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For These Young Evangelical Activists, Facing the Climate Crisis Is an Act of Faith

A few years back, William Morris came to realize just how he could be a light unto the world. Before this precise moment in time, his visions of a missionary life had involved foreign climes, distant shores, desecrated wastelands in desperate need of redemption. Then he had looked around at his native L.A. At the church he’d grown up attending. At the faith community he’d always considered to be his home. When it came to the climate crisis, he realized, his own flock were still living in darkness. Perhaps, with God’s grace, he could help bring them to the light.

Growing up in a conservative evangelical Baptist church, Morris, 25, had been the beneficiary of proper conservative evangelical indoctrination: “You know, evolution is a made-up political thing, and climate isn’t really changing,” he says. “LGBTQ people are sinful. All these different checking off of all those boxes, basically.” Yet he’d gravitated toward science, especially once he got to middle school and the labs and experiments had proven to him that rather than being “trickery,” what he was learning was undeniably true. Such a realization didn’t cause a crisis of faith per se, but it did lead to a mental bifurcation, a sense that God and science could coexist, but in two separate realms, largely divorced from each other.

In college, where he majored in environmental science, Morris found that he was often in a group of one — the only science major in class who openly identified as Christian and the only person in church who was a science major. Then one day, sitting in on a congregational meeting on mission work, he heard one of the speakers talking about environmental missions. “I was like, ‘What the heck is that?’ ” Morris tells me. “It was the first time I heard someone who was Christian explicitly doing environmental stuff. I went up to him right after and was like, ‘Hey, we need to talk.’ ”

That conversation eventually led Morris to spend a month doing volunteer work with a Christian conservation organization in Kenya, cataloging rare bird species, mapping mangrove forests, and collecting data on coral reefs. His meals and his free time were shared with other Christian environmentalists and scientists, most of whom were Kenyan and notably did not share his evangelical American hang-ups. He marveled at how their faith was not only integrated into their environmental pursuits but was in fact integral to them.

“That’s where I really felt a sense of purpose for the first time,” he says. “That dichotomy finally went away of science versus faith. It was just a huge sigh of relief feeling almost, like, vindicated. I was like, ‘See, I knew it. I’m not crazy. I’m not the only one who cares about all of these things.’ It was this very holistic view that I never had gotten anywhere else. And I had to go all the way to Kenya to get it.”

Morris also began to see this holistic view all over scripture: in Genesis, where the mandate to have dominion over creation did not seem to imply callous exploitation but rather a call to wise stewardship, and throughout the Gospels, where Jesus didn’t assuage people’s suffering with promises of the afterlife but actually tended to their physical needs in the here and now. So, Morris pondered, wouldn’t loving one’s neighbor mean protecting their habitat? Making sure they could grow food, have clean air and water, not be subjected to forced migration or the “threat multiplier” that he knew climate change to be?

In integrating his faith with his environmentalism, Morris came to have a new understanding of what that faith entailed, one that he actually felt was deeper and more authentic. Before the world could be healed by the church, he reasoned, maybe the church needed healing through its engagement with the world. He would go home and preach the message of environmentalism.

YECA fellow Elsa Barron planting a mango tree in Uganda, 2020

SHELENE BAIYEE/COURTESY OF ELSE BARRON

In America, white, evangelical Protestants remain uniquely skeptical of climate change. According to a 2019 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, only 33 percent of that faith group believe that climate change is the result of human activity, and 37 percent do not believe that climate change is happening at all. But as undeniable evidence has piled up to the contrary, expecting evangelical youth to ignore or deny this existential threat to their futures has, for some, proved a bridge too far. It’s one thing to be instructed to consider natural selection a “theory,” it’s another entirely to be asked to ignore your species’ own destruction of itself.

The schism between the conservative Christian church and the hard facts of science probably dates back to our colonial origins, to the Puritan ideological divide between what is spiritual and what is physical, between what is holy and what is of this Earth. But its modern incarnation can be traced directly to the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, in which three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan won a conviction against John Scopes for teaching evolution at a Tennessee public school. The case got national attention, and its verdict provoked backlash, bringing ridicule to the faction of American Protestantism that had previously seen itself as the unquestioned moral bedrock of the nation, and providing the seeds of what would grow into the culture wars.

