifice. As has been argued repeatedly, God put us here to care for the Lord’s Earth (which is the point of the language in Genesis 1:27-28) and guard his sanctuary (2:15). More traditional Christians – such as CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien – warned of industrialization’s depersonalization and potential damage. They campaigned against greedy materialism and promoted simple living. The potential for climate change gives us ammo for our historic arguments – except we’ve changed sides. Shimkus is cutting himself off from his own spiritual moorings.
When chimeras become facts and facts become chimeras
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Everything is now reversed and overturned and veiled, with truth switched and swapped and repositioned for advantage. Real history is bartered for myth. We’re slogging through a cerebral morass clogged with naked propaganda. An example: The Republican Party was once the bastion of rational environmentalism under Theodore Roosevelt and again under Nixon, who spurred the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act Extension, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. No longer. Eavesdrop on House Speaker designate John Boehner when he said this to George Stephanopoulos last year: “George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical …” Press pause. No one is arguing CO2 is a carcinogen. Pause button released: “Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.” Press pause: Try methane, Mr. Speaker.
Hello? Anyone out there? I’ll say it slowly: This … is … our … next … speaker … of … the … House.
But the Orwellian charade plays on. Many climate change deniers accuse scientists of cabal-like conspiracies. Jane Mayer ably demonstrated that the deniers themselves form the cabal in the August 30 New Yorker, with billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch underwriting much of the funding: “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry – especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries as one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial.’” Mayer quotes Charles Lewis, the founder of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity: “They have a pattern of law-breaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.” David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980. Among the Party’s proposals: Abolish the FBI, CIA, the Security and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Energy; eliminate social security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, and all personal and corporate taxes; legalize prostitution, recreational drugs, and suicide.
How intriguing: Some conservative Tea Party evangelicals view libertarianism as the more “Christian” political alternative. Welcome to the land of chimeras, reversals, swaps, and repositioning. Many lap up Glenn Beck, a Mormon, and former drug addict and multi-divorced Rush Limbaugh. Meanwhile, I’ve found my own Christianity questioned – even though two denominations, one solidly evangelical, have seen fit to ordain me. The haunting music plays.
The ticket received one percent of the vote. The Koch brothers changed tactics and spread their wealth into such libertarian institutions as the Cato Institute, which has promulgated climate change denial.
Academic and liberal culpability
Academics and liberals are not innocent. I quoted Myers in full to highlight their Achilles heel: They enable us to take a nostril hair census as they lift their noses to lofty heights and dis people of faith with an apparent syllogism: 1), Religious people launched the Spanish Inquisition; 2) the individual before me is a religious person; 3), therefore, this innocent-looking homemaker personally authorized the Inquisition and murdered thousands. Myers himself vents on a blog subtitled: “Evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal.” I suggest he add this: “How to make sweeping generalizations, lose friends, alienate people, and push them into the Shimkus-Boehner camp.” The Anglican Rev. Giles Frasier, who sympathizes with the British Labour Party, has grown weary of the snobbery: “Fundamentally, I am sick of being sneered at by those on the Left who consider religious belief to be intellectually inferior. And I am sick, too, of having to justify my religious presence in the allegedly big tent.”
Cull the literature. Mention the Catholic Church. References to Galileo spring up like jack-in-the-boxes despite his death 368 years ago. It was a nasty business, to be sure, but stuff’s happened since then. The church has changed and is now a powerful, potential ally – if you’ll stop estranging everyone and try to understand the religious mind. I know you’re not threatened by the domesticated, keep-your-God-in-church faith of the 1950’s, but that was an aberration and has been on its deathbed for decades. Do not tell people to go back to that. Religion’s very nature probes the human core and bursts out of any building. It cannot be relegated to a “hobby,” to use Stephen Carter’s phrase – especially in America, the most religious nation of the industrialized world. And yes. I know. “Bad things” have been done in the name of religion, but shall I present an itemized list of “things” done in the name of science?
Wow. I can’t count your nostril hairs any more. Maybe you’ll read Francis’ Collins The Language of God in your new-found humility. Collins, a devoted Christian who headed The Human Genome Project, showed how science and faith are not contradictions.
Americans think religiously whether you like it or not. At the very least, respect that.
No more nonsense
Hear the threatening background music and get serious. The prospect of global warming is massively critical. Stop the game-playing. The time for bad theology, slipshod thinking, and snobbery has long since passed. Americans of the 21st century live under the hallucination that the days of world-wide calamity are over. We think we’re immune. Key leaders are convinced the delusion is true — and that is sobering.
The somber cellos and drums warn us. The couple’s world may shatter; the mother may scream; the child may weep.
For further reading:
Carter, Stephen, The Culture of Disbelief
Collins, Francis: The Language of God
Galbraith, Kate, Boehner: “Calling Carbon Dioxide Dangerous Is ‘Almost Comical’” http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/boehner-calling-carbon-dioxide-dangerous-is-almost-comical/
Gibson, David, “Bible Protects Against Global Warming? Energy Chair Hopeful Tells Us So,” Politics Daily, 11/27/2010, http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/11/27/bible-protects-against-global-warming-energy-chair-hopeful-tell/
Leonard, Andrew, “And God said to Noah: ‘Don’t fret about global warming’: A Republican seeking to chair the House Energy committee explains why devastating climate is impossible,” Salon.com,
Myers, PZ, “Illinois! You Elected Shimkus! What Were You Thinking,” Pharyngula, March, 2009, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/03/illinois_you_elected_john_shim.php
Ung-Kyu Lee, “Retro Action, December 2, 1970: Nixon Creates the Best Job Ever,” http://www.takepart.com/news/2010/11/30/december-2-1970-epa-opens-doors
Wiener, Aaron, “The Top Five Environmental Whoppers of 2009: An Earth Day Retrospective,” The Washington Independent, March 22, 2009, http://washingtonindependent.com/40082/the-top-5-environmental-whoppers-of-2009-an-earth-day-retrospective