By Jack Jenkins
A group of evangelical Christians are organizing, demonstrating, and praying for action on climate change in North Carolina this week, bringing an unusual, faith-focused, “pro-life” brand of environmentalism to the Tar Heel State.
On Tuesday, a group of evangelical Christians gathered for a prayer breakfast at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, which takes its name from the famous American evangelist. According to Rachel Lamb, national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA), the event came about as a partnership with the Lausanne Movement, an evangelical organization inspired by Graham in the 1970s. She told ThinkProgress the gathering centered around a “Creation Care” liturgy that connected environmentalism with the Biblical call to care for God’s creation.
“We had a prayer of repentance, recognizing that we have participated in degrading creation,” Lamb said. “Then we had prayers for those most impacted by climate change, and also spent some time praying for our political leaders, hoping that they would take bold, courageous action — that people on both sides of the aisle will continue to recognize that climate change impacts us, here, and our generation disproportionately.”
“[Hayhoe] reflected on her own perspective on how she integrates her faith with her work, and thinks it’s so important that evangelicals are leading the way for climate action,” Lamb said, noting that Hayhoe also cited climate change as evidence of broken relationships between people and creation itself.
Lamb explained that the gathering, along with a similar event later Tuesday at First Baptist Church in Asheville, is partly a celebration of the Global Day of Prayer for Climate Action, an international campaign created last year to capitalize off the energy created by the historic 2015 climate-focused talks in Paris, France. The event hopes to invigorate the evangelical community to match the efforts of other faith groups that have voiced firm support for taking action on climate change, such as mainline Protestant Christians, renowned Muslim scholars, and Pope Francis himself.
But this week’s religious activism also has a far more localized goal: helping build energy around climate change legislation in North Carolina. The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), another sponsor of Tuesday’s prayer breakfast, announced a petition signed by 15,000 self-identified evangelicals in North Carolina that demands a “pro-life” energy plan and calling for clean electricity in the state by 2030.
“As a pro-life Christian, I believe pollution harms the unborn, causing damage that lasts a lifetime,” the petition reads. “Dirty water and air have serious consequences for the health of our children and other vulnerable populations, like the elderly. So, I ask Governor McCrory and other elected officials to support a plan for clean electricity that will: free our children from pollution by relying entirely on clean electricity from renewable resources like wind and solar by 2030; defend our freedom to create our own electricity from sunshine, without fees championed by monopolistic utilities; free our communities from regulations that prevent us from joining together to create our own electricity; and free businesses from such regulations so that they, too, can create and sell clean electricity.”
Alexis Laushkin, Vice-President of the EEN, said that the week-long effort was an attempt to flex the power of the evangelical voice in North Carolina, where the largest religious group is the Southern Baptist Convention.
“North Carolina was kind of an early adopter of clean energy,” Laushkin said. “But they haven’t taken much action since, and they still import 40 percent of their energy from out of state…There’s still a lot of work to do be done.”
Indeed, there is some precedent for climate-friendly theology among North Carolina evangelicals, including Billy Graham himself. As Lamb noted in a Charlotte Observer op-ed on Monday, the evangelist — who lives in Montreat, North Carolina — spoke out in favor of protecting the environment in 2015.
“Why should we be concerned about the environment?” Graham said. “It isn’t just because of the dangers we face from pollution, climate change, or other environmental problems – although these are serious. For Christians, the issue is much deeper: We know that God created the world, and it belongs to Him, not us. Because of this, we are only stewards or trustees of God’s creation, and we aren’t to abuse or neglect it.”
But even with the support of leaders such as Graham and Hayhoe, climate change activists are a rare breed among evangelicals. According to a 2014 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelical Protestants are less concerned about climate change than any other major American religious group, with only 35 percent saying they are very or somewhat concerned about our changing environment. They are also more likely than any other religious denomination to be climate change “skeptics,” or people who doubt the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that the earth’s temperature has been rising over the past few decades: 39 percent of white evangelicals say they are skeptics when it comes to climate change, whereas only 27 percent identify as “believers” and 29 percent claim to be “sympathizers.” By comparison, only 26 percent of Americans overall identify as skeptics.
But organizers insist their efforts represent a growing number of evangelicals who are lifting up voices and prayers in support of the environment, and that their campaigns help shed light on a constituency that other climate campaigns often ignore — especially in North Carolina.
“[Evangelicals] who say we should be good steward of God’s creation tend not to be a central focus or target for environmental campaigns, because they get modeled out in some ways,” Laushkin said. “For them, whoever their presidential candidate might be, they would like that candidate to take stewardship seriously.”
For her part, Lamb said that her youth-focused organization was a conduit to bring older and less climate-conscious evangelicals into the fold.
“We’re a part of the church, we share evangelical values, and we’re connecting them to this issue,” she said. “I think we have ways of breaking down some of the values but starting with this as a moral, gospel-centered issue. We’re able to breakdown some of the political or sociological barriers that sometimes shape and inform the way people approach an issue, and start with what we have in common — which is our faith.”