It wasn’t always clear, however, that environmentalism would become a culture-war issue. In 1967, an essay by Lynn White Jr. titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” swept a small but notable contingent of evangelicals into the environmental cause. By the mid-1990s, the Evangelical Environmental Network was fighting back against the Republican gutting of the Endangered Species Act, which some Christians viewed as essential to preserving wildlife that had been saved in Noah’s ark.

By the early 2000s, the EEN was growing concerned about the climate — so concerned that in 2006 it developed a campaign called the Evangelical Climate Initiative, tasked with persuading evangelical leaders to sign a declaration that it was imperative to halt climate change. Many did, including famous pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Hunter. “And so what happened, basically, was the Evangelical Climate Initiative was so successful that it kind of freaked people out,” says Robin Globus Veldman, a professor of religious studies at Texas A&M and author of The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change. “Evangelical elites who were politically active came under pressure from their Republican colleagues because if too many evangelicals became convinced that they needed to vote on the issue of climate change, then that reduces their ability to get out the vote on the Republican side by focusing on abortion, religious liberty, and sexual morality.”

Naturally, the culture wars came to the rescue, helping to cast environmentalism as unabashed secularism. “It was like, ‘Oh, environmentalists are just saying this in order to attack Christianity. Just like evolutionists are trying to deny origins, now environmentalists are trying to deny that God is in control,’ ” Veldman says. That schism between faith and science was a comfortable, well-worn path, and once a theological element was introduced into climate skepticism, the framework was set for disinformation to do the rest. “You had the same pages out of the playbook and the same tactics and the same funding of the broader climate-denial machine — and sometimes even the same umbrella organizations that were doing the bidding of ExxonMobil — get involved in this,” says Katharine Wilkinson, author of Between God & Green. “It was like, ‘Ostensibly we’re debating about science, ostensibly we’re debating about theology,’ but actually that’s not at all what was happening. It just injected toxicity into the space.”

From the inside, the issue is still often spun as theological. But as awareness of the climate crisis has grown, young evangelicals who grew up singing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” have started to question whether God’s sovereignty absolves them of responsibility. They are also wrestling with the morality of ignoring a problem that is clearly tied to the greed and the suffering of others. “I think that there’s so much that the church in America can learn from Christians in other countries who are having the experience of dealing with climate change on the front lines,” says Cameron Kritikos, 26, a student at Yale Divinity school who also works with the Climate Witness Project within the Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church, an office that he says is not universally supported by the denomination. “There is a decent chunk of folks who say that, you know, science is funded by George Soros, who send us prayers saying, ‘Thank God for fossil fuels,’ ” he says. “But Christians in other countries are living the experience of displacement and not being able to grow their crops. I often hear from others who are doing development work, ‘Y’all in the U.S. are the only Christians who are having conversations about whether climate change exists.’ ”

Such conversations are no doubt part of the reason that as many as two-thirds of young American Protestants who attended church regularly in high school stop attending in college, creating a category known as “exvangelicals.” Others are trying to change the evangelical narrative from within and finding fellowship in an organization called Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA) — the only one thus far to thread that particular needle — which, since its founding in 2012, has seen its numbers swell as climate projections have gotten increasingly dire. In 2014, when the organization launched its Fellows Program on college campuses, there were only four fellows in three states; now there are 28 fellows on 18 campuses in 12 states. Thousands have signed the YECA call-to-action pledge, and more than 25,000 young people have performed at least one of its “actions,” from starting an environmentalism club at their school to launching a recycling campaign at their church to advocating for legislation with their elected officials. The organization now has a footprint in almost every state, but what’s changed in addition to its reach is the attitudes it encounters.

YECA activists at the People’s Climate March in 2017.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP/YECA

“Nine years ago when YECA began, our conversations on Christian college campuses had to start all the way back at why working on this didn’t mean we were atheists or communists, why it was OK for Christians to ask the kinds of questions we were asking, why climate change didn’t need to be immediately dismissed as a liberal lie,” says Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, who was YECA’s national organizer until taking a position with EEN, its parent organization, earlier this year. “That’s where we started our conversations. The challenge was giving young Christians a permission to engage in this at all and to question the assumptions they had been handed that this wasn’t a problem to be concerned about. And now when we go to college campuses, we don’t have to make the case for why climate change is a problem or that it’s happening or what our faith calls us to in response to that. Young Christians get all of that. What they want to be told is that they have the agency to do something about it.”

