Viewpoint: Addressing Climate Change Escapism in America’s Religious Right

David Huisjen, Jr.


Many of my old acquaintances in the United States were at the time card-carrying members of the Moral Majority – the religious political organization founded in 1979 by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933–2007), which played a significant role in getting Ronald Reagan elected. Since that organization disbanded in 1989 many of these acquaintances of mine have remained active in religious politics by way of later organizational incarnations of the same demographic: the Religious Roundtable1, the Christian Coalition2, Focus on the Family3, etc. In keeping with their obvious fondness for alliteration, such organizations have collectively come to be known as the Religious Right.4 The trademark issues for such organizations are that abortion should be made more strictly illegal5 than it was prior to the US Supreme Court’s decision of 1973 to broadly legalize it as a matter of personal privacy, homosexuality should be put back in the closet as far as possible to prevent children from drifting into such a lifestyle,6 education should be conducted according to the beliefs of the families of the children in question and the churches they are members of,7 and atheists8 and Muslims9 should be given a clear message that any rights they have within the United States are at the good pleasure of the good Christians who founded the country.

Some of my acquaintances within such groups I would still call friends, but in all honesty those are probably a minority within this group, since, I must admit, I find much of the hatred promoted in association with the above positions to be highly distasteful; and many of these old acquaintances in turn find my perspective distasteful. One old friend, however, who remains a genuine friend while remaining a committed religious right-winger is Vinnie. Vinnie is a middle aged, middle class technical worker of Italian descent. He’s no intellectual, but no dummy either. While remaining faithful to the Religious Right that he was socialized into in the early 80s, Vinnie is also a closet romantic of sorts, having lyrical moments talking about his times in the forest and his surprisingly rewarding personal contact with the sort of people most of his fellow white Republicans would consider very thoroughly “other”. Having true personal friends among Muslims, blacks, gays and immigrants of various sorts, as well as “liberals” like me, has kept Vinnie from exhibiting the sorts of hatred which I find so distasteful among many of his political allies. Vinnie still thinks the government should stay out of health care, he still thinks gay marriage should be illegal, he still believes that all is fair in the fight against abortion and he still believes that schools should be privatized as far as possible, but he doesn’t feel a need to demonize those who disagree with him on these positions.

So it came as only a mild surprise last winter, after the Republican fury over their election losses had died down, to see Vinnie posting a Facebook status in which he broke with party orthodoxy in one key area: He stopped denying climate change. This text is about what that meant for him and how I’ve responded to it.

Historical Background

Most of the opposition between environmentalism and evangelicalism in the United States would go back to the 1960s in some way or another. The Hippie movement10 of the time was all about young people, of an age where the boys among them could get drafted into the army, recognizing how dysfunctional many aspects of “adult society” were. This critique was aimed at, but was not limited to, the Viet Nam War, racial segregation and the lack of civil rights for blacks, hypocritical religious controls over sexuality, and indeed consumerism carelessly destroying the environment. As means of looking beyond these problems and searching for deeper meaning in life, this counter-culture experimented with new forms of chemical recreation, and loud, hypnotic and surreal forms of music to go with the chemicals they were playing with: “sex and drugs and rock and roll.” Respectable churches and “good Christian young people” stood opposed to all of this.

The birth of the post-hippie “Jesus Movement”11 in the early seventies seriously challenged this dialectic. This movement maintained something of the hippie idealism for making a better world, with less war, more love and deeper sincerity, and it held onto some measure of semi-psychedelic rock as a means of building a sense of community around those values; but (at least theoretically) it rejected the drug culture and the sexual revolution. Radio and television evangelists scrambled to find ways of adjusting to this new element within their churches, some more successfully than others.

