The United Nations has called climate change “the defining issue of our time.” In some corners, the global response to climate change is more urgently discussed than ever. In towns and cities around the planet, demonstrations and strikes have brought millions into the streets. Scientific bodies, including the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Climate Assessment, have issued calls for concerted action. In 2019, Time magazine named climate activist Greta Thunberg its “Person of the Year.” And yet, there is at least one politically influential demographic that remains mostly unmoved—conservative white evangelical Christians in the United States. Explanations are varied, but one popular theory suggests that end-times theology has primed evangelicals for apathy. A new book examines that possibility.
Robin Globus Veldman is assistant professor of religious studies at Texas A&M University. In her new book, The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change, Veldman provides a rigorous inquiry into evangelical climate skepticism, tracing out important relationships among theology, culture, media, and politics.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Veldman about the book recently by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: This book offers an extended examination of what you have called the “end-time apathy hypothesis.” What is that, exactly?
Robin Globus Veldman: The basic idea is that evangelicals don’t care about the environment because they think that Jesus will return soon. It has been widely accepted, especially among environmentalists, but had never been empirically investigated. It was always just kind of thrown out there. E.O. Wilson, Al Gore, and Bill Moyers, for example, have all talked about the potential for end-time beliefs to discourage concern about climate change. As Moyers says, why care about the earth when you and yours are about to be rescued in the Rapture? But I wanted to treat it as a hypothesis because no one had actually examined it. Though I could have approached evangelical attitudes on climate from the angle of politics or theology or anti-science prejudices, this struck me as a more productive research question. There seemed to be a lot of lay interest, and it was something that I was curious about too. So that’s where I started.
R&P: Is the hypothesis correct?
RGV: My argument is that it’s onto something, but it’s not the best way to conceptualize what’s going on. End-time beliefs are a very important part of modern evangelicals’ religious worldview. They are a key element of the faith, and they play a central role in a lot of evangelical culture. But I found that end-time beliefs are deeply enmeshed in a larger matrix of influences from which they can’t be separated. They can’t be considered in isolation. I spend the rest of the book mapping that matrix.
R&P: The hypothesis relies on an end-times eschatology known as premillennialism, and you divide your subjects into “hot” and “cool” millennialist camps. What is this distinction and why is it important?
RGV: One of the tricky things about this research is that it required a deep dive into evangelical eschatology—the study of end times—and that required learning some jargon, especially as it concerns two key ideas. Premillennialism refers to the belief that Jesus will return to earth before the millennium, which is understood as a thousand-year period of righteousness over which Christ will preside. Postmillennialism, by contrast, refers to the belief that Jesus will return after a thousand-year period. Premillennialism suggests that the condition of life on earth will deteriorate until Christ returns, while postmillennialism suggests that it should improve. This is how evangelical theologians divide the different beliefs about the end times.
But when I went into the field and started speaking with people, I found that these categories did not map cleanly onto actually existing beliefs. Since most people who hold these viewpoints have not studied them in-depth or gone to seminary or anything, they don’t have this sort of erudite understanding. Instead, the clearest distinction that I saw in terms of how to categorize people was between what I call “hot” and “cool” millennialists. Hot millennialists are people who are really excited about the end times. They think that Jesus is coming back soon, they’re paying attention to signs, and the possibility gives them a feeling of hope. Cool millennialists are people who believe in Christ’s return but do not believe that it can be predicted with accuracy, and so are less directly motivated by the anticipation. As one gentleman told me, “We live like he’s coming today, but plan like he’s coming tomorrow.” This is by far the more common view, which ends up being very significant for attitudes on climate change because the end-time apathy hypothesis imagines a large constituency of hot millennialists. But these are far fewer, and I ran into a very small number of people who seemed to be enthusiastic about climate change as a harbinger of the end. If the hypothesis were correct, you’d expect to see a lot more of that sort of energy.
R&P: Because there is disagreement among those who anticipate the end times, you suggest that evangelical climate skepticism writ large is better explained by the “embattled mentality” of conservative evangelicals. What do you mean?
RGV: The embattled mentality is a term that I got from Christian Smith and his colleagues. It refers to a mindset that is traceable to the 1960s, and to the perception among evangelicals that they were being increasingly excluded from the public square. It was associated with Supreme Court decisions that removed the Bible and prayer from public schools, Roe v. Wade, gay rights, feminism, and the complex of societal changes that evangelicals believed to be moving American culture away from its historically Christian orientation. So a bunch of evangelical leaders, working with conservative political strategists, became active in the secular political sphere and emerged as what was then called the New Christian Right. This movement would significantly impact the way many evangelicals thought about themselves and their relationship to society.