And while working to do something about it, young evangelicals are not surprised to confront confusion on all sides. “People are like, ‘Wait, young evangelicals? Those exist, first of all?’ ” says Jenna Van Donselaar, 25, a field organizer for YECA, with a laugh. “ ‘Climate action? And then all together? Whaaaaat?’ ” While text banking on YECA’s behalf before the 2020 election, she was more bemused than disturbed by the amount of ire that came her way — and her inability to pinpoint from which side it might come. “Half the responses were ‘F you.’ I’m like, ‘Do you hate that I’m an evangelical? Do you hate that I’m [fighting] climate change? Do you hate that I’m just texting you in general?’ ”

What all of the young evangelicals I spoke with agreed on was that, despite some initial head-scratching, secular environmental groups were thrilled to see them emerge, recognizing their potential to infiltrate a group that was mostly impervious to outsiders and that wielded a dramatically disproportionate share of political power. White evangelical Protestants may make up only 17 percent of the population, according to a 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, but the GOP is 35 percent evangelical (and 73 percent white Christian). “Usually [environmental groups] will meet me and be excited,” Van Donselaar says. “Like, ‘Oh, we can use you. You can speak the language of people who we haven’t really been able to reach.’ ”

Certainly, this helps. When it comes to church outreach, YECA members will often try to befriend younger people — who need far less convincing that environmentalism is a matter of both urgency and faith — and then move up the chain of command to older, more resistant church leadership to advocate for a sermon series, a bible study, an institutional acknowledgment of what they carefully refer to not as “climate action” but as “creation care.” They use scripture, not data or science (which they say can be “triggering”), to make their points. They refer to “stewardship” and “discipleship” and “redemption” of the natural world. They talk about their fears of having children, of the impossibility of living out the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in a world threatened by climate change. Sometimes they get through. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes there is considerable pushback, the charge that they’ve been brainwashed by liberals or are engaging in false teaching or are clearly choosing the wrong issue on which to devote their time.

“I hear that one all the time,” says Van Donselaar. “I mean, the Republican Party did a really good job branding themselves as the party that doesn’t kill babies. And that’s very powerful rhetoric. So in conversations, we often talk about, ‘OK, what does it mean to be actually pro-life? What does it mean to look for policies that don’t want to harm mothers, that don’t want to harm immigrants, that don’t want to support the death penalty? What does it look like to actually support mothers who have children? What does it mean to be more holistically “pro-life”?’ When I reach out to strangers and they say, ‘But what about unborn babies?’ I say, ‘Well, what about alive people in Bangladesh?’ ”

The most hurtful pushback, however, can be the kind that impugns their motivations, that views their climate action as a lack of faith in God’s sovereignty and control over creation. To young climate activists, this doesn’t seem reasonable — God gives us brains to understand information and free will to act on it — but they know it runs so deep in their faith community as to almost be taken for granted. So deep as to absolve inaction. So deep as to make action look, to some, like heresy.

“When I reach out to strangers and they say, ‘What about unborn babies?’ I say, ‘What about alive people in Bangladesh?’ ” says Jenna Van Donselaar.

Kannetha Brown for Rolling Stone

And this is particularly hard to take, they say, because climate action is something they do not in spite of their faith, but as a practice of it. “We drove from Michigan to D.C. as an act of faith,” says Kritikos of the car pool he and other Christian activists shared to join the sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office in support of the Green New Deal. The night before, his nonviolent-protest training had taken place in a church. “They prepared us for the process of being arrested and said, ‘If you’re a religious person, we invite you to use this time while you’re in jail to think about this movement and how it is a part of a growing movement worldwide.’ ” Which is exactly what Kritikos did when he was arrested the following day — and continues to do. “I pray for repentance for the way that myself and others have contributed to the harm of creation. I pray for folks to take their most fundamental beliefs — that God loves them and loves the world — to go and act boldly.”

