Comparing & Contrasting American Evangelical Attitudes Toward Nature

As Dr. White pointed out, “When one speaks in such sweeping terms, a note of caution is in order. Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts” (White, 3). While I recognize the impossibility of addressing every Christian’s views in all their complexities, I will examine two contrasting Christian views of the environment. In this essay, I will describe how the ‘dominion’ viewpoint and the Christian Stewardship viewpoint – which are both rooted in Scripture – are radically different.

First off, I will examine how the dominion viewpoint developed in Christianity and how it contrasted with other religious’ views of the environment. The idea that humanity has dominion over all other species is taken from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. White explains, “Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image” (White, 2). The view that mankind has dominion over all of God’s other creations is arguably the most dominant view of the environment among Christians today, especially (and, for this essay, most importantly) for Evangelical Christians. While the view does not seem radical today, White argues that this view contributed to the fact that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (White, 2). The dominion viewpoint “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends” (White, 2). Not only that, but “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White, 2). Conservative Christians (which includes many, if not most, Evangelicals) often hold “other-worldly attitudes” and focus their minds on things like salvation and heavenly reward (Kearns, 353). Many disregard any consideration of the environment since they believe that God will eventually make a new world (Kearns, 353). While unique compared to other religions, the dominion view of the natural world became dominant in the Western world.

This dominion viewpoint became especially significant after the Industrial Revolution, when the dominant Christian view was used to justify exploiting the environment. In fact, modern science is deeply rooted in Christian theology. White explains, “From the 18th century onward, up to and including Leibnitz and Newton, every major scientist, in effect, explained his motivations in religious terms” (White, 3). White argues that even “despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim” (White, 4). Because Evangelicals place such a significant emphasis on Scripture, many could be described as having an anti-science bias, which can make it difficult to discuss environmental issues with them (Kearns, 354). As Kearns also notes, “The strong linkage of conservative Christianity with capitalism and “the American way” makes it difficult to preach any message critical of economic practices” (Kearns, 360). This linkage is especially clear between the Reagan administration and the religious right in the 1980s, both of which were often criticized by environmental activists (Kearns, 353).

But the dominion viewpoint has become so common in American society that it even extends into secular society. For an example, a Jeep commercial shows Jeeps being driven through natural environments – overcoming and “conquering” nature in a safe metal box complete with air-conditioning and a radio. The commercial does not address the fact that the domination of nature by humanity (and their technology) largely contributes to the destruction of nature. So while the commercial does not include any religious imagery or terminology, the environment is still shown as something to be conquered, enjoyed and exploited by humanity and technology. Another commercial shows Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, Christians who hold radically different political beliefs, advocating for the protection of the environment. But even while advocating protection of the environment, they display the dominion viewpoint; while they are shown sitting on a beach, they are filmed while wearing suits and sitting on a couch – imposing their human inventions into the natural environment of the beach.

While the dominion view has historically been the dominant view within Christianity, it has faced opposition. Long before our current ecological crisis, Saint Francis, according to White, “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures. With him the ant is no longer simply a homily for the lazy, flames a sign of the thrust of the soul toward union with God; now they are Brother Ant and Sister Fire, praising the Creator in their own ways as Brother Man does in his” (White, 5).

Somewhat similar to Francis’ ideas, the view of Christian Stewardship has gained popularity in recent years, partly in reaction to the ecological crisis arguably caused at least in part by the dominion viewpoint. For Christian Stewards, human sinfulness (like arrogance, ignorance and greed, all of which Scripture warns against) caused the ecological crisis, contrasting with Dr. White’s view that the ecological crisis should be blamed on Christianity (Kearns, 354). Perhaps surprisingly, like the dominion viewpoint, Christian stewardship is rooted in Scripture. Countering the dominion argument rooted in Genesis 1:27-28, the idea of Christian stewardship argues that the Bible (specifically Genesis 2:15) mandates that humans should take care of the earth (Kearns, 353). In other words, in order to honor the Creator, they have to honor the earth (the Creator’s Creation).

The rise of Christian environmentalism was largely in response to the rise of secular environmentalism; the Church was largely silent on environmental issues until the last few decades (Kearns, 358). While arguing that Christianity deserves much of the blame for our ecological crisis, Dr. White notes, “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not” (White, 5).

Interestingly, because Evangelicals put such emphasis on scripture, more and more people have accepted the Christian Stewardship view – despite directly contrasting the dominion viewpoint. After all, it is rooted in scripture and, in a way, scriptural basis for a belief is arguably more important than what the belief itself is (Kearns, 353, 356). Rather than Evangelicals having to change their entire belief system, Christian Stewardship “provides the minor retooling of a conservative religious worldview that enables some conservative Christians to respond to the ecological crisis” (Kearns, 360). Rather than citing scientific data to argue in support of conservation, Christian Stewards try to appeal to conservative Christians by arguing that “Noah was the first conservationist and Noah’s Ark presents a clear mandate for preserving species” (Kearns, 357, 361). As Wayne Frair puts it, “The answer lies not in rejection of one Biblical teaching but rather in acceptance of entire Biblical doctrine” (White, 7).

The various views of Evangelical Christians concerning the environment are evidence of how complex and diverse Evangelical Christianity is and can be. The dominion view, rooted in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, considers man to be the master of the natural world. This idea, White argues, is to blame for our ecological crisis. However, to hopefully address such problems, Christianity as a whole does not need to be abandoned. The environmental view of Christian Stewardship, also rooted in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, argues that Christians have a religious duty to protect the natural world. These two viewpoints show that evangelical Christians, even while essentially holding opposite views, agree on the importance of scripture.