Climate Change and Christian Tribalism

I’ve been called a Liberal. I’ve been called a Conservative. People have assumed I’m a Republican, and people have assumed I’m a Democrat.

It’s no secret that we are living in an incredibly divided society. The biggest lines of division seem to fall along political party lines, and a vitriolic tribalism is rampant in our leadership, our communities, our churches and our families.

One of the most divisive topics is climate change.

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Scientists have been warning for decades that the pollutants we are daily creating are making the earth uninhabitable. These warnings have become more and more dire, with a consensus that unless significant changes are made in the next eight years, the damage will be irreversible.

Yet a large contingency of non-scientists reject these findings. This contingency includes prominent evangelical Christians, enough so that evangelical Christians as a whole have been widely marked as climate change deniers. That an evangelical Christian might believe in climate change strikes many as anathema.

But I haven’t found that to be true.

I am in my tenth year of pastoral ministry. I’m also a leader in the United Methodist Church’s efforts to educate and train congregations in the theology of creation and the science of climate change. I regularly work with Christians who self-identify as conservative evangelicals, as well as Christians who self-identify as liberal and progressive.

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In my experience, conservative evangelical Christians are concerned about climate change and see caring for the Earth as their God-given responsibility. It might not be as high on the list of concerns as their liberal counterparts, but in general Christians from both sides of the divide actually agree on the importance of this issue. I recently came across this study from Yale that affirms my own observations.

Why, then, does the perception of evangelicals as climate change deniers persist? And why aren’t conservative Christians speaking up about their concerns?

I think the answer to this lies primarily in how climate change is addressed publicly, a fear of stepping outside of the tribe, and the loudness of certain leaders.

A general glance around the landscape of conservative Christian culture in America- the kind of view that those outside of conservative Christian circles might take- highlights some leaders with very loud, far-reaching voices. Many of these prominent and noisy leaders deny climate change and preach against environmentalism. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the noisy pastor gets the air time.

This leads to those outside of conservative Christianity labeling evangelicals as climate change deniers. At this point, our human nature kicks in. We are social animals and depend on belonging to a group for our survival. We identify with our group, we bond with our group, we defend our group, and, above all, we do not go against nor leave the group. Our lives depend on the group.

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If an accusation, an attack, is made against our group, that causes us to cling together all the tighter. Lines are drawn. If I am a conservative Christian, I must defend against non-conservative Christians. If those outside of my group have defined themselves in opposition to us concerning the issue of climate change, then we must be against them concerning the issue of climate change.

And so it builds up in public discourse. The more groups clash over the issue, the more ingrained in their tribal defenses the members become. Even those within the tribe of conservative Christianity who accept the reality and threat of climate change and want to do something about it (which, according to that Yale study, is the majority) will not speak up, for fear of being cast out of the tribe.

Our public discourse has not only robbed us of the ability to speak across tribal lines, but even to see members of other tribes as anything short of caricatures. Repeatedly, in my work for creation justice in my denomination, I hear other United Methodist environmental advocates put down their kin, saying things like, “We’ll never be able to get those conservatives on board,” and, “I don’t know why those conservatives have to be against us.”

Maybe they’re against you because you’re against them?

Let me offer a different approach:

Talk less.

Listen more.

Christians across the spectrum of Christianity are concerned about climate change. We are concerned about the damage we do to the earth. We are concerned about the future, and what our children will inherit. We are concerned about how our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to live.

We might not express those concerns in the same way. But if we listen, we’ll hear where the other’s heart lies. We’ll understand one another better.

Instead of focusing on what divides us, let’s focus on what unites us.

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My conservative, rural church is deeply entrenched in the land. We have a long history of farming, and though fewer and fewer people farm each year, we as a congregation still identify with farming. We identify with the crops and the livestock, and we are concerned about them. We are concerned with maintaining the woods and forests and streams and lakes. I have a surprising number of beekeepers, both in my church and the surrounding community. Every single one of them is concerned about bee populations dying out, and every single one of them has seen their own hives collapse.

There’s a lot of room for conversation and action in those concerns.

My church is also very interested in what Jesus said. Hopefully yours is, too. There is an awful lot of common ground in scripture amongst those that believe the Bible.

Consider this: in John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The popular song adapts Jesus’ words: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Not by our political affiliations or views on climate change. By our love.

Is there common ground to address climate change through love? I sure think so.

If you love your neighbor as yourself, then you care. You care if they can breathe clean air and drink clean water. If you love the widow, orphan, stranger, and refugee, you care about how they go to this point, and you take care to fix it. If you love future generations, you care that they’ll have a world to live in.

Christians, it is time to get over our tribalism. He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world; we are to be united by Jesus’ love and grace, not divided by our labels, policies and parties.

Climate change threatens every life on this planet that God made and entrusted into our hands. Our tribalism is a global danger. Let us finally beat our swords into plowshares and work together with the Holy Spirit to love our neighbor as our self, until all life in this world is indeed redeemed by God’s grace.

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