1973 turned out to be an incredibly significant year for American religious culture in many ways. Richard Nixon was inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States, having just barely fulfilled his promise of getting the country out of the Viet Nam War before his first term ended; but under the weight of many different forms of corruption – with the Watergate scandal at the pinnacle of the iceberg – his presidency was sinking fast.12 Meanwhile the American Bible Society was organizing a major outreach together with the “Jesus Freaks” under the banner Key ’73,13 which in retrospect was probably the high water mark of the latter movement, before they became thoroughly “yuppified” in the mid-70s. 1973 was also the year of the famous Roe-v-Wade decision by the US Supreme Court, legalizing abortion across the country, leading to a gradual building of political solidarity in opposition to this “immoral practice” that eventually played a huge role in the “Reagan Revolution”. More in the background, but considered by some to be rather seminally important, in 1973 a radical Calvinist intellectual by the name of Rousas John Rushdoony published his magnum guide book entitled Institutes of Biblical Law,14 which presented a systematic plan for attempting to establish a de facto Christian theocracy in the United States – secretly read and partially followed by many key members of the Religious Right ever since.15 More relevant to the topic of this text, though in most ways probably less significant than any of the above, in 1973 the Billy Graham Crusade organization produced a feature film called Time to Run.16 This film was shown with free admission in a number of commercial cinemas that year, reportedly drawing in more than 6 million viewers, thus placing it somewhere between Jesus Christ Superstar and Battle for the Planet of the Apes in terms of popularity.

Time to Run can be seen as the closing chapter of the Graham organization’s consideration of hippie culture in their movie outreach. The basic plot of the film involves a young college student, majoring in environmental sciences, who takes a major stand against everything his father’s career, as the manager of a major power plant, stands for. His good Christian girlfriend tries to calm him down and reason with him on the subject, but to no avail. He appears on television news arguing against all justifications for the plant’s existence, he attempts to sabotage its operating system and he generally makes a nuisance of himself for a while before hitting the road, leaving his family and sweet girlfriend behind. But after living a bit of a prodigal life among the hippies for a while he decides that that isn’t working for him and he gives his life over to Jesus at an evangelical meeting. The closing scene is then one of him hugging his parents and reconciling with them after he has become a believer. The sub-text of the film thus contains a clear message that environmental concerns are part of the rebellious culture that the gospel message can deliver troubled young people from. Arguably environmental concerns have been thought of this way in mainstream American evangelical culture ever since.

The same year, 1973, saw the first embargo on Arab oil to the United States. The US provided military support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War17 and in retaliation for this the Muslim oil producing nations of the Middle East refused to sell petroleum to the US. America not being able to quench its thirst for oil without Arab supplies caught everyone by surprise. The government soon took action on this, introducing the much hated 55 mile-per-hour (89 kph) speed limit across the United States, signed into law in by Nixon in his final days as president. Fuel efficiency and emission control standards for cars soon followed, and under Gerald Ford’s administration the Environmental Protection Agency began rating the fuel consumption of each new car being sold.18 President Jimmy Carter pressed Americans to find further ways to save energy, preaching that cut-backs in energy consumption in particular were important for protecting their country and their planet. Opposition to this sort of environmental pessimism, together a focus on “moral issues” dear to religious conservatives, became one of the primary campaign issues for Ronald Reagan in 1980: American’s shouldn’t have to live lives of austerity and fear for the environment. They should not have to believe that their best days are behind them already. They should believe in the workability of the capitalist system and dare to live large again, proud of being able to be the world’s biggest consumers, and celebrating it in every way possible.19 From the time of Reagan’s victory on it thus became very difficult for American evangelical Protestants to disentangle opposition to environmental concerns from opposition to all forms of sixties liberalism.

