Evangelism vs. Environmentalism: paper review & discussion

Johnson, A. L., & Franklin, R. G. (2022). The Influence of Evangelical Religiosity on Environmentalism. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 009164712211220. https://doi.org/10.1177/00916471221122039

This paper came up on my Google Scholar recommendations – obviously some Silicon Valley bot is keeping tabs on my interests… Nevertheless! This was an interesting read. As a scholar whose focus is on climate change and environmentalism, and who regularly seeks to integrate understandings of religion with our understanding of the human-environment relationship, I was eager to see what Johnson and Franklin have to say.

As a very broad generalisation, I would classify this paper as an interrogation of a societal stereotype. This is valuable: too often, we come up against assumptions about how the world works, or about how people relate to each other within society. For scholars there is little value in “everyone knows that…” but immense value in “So & So investigated and showed that…”. One is hearsay; the other is research.

What Johnson and Franklin focus on in their paper is the common understanding that evangelical Christianity in the United States is, on balance, far less environmentally concerned than many would prefer. They look at possible reasons why this is understood to be the case, by taking seriously the theological constructions providing the framework for an evangelical Christian cosmology. They also take care to link in the various external-but-interrelated factors which have coalesced in the US around the Christian right-wing to reinforce what some dismiss as anti-environmental hysteria. Refreshingly, instead of woe-begone hand-wringing, they set out realistic, possible means of trying to actively engage the evangelical Christian Right with environmental issues in their conclusion. I’ll summarise these aspects of the paper briefly here.

Why might evangelicals distance themselves from environmental thought and action?

Johnson and Franklin outline a number of theological themes which all relate broadly to the logical outcomes of biblical literalism, an approach to the Bible which is prevalent in conservative and evangelical Christianity. Many passages in the Bible, if taken as literal, unaltered truth, directly contradict the points of logic which underpin environmental concern. Biblical literalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, considering the millennia that humans have been seeking guidance from biblical texts. Personally, I regret the loss of St Augustine’s principle of accommodation… But I digress.

Let’s start with evolution. Environmental change is predicated on an understanding of earthly change through principles of evolution. Conservative and evangelical Christians are more likely to hold to a seven-day narrative of creation. The two positions are incommensurate; to be both a Young Earth Creationist, for example, and acknowledge the slow, gradual processes which are being disrupted by anthropogenic impacts on the climate, would require a startling and painful level of cognitive dissonance.

Another issue linked to this is the idea of dispensationalism; this is “a theological view interpreting history and future events as being fixed through God’s ordering” (Johnson & Franklin, 2022: 5). Acknowledging climate change would necessitate accepting that there are changes occurring in the natural world which are the work of humanity – thereby contradicting the notion that God has ultimate and direct control.

Similarly, again, eschatological beliefs may directly feed into environmental attitudes through a more positive view of the temporality of our earth. Why try to prolong this earth when we can imminently expect – or, indeed, are already living through – the End Times? Addressing climate change and environmental concerns could be viewed as actively working against God’s plan as set out in Revelation (again, this is predicated on a literalist interpretation of the Bible). By this logic, environmental thought and action puts you in league with the devil.

The last theological theme raised in the paper is that of ‘earth idolatry.’ Many environmentalists deliberately use terminology and phraseology which could be viewed as deifying the earth. This is because it can make the environmental issues seem more immediate and personal which in turn can increase mobilisation and action. For someone who reads a text like the Bible literally, however, these uses of metaphor and analogy become, well, idolatry – something expressly prohibited in Christianity and in other Abrahamic religions.

It’s clear to many that the conservative and evangelical Christians of the United States tend to clump together on the right – maybe even the far right – of the political spectrum. The politicisation of the environmental movement during the latter decades of the 20th century coincided with the politicisation of the Christian Right in the US. Environmentalism became associated with liberalism and even socialism, and the partisan nature of American politics has just deepened even further since then.

Those on the right also might be wary of environmental policies because they typically involve a lot of state intervention in business and infrastructures, which are traditionally privately owned and run in the US. So, a focus on environment often directly pulls in the opposite direction to the ‘small government’ favoured by conservatives.

And now the ‘down side’

My above summary focuses largely on the contextual outline and literature review sections of the paper by Johnson & Franklin, which I found really interesting and useful. For a scholar embedded in British/European understandings of how politics, religion and environmentalism intersect, the US is a very different place.

However, I have some issues with the second half of the paper, which presents the methods and findings of a small quantitative study run by the authors on a class of college students in a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated education institution. I am not a quants specialist, however; so, I called in the cavalry. Enter my good friend and all-round quantitative analysis superstar, Dr Hannah Griffin-James.

I felt the sample was a little small – the quant studies my colleague generally deal with involve thousands of participants, so I was interested to see Hannah corroborate this gut feeling: “The sample is small. 102 psychology undergraduate students doesn’t allow for generalisation. The conservative group [52] is probably ok (a rule of thumb is you need at least 30 different voices to get an indication of a groups perceptions/attitudes).”

I was also immediately struck that the main measures used seemed quite old. Again, Hannah commented: “Allport and Ross’s (1967) Religious Orientation Scale is outdated, as is Braught, Maloney, and Ward’s (1975) Ecology Scales. The others are probably ok. The self-made scale is definitely not ok, you need need a sample of at least 400 responses to do even the first stage of validating a new scale (this means to check it’s measuring what it should be measuring). You simply cannot present a statistical factor analysis on such a small sample.”

Hannah explained that the regression, if used as just an indication of trends, is fine, especially as it focuses on conservatism. But she warned “take it with a pinch of salt, because it’s not really a rigorous measure! That being said, it would be interesting to do this properly with the right amount of responses.”

As a final note, Hannah noted: “I thought we’d moved away from sampling undergrad psych students because it’s been shown they have a very weird profile.”

I can see Hannah’s points, and I trust her perspective. But to be fair to Johnson and Franklin, I can imagine that having conducted the survey (students participated for credit in a module), they may have figured “why not do some modelling and see what it says?” I hope they apply for funding to run a larger survey with a more representative sample, as the questions they’re asking are important. And it can be really hard to get access to participants, which is why so many studies have relied on student populations in the past – that’s who the academics have easiest access to!

Possible steps moving forward

As I mentioned at the beginning, another aspect of this paper that I really appreciated was the fact that instead of taking aim at conservative and evangelical Christians, Johnson and Franklin charge us with changing our approach towards engaging them with environmental issues.

Denigrating someone for their earnestly held beliefs will not achieve what we all need, which is for each person to take some responsibility for their environment. Given the way that focusing on long-term, epochal changes causes cognitive dissonance and reactionary responses, Johnson and Franklin suggest that we seek to draw evangelicals’ attention to short-term, local environmental and conservation issues which may be impacting environments and ecosystems they care about. The cleanliness of a local river or lake, or perhaps dwindling populations of key local fauna.

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