“This is my sacrament,” says Sarah Herring, 23, another YECA field organizer. “The environment is one of the most powerful tools, if not the most powerful tool of connecting with the creator. That’s why I’m so passionate about my activism.” Says Meyaard-Schaap, “We’re doing this not because we’re environmentalists, not because we’re Democrats or Republicans. We’re doing this because we’re Christians, because we’re trying to follow Jesus and we think this is part of what that means.”

Finding that connection between faith and climate activism can be a painful process. The climate crisis is a source of deep anxiety for most anyone who has a passing understanding of its potential impact, but for many young evangelical activists, it also means confronting the fact that they were misinformed by people and institutions they loved and trusted.

“I was sort of known as the Creation Girl,” says Elsa Barron, 21, a YECA fellow and senior at University of Notre Dame. “I was outspoken about it. I was like, ‘Oh, what I’m learning in school is dangerous, and I have to combat it.’ ” She begged her parents to drive her to conferences on creationism, where she stocked up on books on the topic. She started intensely studying biology as a way to prove that evolution wasn’t true. “I was trained to defend the literal nature of the Bible and very much taught that if one of the dominoes falls, the whole thing is going to fall.”

Then, during her freshman year of college, she did an experiment analyzing the genetic similarity of cellular proteins, which illustrated to her, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how those proteins were evolutionarily related. “That was a really big moment for me of being like, ‘This is clearly established science, and to deny it is not a fruitful way to interact in the world and bridge the gap between faith and reason.’ ”

Yet trying to bridge that gap challenged her sense of identity. When one of her classes assigned Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ second encyclical — which calls for “swift and unified action” against climate change, and has no qualms about accepting the findings of science — she was struck by the text’s freedom from literalism. “Talking to my Catholic friends, I was shocked to learn that evolution didn’t conflict with their faith beliefs. People were just like, ‘OK, yeah, we always knew that it didn’t mean we couldn’t have our faith,’ and moved on. Meanwhile, I am in the trenches of this spiritual and intellectual battle over what is true. It was really a moment of crisis about something that didn’t need to be so intense, and I had really been led astray by many people in that sense.”

Barron doesn’t necessarily blame the people in her church for this because she thinks that they truly believed what they were teaching her. But she does think that the community bears a responsibility to examine how they are indoctrinating their youth and also to ask themselves: “Is this battle against science and what is being taught in schools at the heart of our community, or is our battle to stand up for the vulnerable, to care for creation, and to be a community of love?”

Barron eventually worked her way out of her crisis by clinging to the latter. She also came to realize that the intricacies of nature and how it functioned could inspire her faith — not detract from it — and provoke a feeling of awe that is connected to her perception of God. This led to her climate activism. And her climate activism led her to realize just what an opportunity was being wasted by the evangelical denial of climate change. “This is a really intense community of people,” she says. “There are incredible opportunities to mobilize people who have grown up in an evangelical community where people get so fired up about the issues they care about.”

And actually, it’s not so difficult to envision creation care as one of those issues. At its core, Christianity is a sacrificial religion, calling on adherents to deny the pleasures of the flesh and cling to a belief in the unseen. At its core, climate action requires sacrifice, giving up certain conveniences for a higher cause, even if the outcome isn’t ensured or immediate. Many of the young Christian climate activists I talked with pray for their churches to harness their power in this way, rather than repudiate it. Many want their churches to see their climate action — their veganism and composting and phone banking and bike riding — as precisely how they are exercising the very moral compass they learned at church.

“That’s what I tell older church leaders,” Morris says. “ ‘Young people learn to care at church. You gave them the reasons to care, but then you didn’t support them or encourage them or give them outlets for that care — or you told them what they cared about was wrong.’ ”

At the end of the day, though, it’s that caring that keeps them coming back to the church. It’s that caring that makes them think that environmental action could restore not just the planet from without, but the church from within. “I could very easily move on from that part of my upbringing and say, ‘Y’all deal with it. You’ve sunk yourselves. Figure it out — or don’t, whatever,’ ” Van Donselaar says. “But I think I feel obligated to not abandon my upbringing. I want to honor those really good parts of growing up in the church and growing up with people who really deeply care about each other, about God, about creation, even if that looks differently than how I express it. To essentially call them to be better and say, ‘I’m the next generation. You taught me to love God. You taught me to care about justice. Let’s do it.’ ”

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