Does Jesus Love Smog?

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Quotes are piling in the wake of Billy Graham’s death, and they often show his dim view of partisan religion — especially after he realized he’d been suckered into Richard Nixon’s maw. This statement on ecological care is a case in point, and it swims up-current against hijacked evangelicalism’s contemporary stream.

Some well-publicized evangelicals advocate an ecological philosophy that adds up to this: “Let the heat waves come as civilization swims in rancid swill.” Toxins are good; clean air is the devil’s breath; socialist climate hoaxers plot to foil the world in their weekly conference calls. They hurl suspicion on anyone agreeing with the scientific majority, for whom pagan Earth worship is the next ledge on the slippery slope. Society at large can’t help but notice the irony: Pro-life evangelicals rightly cite science in their arguments against abortion. They want it both ways. The skeptics howl and hail the vindication of Lynn White (1907-1987), who famously blamed Christianity for the environmental crisis in 1967.

Such environmental hostility is actually an aberration in the Christian heritage, where the burden of proof lay with industrial innovators. Alister McGrath pointed out that the church in the Middle Ages doubted the morality of mining because it altered the Earth: God’s designated stewards were meant to toil in harmony with His creation. They were not His tyrants. Industrialization, with all its benefits, was anchored in the humanity-against-nature thinking of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Machines could whip back the forests, slaughter wild and rabid wolves, drain mosquito-infested swamps, fill-in bays, and spread European civilization to far-flung fronts. McGrath demolished White’s argument in The Re-enchantment of Nature: Science, Religion and the Human Sense of Wonder. 

Both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien carried traditional Christianity’s torch. Their writings reveal suspicion of soot-laden, impersonal mechanization demoting human beings to economic cogs. A host of American evangelicals now run the race. There’s Calvin B. DeWitt, born in 1935, sometimes hailed as “the modern-day father of Christian environmentalism.” He served as the first executive director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, co-founded the Evangelical Environmental Network in 1993, and has written a slew of essays and books. There’s the Canadian-reared Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and pastor’s wife. She tours the Christian college circuit and gives forceful, data-driven arguments for action on human-induced climate change. Time Magazine listed her among the one hundred most influential people in 2014. There’s the Au Sable Institute itself, which began its pre-natal infancy in 1961 as a nature-study summer youth camp in northern Michigan. It blossomed into its present state in 1979 and, today, offers courses to students from sixty Christian colleges, with campuses on the Pacific rim, in India, Costa Rica, and, of course, Michigan. Many ecologically-aware evangelicals have passed through Au Sable and now write volumes. One is Dorothy Boorse; another is Ben Lowe; yet another is Ed Brown.

And never forget the Evangelical Environmental Network, led by Mitch Hescox. Ronald Sider’s Evangelicals For Social Action founded EEN in 1993 and it eventually spun off into its own entity. Among other things, EEN personnel lobby senators and congressmen for sound environmental policies.

Billy Graham was not a leading environmentalist, of course, but his brand of pre-politicized evangelicalism made room for biologists, physicists, and atmospheric scientists. He, along with other evangelicals like Francis Schaeffer, didn’t find them threatening.


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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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