Being God-Fearing And Green Can Coexist
In the 1996 debate over the Endangered Species Act in the United States, the religious right was as fervent as the green left in defending tough legal protections for at risk species.
In Canada, the phenomenon seems most developed on the West Coast, notably among Anglican evangelicals. The largest Anglican church in Vancouver, St. John’s Shaughnessy, which is a perpetual thorn in the side of liberal bishops on many social and theological issues, is hosting a “Visions for the Earth” conference April 17, the day before Earth Day, sponsored by Vision TV, and with help from the Earthhouse Collective.
Loren Wilkinson, professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Regent College in Vancouver and an orthodox Anglican evangelical who has been a green activist for 25 years, believes that environmental awareness comes in waves. “Generally the evangelical world is a few years behind the wave,” notes Prof. Wilkinson, who was arrested in 1993 for protesting against logging in Clayoquot Sound. “But the wave crests and then it recedes. As a culture we’re faddish, and the evangelical world is no different.”
The wave may have hit the U.S. and the West Coast, but there’s scant evidence of it in the rest of Canada. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an umbrella organization for 28 denominations representing approximately 2.5 million Canadians, has shown little interest in the subject but for its 1995 Bible study guide called “God’s Earthkeepers.”
Gail Reid, editor of Fellowship, the magazine for the hardy evangelical minority within the United Church, says her congregation is so preoccupied with the raging debate within the church over the divinity of Christ that the environment–along with most other issues–has been pushed off the agenda.
Still, it is undeniably true that conservative evangelicals are increasingly estranged from their historic allies on the political right, the free market neo-conservatives, and environmental policy is one of the points of conflict. That could drive evangelicals closer to religious liberals, who long ago traded the hair shirt for a hemp shirt. Tom Robinson, New Brunswick-based spokesman for Barnabas, the key group that promotes evangelical reform in the Anglican church, thinks there is room for accommodation. “Environment issues are one of those things on which we can agree,” he argues. Mr. Robinson believes evangelicals may also be willing to overlook the Green Goddess theology that inspires some elements of the environmental movement.
But will greens be willing to overlook their philosophical disagreements with Christians, whether liberal or conservative? Many traditional environmentalists see Judeo-Christian orthodoxy as their implacable enemy, because it holds that human beings are special and that human domination of the planet is a good thing.
Vancouver televangelist Bernice Gerard, who got involved with Visions for the Earth at the request of Vision TV, finds that evangelicals are very cautious in their dealings with environmentalists because of their New Age associations. She is sceptical that alliances between liberal and conservative church factions will succeed.
Calvin Beisner, professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant (Presbyterian) College in Georgia, cautions evangelicals to remember that environmentalists are often narrowly focused on the protection of plants and animals, typically at the expense of people. He points to the campaign to rid the world of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in refrigeration which have been associated with the destruction of the ozone layer. If that campaign succeeds, he notes, the net effect will be to raise the cost of refrigeration around the world. “Since the poor are least able to afford refrigeration anyway, you raise the threshold of income at which the poor will be able to begin to afford adequate refrigeration. You delay the time at which you reduce the incidence of foodborne disease,” says Prof. Beisner. He adds that environmental protection usually follows from higher standards of living: “If you slow economic advance, you will also slow protection of the environment.”