It was just three short years ago that most Republicans with Blue State or national ambitions believed we had to address climate change. Today, the list of Republicans who once tried to woo Democrats and Independents just happens to overlap with the list of Republicans who have recently decided -- in the face of consistently worsening extreme weather, no less -- that climate change isn't happening after all: John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Scott Brown, Chris Christie, even Sarah Palin.
Pawlenty's evangelical pastor, Leith Anderson, has publicly endorsed taking action to reduce carbon emissions, and Pawlenty even went so far as to apologize for once agreeing with his spiritual mentor. Pawlenty's about-face begs the question: what happened to the rising tide of evangelical environmentalists who were supposed to be the Earth's salvation?
In 2005, the Washington Post and The New York Times both ran long features introducing their readers to this new ideology of "Creation Care." Now, when they are most needed, evangelical environmentalists seem to have disappeared. In fact, more moderate evangelical groups like the National Association of Evangelicals still support action on climate change. It's just that their position has much less sway over Republicans, even evangelical Republicans, than many in the Beltway once assumed.
To some extent, evangelical environmentalism was over-hyped in its heyday. The national media's tendency to cover evangelicals as an inscrutable curiosity means that political trends among a handful of elite evangelicals can be wildly amplified. "There has been debate for years as to whether there's been a greening of the evangelical movement," says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. "We never really found much evidence that was happening on a mass public level among evangelicals as a group."
There is scant evidence that religious arguments are influencing many Americans of any denomination on the environment. A Pew poll from September 2010 found that 35 percent of Americans say their religious beliefs shape their views of homosexuality and 26 percent say the same for abortion. By contrast, Pew found, "Nearly half (47 percent) [of churchgoers] say their clergy speak out on the environment, almost always to encourage environmental protection. But just 6 percent say their own views on the environment are shaped primarily by their religious beliefs."
In a July 2010 survey Pew found that religion has a much smaller impact on whether respondents believe in global warming than whether they believe in evolution. Moreover, the link to religious belief among evangelicals tilts in a conservative direction. While majorities of Catholics and mainline Protestants believe in global warming is due to human activity, only 38 percent of evangelicals do.
Likewise, Keeter adds, Pew never found that the extremist-right-wing Dispensationalist Christian view of the environment "was ever embraced by evangelicals on a mass scale." Dispensationalism holds that we had better make the most of our natural resources before the imminent End Times, and it has been invoked by the media since Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt, a Dispensationalist Christian, as Secretary of the Interior.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Religious leaders often issue statements that don't fully take hold among their flock. The Pope, for instance, has expressed concern over the failure of cap-and-trade, but we haven't seen the same crop of stories about Catholic environmentalism. "It plays against type a little bit more in the evangelical community," says Dan Misleh executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. "In the Catholic community we have Jesus' message about taking care of the poor, who are impacted by environmental degradation, so it's not as newsworthy. We don't have snappy slogans like 'what would Jesus drive?'"
Secular Americans tend to view evangelicals as some monolithic community that moves in political lockstep. In fact, America's evangelicals have a vocal liberal minority -- 15 percent of evangelicals, according to a study by Third Way -- epitomized by leaders such as Jimmy Carter or Jim Wallis. It was mostly these liberal evangelicals, who trend liberal on issues of social justice and foreign policy, who thoroughly embraced environmentalism. Then there are a substantial number of right-leaning moderate evangelicals -- who make up about 41 percent of the group -- who may take religiously-inspired liberal stances on issues like the environment.
But that's where Creation Care meets its limits: the substantial number of evangelicals who are staunch conservatives remain unpersuaded, as do their leaders such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who called environmentalism "a distraction" from appropriate concerns such as "the integrity of marriage and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality." Third Way found conservatives to be 44 percent of all evangelicals.
Given that it is the more conservative evangelicals who are most influential in Republican primaries, particularly the crucial early states of Iowa and South Carolina, Republican presidential candidates have nothing to gain right now from adopting pro-environment positions. This is especially true during a time of 9 percent unemployment. Support for the environment often drops during times of economic turmoil. "There's a strong anti-Obama narrative and people's primary concern is around the economy," says Alexei Laushkin, a spokesman for the Evangelical Environmental Network. "Those two trends have made it more safe for Republican candidates to come out with a more anti-environment perspective, especially in the primaries." Meanwhile, conservative evangelical leaders have capitalized on the nation's declining support for the environment by putting together a coalition urging evangelicals to resist the "Green Dragon" of environmentalism.
There is one ray of hope: the prospect of generational change. In 2007, while only 18 percent of evangelicals 60 or older believed that climate change will pose a threat in their lifetime, 40 percent of evangelicals 18 to 29 years old did. More broadly, a 2008 survey found 79 percent of young evangelicals favor protecting the environment. Unfortunately, by the time their views come to dominate, it may be too late.