The ultimate personification of this association was James Watt, Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior – the chief bureaucrat in charge of all of the United States’ national parks. Watt makes Time Magazine’s list of the 10 worst cabinet members of all time.20 His basic qualifications for this job were years of experience as a lawyer for big oil and mining companies who were suing the government for rights to explore for oil and minerals on federal lands, and that he was a devout practicing Pentecostal layman leader. He introduced prayer meetings of his own church’s style into government offices, between signing lease agreements for oil and coal companies to drill and blast away at former nature preserves. He also unsuccessfully attempted to ban women from wearing pant-suits in his offices.21 His natural ability to make enemies peaked, however, in 1983, with his unilateral decision that The Beach Boys should not be allowed to play a free concert on the National Mall in Washington (technically a national park) because that sort of rock music would bring “the wrong sort of crowd” into town. A few months later, faced with strong criticisms of his record for intolerance, Watt famously tried to defend himself against such charges by saying that his staff included “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” Eighteen days after that he semi-voluntarily resigned from office.22 In 1996 he pleaded guilty to charges of withholding subpoenaed information from his time as secretary from federal investigators. He’s been keeping a relatively low profile as a Washington lobbyist ever since. But in terms of the ongoing animosity between American evangelicals and environmentalists, his legacy lives on.

The most recent incarnation of this animosity then is the climate change denial position held by the “Tea Party” movement.23 Fundamentalist Christians who form the core of this movement are most excited about preventing abortion, pornography, promiscuity and homosexuality – “pelvic politics” as it has been called – but reducing government size and its control over everyday life, and letting churches and other volunteer organizations take over practical jobs of caring for people in need, also figure into their ideology. If that means the hyper-rich get away with paying less taxes, that’s fine with them.24 It’s more than fine with the oil baron Koch brothers who have been the ones bankrolling this movement. From there, given that many of these folks believe that the earth was created from nothing less than 10,000 years ago, it is rather easy to convince them that scientists are wrong about all sorts of things. Tell them that there’s a government conspiracy to further regulate their lives based on a hoax of global warming, and this somehow just rings true for them. Consequently those American religious conservatives who believe that scientists might just have this one right tend to keep quiet about it these days.

Breaks with the Party Line

So as I said above, I was mildly surprised when my old friend Vinnie wrote last winter that he has come to believe that human-caused global climate change is a reality. For outsiders it’s just common sense to say so, but for someone within to make such a statement takes a pretty radical amount of courage.

That’s not to say that Vinnie’s the only one who has taken such a stand. The popular television evangelist and part-time ultra-right wing politician Pat Robertson has gone as far as participating in a television spot add25 to encourage people to take risks of climate change seriously. But then again, even his biggest fans don’t take most of Robertson’s passing political pronouncements that seriously these days, and after his brief stint as an advocate on the issue he went back to the regular Tea Party mainstream denial mode on the subject.26

Then there are slightly more moderate Republicans like Bob Inglis27 who have taken it as their mission in life to stand up for science and human self-preservation on this one, even if that means facing a political firing squad within their party. But, risking a terrible play on words here, political martyrs of this sort are a dying breed.

“The End is nigh!”

Rather than flip-flopping for safety like Robertson, or facing the certain social execution with a bold face like Inglis, Vinnie has taken a different approach to protecting himself from his political allies on this one. His new take actually goes along with many statements by American evangelicals of a certain sort are prone to make whenever they face defeat in their socio-political objectives: “Well, we’ve known all along that things will get a lot worse before Jesus comes back. This is just another sign he must be coming soon. After that final battle of Armageddon he’s promised us a new heaven and a new earth anyway, so we shouldn’t get too worried about what happens to this one.”28

The defeatism in Vinnie’s new position is partially based on the idea that the irresponsible expansion of industrial production in developing countries will continue to increase global CO2 levels no matter what Americans or westerners in general do about it, so they – the Asians, Africans and South Americans – are really to blame for the inevitability of the global environmental crisis. Meanwhile, the boat we’re all on is now inevitably going to sink, so rather than trying to keep things afloat – rather than adjusting our lifestyles to live in such a way that, were all others to do the same, it would enable 7–10 billion people to somehow manage to share the resources available to us on this planet without further burning it out – he’s saying that we either need to fight our way onto what few “life rafts” there may be available, or we need to pray that Jesus comes back before things really get messy. This sort of wavering between defeatism, calloused self-interest and fantasy escapism seriously bothers me.