The embattled mentality has been building for decades within the evangelical community. If you listen to or read the most prominent evangelical spokesmen, you can see it in their language. For example, Tim LaHaye, who was both a leader on the Christian Right and a co-author of the apocalyptic Left Behind novels, would frequently speak about how America used to be a Christian nation, but is now awash in a rising tide of secularism, so Christians need to oppose this by becoming politically active. In this, he was typical of the architects of the Christian Right, who promoted this worldview as part of their story for mobilizing evangelical Christians and getting them to vote. Over time, this sense of embattlement wove its way into conservative evangelical culture and became the primary lens through which they view the world. It made them skeptical of anything associated with secularism or liberalism—including environmentalism.
R&P: End-time belief also seems less significant than the web of relationships among conservative evangelicalism, free market economics, and Republican politics. How do these influence viewpoints on climate?
RGV: As evangelicals began to move rightward and into the Republican Party, they came into contact with another member of this new coalition—advocates of laissez-faire economics who were radically opposed to all governmental regulation, including environmental regulation. During the 1980s, there was very little anti-environmental messaging within evangelical media, but there was a lot of pro-business messaging, and that tension between deregulation and protection was starting to influence the way they thought about the environment. That influence would be very significant as climate change began to appear on the radar. If you want to understand the way evangelicals tend to think about climate, you have to understand the critical timing element—the way that important developments in climate science emerged alongside and against an increasingly pro-business rhetoric that cast doubt on any calls for environmental protection. Since environmentalism was by then associated with liberal policy views, the boundaries were drawn and strengthened.
R&P: In the mid-2000s, a media narrative took hold that evangelicalism was “greening.” You argue that the media got this story exactly wrong. How?
RGV: In 2006, a group of more progressively minded evangelicals launched a campaign called the Evangelical Climate Initiative. It was basically a big push to get evangelicals on board with climate action. This was very important, because it occurred during the lead-up to the introduction of the Waxman-Markey Bill, a significant piece of climate legislation. The idea was that climate action required a mass movement, and evangelicals might help provide the foot soldiers for that effort. If support could be drummed up on the political right as well as the political left, then the bill would become unstoppable. So evangelicals were a key piece of the strategy.
For a while, it seemed to be working because there was a sharp increase in media coverage generated by the perception that this traditionally conservative group was joining forces with traditional liberals to support a cause of great importance to both. It was surprising and uplifting and that made it newsworthy. But the coverage quickly prompted a backlash from leaders on the Christian Right, who had spent the past few decades establishing and solidifying alliances with this class of powerful free-market advocates who had close ties to the fossil fuel industry. Their think tanks—like the Heritage Foundation, for example—were strongly opposed to climate legislation. They started pressuring their allies in the Christian Right to push back against the campaign, which they did, and evangelical opinion shifted against the legislation. This is obviously a simplified version of the story I tell in the book, but the basic structure is there. Evangelicals were always a little more skeptical of climate change than the average American, as far as we can tell, but it was only after this backlash that climate skepticism became the normative view within evangelicalism.
In the years since, climate change skepticism has become a useful tool for evangelical elites who want to mobilize their supporters against progressive campaigns and candidates. Through their television and radio networks, they have regularly spread misinformation on climate change while framing calls for climate action as an assault on the Christian worldview. Climate advocates, they say, are arrogantly claiming that humans are changing the atmosphere while denying that God is in control, and using these false claims to spread liberalism and big government. This is a very resonant message among evangelicals, since it fits cleanly within the embattled narrative in which they’ve been raised.
R&P: Those invested both in evangelicalism and in climate activism have argued that the mass of white evangelicals may still be moved to action, perhaps through appeals to “creation care” or “environmental stewardship.” Your research does not seem to support this. Do you hold out hope that they may still get on board?
RGV: That’s a good question and one that I wrestled with a lot while writing the epilogue. When I finished my dissertation—which went on to become this book—I would tell climate advocates not to hold out hope for evangelicals, since there are plenty of other groups who can be activated and mobilized more easily. Since that time, I’ve only become more convinced of the power of conservative media—including Christian conservative media—to control the narrative about climate change. From Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to the various religious broadcasting networks and their social media presences, this message of skepticism and antagonism is overwhelming. It’s very hard to counter the influence of the hugely powerful media apparatus that is consistently spreading misinformation, mocking climate advocates, and stoking the belief that people who care about this problem are deserving of derision. The divisions I saw and the sense of animosity that I felt during my fieldwork in 2011 and 2012 have only grown deeper.
At the same time, there remains a possibility that generational shifts may play a roll. Around 2008, there was another popular media narrative that the Christian Right was graying and losing power and that a new generation of evangelicals was about to take hold. That turned out to be untrue, at least in the short term. But because there is no centralized power structure within evangelicalism, there is always a possibility that the tradition can be changed and pushed in new directions. I think there are a lot of young evangelicals who care about climate change and who may still create change from within.
Environmentalists get questions about hope and optimism a lot, and often it’s hard to know how to answer them. I guess I’d say that I’m not optimistic but I’m hopeful.