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A Tale of Two Christianities: the Religiopolitical Clash Over Climate Change Within America's Dominant Religion

  • Author(s): Zaleha, Daniel Bernard
  • Advisor(s): Szasz, Andrew
  • Greenberg, Miriam
  • et al.
Abstract

Religious forms of environmental advocacy started emerging in the United States in the 1990s, seemingly within all branches of American Christianity, creating hope, both among these emerging movements and among secular environmental advocacy groups, that this would bring new constituencies to bear, constituencies with the moral authority to make ethical demands for environmental protection. It has led to persistent theorizing that religions, including Christianity, are about to intervene in a way that will alter the political situation and increase public demand for climate change action and environmental protection generally. So far this has not transpired. To investigate why, between 2016 and 2018, I did field work in congregations in Arizona (a Republican dominated state) and California (a state with strong Democratic Party influence). I divided my visits between a fundamentalist confederation of churches (Calvary Chapels) and liberal congregations affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity, an affiliation of liberal congregations (primarily United Church of Christ, Episcopalian) where more naturalistic, non-supernatural understandings of Christianity are more common. In interviewed pastors, church members, and key leaders within religious environmentalism, and conducted three direct focus groups. I also viewed a substantial number of online sermons posted at church websites. I found substantial indifference or outright hostility to environmental concerns and climate mitigation at all of my Calvary Chapel sites, due especially to intense apocalyptic expectation of imminent rapture. Other factors included belief in sovereignity of God (the idea the God causes all events), a tendency toward collective narcissism and and susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Progressive congregations were open to environmental concerns, talked about their importance, but ultimately were minimally involved. Social justice issues and the immediate needs of the homeless, immigrants, and advocating for LGBTQ equality in most cases took precedence.

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