The Lutheran Solution

Nordic Lutherans generally aren’t much for talking about eschatology – the theological study of what the end of the world is supposed to be like. The subject, in my humble opinion regrettably, tends to be treated as a curious sub-category of ecclesiology.29 But that being said, one of the wisest and most profound things ever said in the field of eschatology, in my opinion, is attributed to Martin Luther himself. When asked what he would do today if he knew for certain that Jesus would be coming back / the world would end tomorrow, Luther reportedly said, “I would plant a tree.”30 That is what I want to convince Vinnie, and all those who share his newfound awareness of global warming, to do with whatever time we have remaining: keep planting trees.

What do I mean by that? Tree planting is an exercise in hope for the future, regardless of whether or not we personally stand to benefit from it. It is a matter of providing future generations with means of harvesting the sun’s energy, cleaner air to breathe, sometimes fruit to eat, and eventually wood for house building, furniture-making or fuel. Luther was quite aware of the uses he got out of trees that had been planted before his time, and he recognized a sort of moral requirement to continuously replace the resources he utilized so that there would be some for future generations as well. He considered this to be one of the most concrete forms of personal responsibility for the believer to exercise, and even if there were to be no future he would still want to act responsibly in this regard.

This stands in stark contrast to the behavior of many adventist31 movements over the past couple of centuries, who have thought that since the end of the world was coming soon anyway, their day-to-day responsibilities weren’t so relevant. But even if Jesus would have come back as they expected, it seems rather unlikely that he would have offered them much satisfaction in terms of vindicating them in their irresponsibility. Their actions would have been just as irresponsible even if they would have got away with them in the way they were thinking. Thus I believe Luther had the right idea on this one: faced with a genuinely apocalypse, the responsible, “Godly” thing to do is to behave as though you expect life to go on, whether it will or not. And part of what that means is to act in a responsible manner even if no one else does.

When it comes to human caused global warming, the right thing for each of us to do is to work on reducing our “footprint” to sustainable levels, where we are each doing what we would hope that others would do to ensure that there would be enough resources left to feed, shelter and educate the rest of the world’s population, and to keep things going for generations to come. Even if others remain hell-bent on destroying our planet and we can’t effectively stop them, and even if Jesus is coming back and history is coming to an end within the next few years anyway, that doesn’t keep this application of the Golden Rule from being the right thing to do.


When it comes to respect for scriptures and religious traditions, as valuable as these traditions are we will inevitably need to adjust and supplement them. We cannot pretend that the same rules which served us well when there were less than 10 million people on the planet are all we will need for keeping peace in a world with a population going on 10 billion. Priorities have to change and further protections need to be added into the system. Regardless of how literally true you consider the Bible to be – whether or not you believe that God made the world in six days – for us to live up to the ideals of Jesus’ preaching under the radically new global circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is morally and practically essential to go beyond strictly following legal and spiritual standards set over 1500 years ago.

The moral standard of not allowing any sexual activity to take place that couldn’t potentially lead to sanctioned procreation is in practice considerably less important these days than it used to be; whereas a general principle of reciprocity – living by the sort of standards we would hope and expect others to live by, and reaching out to build some sort of mutual understanding regarding those standards – is more important than ever. I hope my more theologically conservative friends can respect this reasoning. I know that many (most?) will not, but I still hold out hope for Vinnie, and many like him.

