In 2008, I argued in Creation Care magazine that John McCain was the only candidate who could “truly revolutionize the politics of global warming.” I was wrong. Barack Obama also possessed that power, but the revolution he touched off was not the sort he or I wanted. Today, Creation Care magazine is no more, and the broader creation care movement, which once was seen as key to shifting the national debate on matters green, is listing badly. The Republican Party has gone from George W. Bush’s painting in light-green water colors (the substance was sometimes thin, but the tone was usually eco-friendly) to Donald J. Trump’s charcoals (fossil fuels are beloved, and climate change is a ruse).
Hard as it is to fathom now, not only the nominee McCain but also the runner-up and religious right favorite Mike Huckabee spent 2008 talking green and supporting substantial action on climate change. Rod Dreher had identified a new political species called Crunchy Cons, and even Newt Gingrich was pitching A Contract with the Earth. But Obama won, overreached, and in the end gained nothing but a galvanized anti-green opposition. What could have been a GOP sea change instead became a U-turn.
The reversal was surprising because the creation care movement seemed to have the momentum in a new millennium. Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, two very influential megachurch pastors, were among an impressive list signing onto the Evangelical Climate Initiative in 2006. The National Association of Evangelicals’s man in Washington, Richard Cizik, experienced a climate conversion and basked in the mainstream media limelight. William F. Buckley had good things to say.
There were naysayers, but as Jim Ball, then the president of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), told me as I urged his group to face their opposition head-on, Calvin Beisner and his band of libertarian Christian climate skeptics were just “talking to themselves.” Turns out that Beisner—a confidant of Senator Jim Inhofe, the Republican anti-cap and trade crusader—was also talking to influential voices in Christian media and to religious right activists who had lengthy member lists and a fear of muddying the political waters. Beisner and company tapped into an innate wariness about those in the secular environmental movement who seemingly wanted to abort babies in order to make the world safe for whales.
Those crafting creation care strategy came mostly from the wing of evangelicalism that is more comfortable talking about civil rights than about the right to life. The liberal foundations that helped to keep the lights on at EEN—with some funds originating, ironically enough, in the Rockefeller oil fortune—were probably happy to see the full-page ads in the New York Times. But such efforts did little to move the people in the pews. The strategy seemed to focus on bluffing policy elites into believing that most evangelicals already cared about the environment—rather than on actually persuading the more skeptical evangelical rank and file. By 2012, a frustrated Ball, speaking at the World Wildlife Fund in D.C., would proclaim it a “fool’s errand” to try to reach the right side of the evangelical spectrum.
Maybe it was a fool’s errand to try to reach the right while coming from the left. Because they have yet to walk the conservative walk with sustained conviction—and usually they talk the talk a bit awkwardly—creation care advocates have failed to overcome the religious right’s Trojan horse fears. Messengers matter. Unfortunately, many of creation care’s high-profile messengers have furthered the stereotype of environmentalism as the starter drug of liberalism. Exhibit A: Cizik was forced out of his NAE post after he failed to defend traditional marriage on NPR, and he has since embraced a host of leftist causes. Exhibit B: Brian McLaren, the “emergent” author/pastor who took Obama’s side opposite me in the pages of Creation Care, would go on to preside at his gay son’s “commitment service.” While there is yet much good one could say about the ministries of Cizik, McLaren, Ball, EEN, and others in the creation care orbit, if a goal was to connect with conservatives, not just chastise them, then the effort must be deemed largely unsuccessful.
But there are plenty of theologically and politically conservative reasons to care. Creation stewardship is mentioned on page one of the Bible and regularly thereafter. Russell Kirk, one of the key intellectuals behind the conservative movement, had a green streak. Francis Schaeffer, the godfather of the religious right, not only showed evangelicals that abortion was a fundamental evil, but also pushed us to take caring for the planet seriously. Those two can, and should, go together. But for a variety of historic (and not necessarily logical) reasons, the greens went all-in with the Democrats and the pro-lifers locked arms with the Republicans. The rules of tribalism then took over.
As the recent Milo/CPAC debacle reminds us, the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. Liberals can overreact—but sometimes there is something worth reacting to. A claim is not wrong just because Al Gore says it. Neither should a reasonable question be ignored just because a “consensus” has declared that “the argument is over.”
Perhaps, in the wake of Trump, there will be a chance to piece back together a conservatism and a Christian worldview with something edifying to say about all of creation. While counter-intuitive causes like criminal justice reform are now being championed from the right, the creation care movement has yet to produce groups like Prison Fellowship and Right on Crime, organizations built around bona fide conservative voices such as the late Chuck Colson and Grover Norquist.
Some green shoots are breaking through the dry ground, though. Roger Scruton is lucid as usual, and former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Bob Inglis are making a risk-based and economically conservative case for a revenue neutral carbon tax. Here’s hoping social conservatives, remembering forebears like Kirk and Schaeffer, will soon let our own mustard seeds grow.
John Murdock teaches environmental law at the Handong International Law School, a Christian institution in South Korea.