The EPA and Evangelical (Anti)Environmentalism

“Give us the strength to stand strong against those who lie to us and hide behind their laws.”

So began the prayer of Joel Watts of the West Virginia Coal Forum at a July 30 rally in Pittsburgh. There, coal industry leaders attended a public hearing of the Environmental Protection Agency while 5,000 coal miners gathered outside the hearing to join Watts in preaching against the EPA’s proposal to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a key component of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, aims to reduce pollution at power plants, the nation’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It is believed that this 30-percent reduction will provide $55 billion to $93 billion per year in public health and climate benefits. These benefits include avoiding a projected 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths, 140,000 asthma attacks in children, 340 to 3,300 heart attacks, 2,700 hospital admissions and 470,000 missed school and work days.

But Watts isn’t the only person praying for strength to take on the White House, the EPA and environmentalists. In Alabama, elected members of the Public Service Commission invoked God at an anti-EPA press conference. Twinkle Cavanaugh, the commission’s president and a Southern Baptist, vowed to fight the EPA and called on Alabamians to pray.

“I hope all of the citizens of Alabama will be in prayer that the right thing will be done,” Cavanaugh said.

Chip Beeker, a candidate for the commission who is currently running unopposed, added that Alabama’s coal is from God and that the federal government ought not interfere.

“Who has the right to take what God’s given a state?” he asked.

Beeker is an elder and Sunday school teacher at the First Presbyterian Church of Eutaw, a congregation affiliated with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. In July, Beeker defeated incumbent Terry Dunn in Alabama’s Republican primary with the aid of the state’s powerful coal lobby. He did so by dubbing his opponent a “liberal environmentalists’ tacit enabler” and marketing himself as a “committed Ronald Reagan conservative Republican” ready to take the fight to President Obama’s “out-of-control EPA.”

“I believe that no matter what you call it, a myth is still a myth, and the so-called ‘climate change crisis’ is about as real as unicorns and little green men from Mars,” Beeker wrote on his campaign website.

Beeker’s comments echo that of another conservative Presbyterian elder, Calvin Beisner. Over the past two decades, Beisner has established himself as the most influential evangelical anti-environmentalist in the United States, writing dozens of books and countless articles arguing against any government regulation of the environment. So influential is Beisner that Southern Baptist scholar Donald McDaniel wrote in his 2011 dissertation that when the nation’s largest Protestant denomination wades into environmental waters, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention “ensures that its content will be mainly informed by Cal Beisner and his Dominionist ecology.”

“Humility applied to environmental stewardship should lead us, in light of the vast complexity of human society and the earth’s ecosystems, to hesitate considerably at the notion that we know enough about them to manage them,” Beisner wrote in his 1997 book on evangelicals and environmentalism (published by the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank).

Beisner was one of the earliest opponents to EPA limits on carbon emissions. In June 2012, Beisner penned a letter to the EPA opposing the agency’s classification of carbon dioxide as a harmful pollutant as well as opposing any limits on carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants. He did so on behalf of the Cornwall Alliance, the evangelical anti-environmentalism network that Beisner founded in 2005 to promote a “biblical” view of the environment and to counter evangelical advocates for government action on climate change.

More than 100 evangelical theologians, pastors, scientists and economists endorsed Beisner’s letter, which featured signatories such as talk-radio host Bryan Fischer, Southern Baptist ethicist Daniel Heimbach, Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and Christian Reconstructionist writer Gary North.

The Beisner-authored letter claimed that regulating carbon-dioxide and treating it as a pollutant will deprive people of energy and wealth and will ultimately mean “condemning them to poverty and the high rates of disease and premature death that inevitably accompany it.”

“Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is actually a great boon not only to humanity (by increasing crop yields) but also to all other life on earth,” Beisner argued in the letter.

The conservative evangelical opposition to the EPA and environmental regulations is no new development. Conservative evangelicals were the midwives of the anti-environmental movement. Scholars like Katrina Lacher have contended that the revival of social and religious conservatism as seen in the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s helped to birth this well-funded and influential movement antagonistic to the aims and objectives of mainstream environmental organizations.

“The conjoined rise of Ronald Reagan and the antienvironmental movement are attributable to the resurgence of [social and religious] conservatism in the United States in the late 20th century,” according to Lacher.

While the 1990s marked the flowering of evangelical environmentalism, the decade witnessed the strengthening of a Christian, or more specifically, evangelical anti-environmentalism in the public square. This evangelical anti-environmentalism coalesced into a movement with the distinct political agenda of restricting and eliminating environmental regulations.

In the two decades since, evangelical anti-environmentalists — led by Beisner — have released statement after statement, touting “economic freedom” as a prerequisite to “sound ecological stewardship” and characterizing environmental challenges such as climate change as “without foundation or greatly exaggerated.”

As some high-profile evangelical leaders and organizations began to realize the reality of climate change in 2006, evangelical anti-environmentalists intervened to urge the National Association of Evangelicals to not weigh in on the debate over global warming. When the Evangelical Climate Initiative released its declaration “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action” the same year, the news mouthpieces of evangelical anti-environmentalism were quick to point out the “notable names” like Richard Land, James Dobson and Charles Colson who had not signed on.

And when 25-year-old seminarian Jonathan Merritt released “A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change,” evangelical anti-environmentalists hit back hard, launching a counter-campaign to keep evangelicals from buying into the “knee jerk reactions” of evangelicals like Merritt.

Six years have passed since the last major evangelical effort to address climate change — a testament to the effectiveness of evangelical anti-environmentalism.

Now, evangelical anti-environmentalists like Beisner, Beeker and Cavanaugh face a much more formidable opponent in the EPA. And there is much at stake. For many years, Congress has demonstrated an inability to take action to combat climate change. The EPA has the power to take this important step to address the climate change crisis and in doing so lend the U.S. some credibility so that other nations might follow suit.

To get that credibility, let’s hope the EPA sticks with its proposal and doesn’t cave to those who struggle with truth (and telling it).