When it comes to predictions of what form the end of human history might take, one thing which should be clear actually is that the New Testament writers never expected human history to run nearly as long as it has already before ending in a great climactic battle. Even within my lifetime I’ve seen too many predictions of that final climactic battle being immanent to take such predictions that seriously any more. Yet even so, we can all see things around us continuously getting much better and much worse at the same time. Under these circumstances it certainly helps to have something beyond ourselves, our human genius and our collective goodness as a source of hope for the future – both in terms of eliminating the needless and unspeakable suffering so many experience these days, and to keep us from driving the human race to the brink of extinction in the next generation or two. We need something transcendent to pin our hopes to. Having some sort of “spiritual” vision for the future – something which gives us a sense that giving our best remains a worthwhile venture – remains important. Whether or not there’s more to that than what Luther had to say about tree planting is hard to say, but as long as those who are watching the clouds for Jesus’ second coming keep “planting trees” I’m happy to let them believe whatever they like in that regard.




Barron, B. (1992) Heaven on Earth? – The Social & Political Agendas of Dominion Theology. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. Rushdoony, R. J. (1973). Institutes of Biblical Law. The Craig Press, Nutley, N.J. Woodward & Bernstein (1976). The Final Days. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Journals and magazines:

“Religion: Key to Conversion.” TIME Magazine, February 19, 1973. “Top Ten Worst Cabinet Members”, Time Lists. TIME Magazine.,28804,1858691_18586.... Accessed 26.8.2013. Cohn, Roger (2013). “Bob Inglis: the Republican who believes in climate change.” The Guardian, February 14. Accessed 26.8.2013. Fox, Margalit (2004). The obituary of Ed McAteer, the founder of Religious Roundtable. The New York Times, October 10. Accessed 26.8.2013. Taibbi, Matt (2010). “The Truth About the Tea Party.” Rolling Stone, September 28. Accessed 26.8.2013. Weisman, Steven R. (1983). “Watt Quits Post; President Accepts With ‘Reluctance’.” New York Times, October 10. Accessed 26.8.2013.

Other sources:

“Adventists and Lutherans in conversation. Report of the bilateral conversations between the Lutheran World Federation and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, 1994–1998.” Accessed 26.8.2013. A site collecting information about the 1970’s Jesus movement. Accessed 26.8.2013. A web site about Luther. Accessed 26.8.2013. A Wikipedia article on Corporate Average Fuel Economy. Accessed 26.8.2013. An article on Yom Kippur War on Accessed 26.8.2013. Brown, Motte (2010). ”Is Homosexuality Natural?”. Accessed 26.8.2013. Christian Coalition, the official web site. Accessed 26.8.2013. Combs, Roberta (2009). A blog entry, ”Atheists relentless in trying to expunge God from public square.” Accessed 26.8.2013. Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on the hippie movement, Accessed 26.8.2013. Focus on the Family organization, the official web site. For information about the organization’s views about abortion, see Accessed 26.8.2013. Head, Tom. “The Religious Right.” Accessed 26.8.2013. Housholder, David (2010). An essay, “Why Lutherans can’t evangelize.” Accessed 26.8.2013. James Watt’s profile at the NNDB site. Accessed 26.8.2013. Lanier, Candice (2013). A blog entry, “Terrorism in America – Fighting an enemy whose name cannot be spoken.” Accessed 26.8.2013. Pat Robertson on CBN. Accessed 26.8.2013. Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton starring a television spot add on climate change. Accessed 26.8.2013. Religious Right Watch, a web site offering information about the Religious Right. Accessed 26.8.2013. Snyder, Michael (2013). A blog entry, “All over America Evangelical Christians are being labeled as ‘extremists’ and ‘hate groups’.” Accessed 26.8.2013. The text of Reagan’s official campaign brochure. Accessed 26.8.2013. TheocracyWatch, a web site offering information about the Religious Right. for example these entries:, Accessed 26.8.2013. Time to Run, the official film trailer. Accessed 26.8.2013. Viola, Frank (2013). A blog entry, “Rethinking the Second Coming of Christ.” Accessed 26.8.2013.

