There has been no “greening of Christianity” among people in the pews, despite efforts by some religious leaders to emphasize environmental stewardship, according to new Indiana University research.
David Konisky of IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs analyzed 20 years of survey results from Gallup public opinion polls in one of the first major studies of how attitudes about the environment by self-identified U.S. Christians have shifted over time.
He found that environmentalism is not increasing, and there are signs it is actually in decline. For example, Konisky’s analysis of the survey responses from 1990 through 2015 indicates that Christians, compared to atheists, agnostics and individuals who do not affiliate with a religion, are less likely to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth, and they are more likely than others to believe global warming is exaggerated.
For example, the likelihood that a Christian survey respondent expressed a great deal of concern about climate change dropped by about a third between 1990 and 2015.
The pattern generally holds across Catholic, Protestant and other Christian denominations and does not vary depending on levels of religiosity.
“This relationship between religion and the environment is significant because of the increasing importance of climate change,” Konisky said. “There may come a time when religious leaders and faith-based organizations generate more interest in protecting the environment and more willingness to demand action, but we haven’t seen it yet.”
The current lack of enthusiasm comes despite high-profile calls for action such as the encyclical letter on the environment released by Pope Francis in 2015 and despite initiatives led by Evangelical Protestant groups, such as the formation of the Evangelical Environmental Network.
While those efforts are relatively recent, Konisky said there is a historical divide in how Christians view their relationship to the planet: “Some believe in the importance of stewardship and practice an ethic of ‘creation care,’ while others believe in human dominion over the Earth, a belief that undermines any obligation to protect the environment.”
Konisky said more research is needed to determine whether that belief in human dominion or some other aspect of how people experience religion is influencing a reduced concern for the environment.