  1. See Fox 2004.
  2. See this organization’s official web site at:
  3. See this organization’s political agenda on their web site at:
  4. For examples of literature regarding the Religious Right in general, see TheocracyWatch’s web site at, Head’s article at, the web site of Religious Right Watch at, etc.
  5. For information about the Religious Right’s opinions about abortion, see, e.g.,, and
  6. See, e.g., Brown 2010. See also
  7. For information about the Religious Right’s opinions about education, see, e.g.,
  8. See, e.g., Combs 2009.
  9. See, e.g., Lanier 2013.
  10. See, e.g., Encyclopedia Britannica’s article on the movement at
  11. For a snapshot of this cultural phenomenon, see this site collecting information about the 1970’s Jesus movement:
  12. For the definitive account of this era with all of the scandals it entailed, see Woodward & Bernstein 1976.
  13. See “Religion: Key to Conversion” in TIME magazine, 19 February, 1973.
  14. Rushdoony, R. J.: Institutes of Biblical Law, Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press (890 pages).
  15. See Barron 1992, 9–11.
  16. The official trailer for this film can be seen at:
  17. See an article on the war at
  18. See an article on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy at
  19. See the text of Reagan’s official campaign brochure at
  20. See the Time Magazine’s list at,28804,1858691_1858690_1858648,00.html
  21. See James Watt’s profile at
  22. See Weisman 1983.
  23. Biased though it is, for an in-depth analysis of “Tea Party” culture in the United States I would have to recommend Matt Taibbi’s article, “The Truth About the Tea Party” in Rolling Stone of 28 Sept. 2010.
  24. This is not to say that “tea partiers” are by and large rich. The important issue for them ideologically is not to give advantage to the rich so much as to be afraid of too large and powerful a government in general. This ideology includes leaving churches in charge of welfare as much as possible, and giving parents free hands as to how they raise their children. They broadly see benefits for the rich as an acceptable by-product of these policy recommendations.
  25. Robertson’s add can be seen at
  26. Pat Robertson on CBN. See
  27. See Cohn 2013.
  28. Frank Viola quotes a survey done on 2006: “According to a 2006 survey by Pew Research Forum, 79% of Christians in the USA say they believe the return of Christ will happen someday. 20% say it will happen in their lifetime. 34% say the world situation will grow worse before He returns.” See Viola’s blog entry at This would indicate that those who take “bad news” as a sign of Christ’s immanent return as demographic numbering in the tens of millions. A classic example of this mentality from a quick search on the subject: In response to a blog entry by Michael Snyder (2013) about Christians “becoming less free” to “spread the Gospel” (, one response reads: “This all simply confirms and fulfills scriptural prophecy. It's a time to be joyful to be a Christian shortly prior to Jesus' return.”
  29. For a relatively brief but thorough investigation of contemporary Lutheran thought on eschatology, see this report on ecumenical discussions between Lutherans and Adventists in Germany: “Adventists and Lutherans in conversation. Report of the bilateral conversations between the Lutheran World Federation and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, 1994–1998.” For a more succinct analysis of the Lutheran position on eschatology, with reference to the American context in particular, Californian Lutheran priest David Housholder has a refreshingly candid insider’s perspective on the matter: “The Lutheran Church is beautiful, in a Volvo/Ikea sort of way. We tend to be understated and solid, with terminal dependability and not much foolishness. But we have some real weak spots. We more or less have no functioning eschatology (end times teaching). Martin Luther wrecked that for us. He thought the Antichrist was alive and that his name was Leo, and that he lived in Rome. […] We’ve had an eschatological hangover ever since. A dirty little family secret.” See Housholder 2010.
  30. According to some sources (e.g. this web site about Luther at this quote may well be apocryphal but for purposes of attributing non-original friendly advice, certainty on this point is not entirely necessary.
  31. I write this with a small a on purpose. The capital-A Adventists have been but one of many movements to base their practice on the idea that Jesus could be coming back any minute, and would certainly do so before the ends of their lifetimes. I do not wish to single out any particular group here, but to refer to this trend as a whole.