Generation Climate: Can Young Evangelicals Change the Climate Debate?

For students at this top evangelical college, loving God means protecting creation. That includes dealing with the human sources of climate change.

WHEATON, Illinois — Diego Hernandez wasn't thinking much about climate change until last summer, when he was traveling with his family along the Gulf Coast in his home state of Texas, where his ancestors—cowboys and politicians, he said—reach back to the 1600s. His mother suggested they take the "scenic route" for that summer drive, Diego said, his fingers making air-quotes because there was nothing "scenic" about it. All he saw were oil refineries. 

"At that moment," said 19-year-old Diego, who considers himself a libertarian, "the switch kind of flipped for me." Why are we putting refineries in this beautiful place? he thought. The impacts from Hurricane Harvey, which had hit Houston the previous August and had affected some of Diego's relatives, were also still lingering in his mind.

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"I used to be like, oh, there's oil, go start drilling, you know, because of course it's all about the money, right?" he said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. But after that family outing, he began to ask questions—"What is it doing to our environment? How is it going to affect us in the next 10 to 50 years?"—and since then he's had climate change on his mind.

Diego is a clean-shaven, lifelong Christian wearing a cyan blue button-down and polished cowboy boots, and a sophomore at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, which has been called the Harvard of Christian schools. The entrance sign, framed by a glowing bed of zinnias in full bloom, pronounces the school's motto: "For Christ and His Kingdom." But while Diego has all the credentials of a true political conservative—president of Wheaton's Young Americans for Freedom chapter, a cabinet member of the College Republicans—he also finds himself genuinely baffled by the right's stance against acting on climate change.

 

While many evangelicals are preoccupied with the long-term state of human souls and the protection of the unborn, Diego and the other students I met at Wheaton are also considering other eternal implications and a broader definition of pro-life. They are concerned about the lifespan of climate pollutants that will last in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and about the lives of the poor and weak who are being disproportionately harmed by the effects of those greenhouse gases. While Diego was just shy of eligible voting age in the 2016 presidential election, he's old enough to vote now. He and other young evangelicals thought hard this year about the politicians on offer, the issues they stand for, and who deserved their votes. 

What's an Evangelical to Do?

Evangelical Protestants—one in four American adults—are a political powerhouse. They are the single largest religious group in the nation, and they are nearly twice as likely to be Republican as Democrat. And while Baby Boomers are currently the strongest political voting bloc, that's only because the older you are, the more likely you are to vote

Finding Middle Ground

The current crop of younger people—from Gen X to Millennials to the newly minted adults I met at Wheaton—are poised to dominate the eligible-voter body politic. They would definitively tip the voting scales—should they become engaged. There are signs they might be doing just that. From the Parkland school shooting victims to Millennial political candidates, the youth of America are speaking up.  And, significantly, they accept the scientific consensus on climate change at a much higher rate than their elders.

This is true even of young evangelicals, as the existence of the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA) attests.  YECA is a ministry of the Evangelical Environmental Network that aims to mobilize students, influence religious leaders and pressure lawmakers into passing legislation to address climate change. I met Diego at a climate change discussion event on campus that was organized by Chelsey Geisz, a Wheaton junior and a YECA climate leadership fellow.

From Colorado Springs, Colorado, Chelsey, 20, always loved nature, she told me as we sat together in a gazebo in Adams Park, near campus. She'd taken a few classes on sustainability at Wheaton, and last year spent time working at Eighth Day Farm in Holland, Michigan, where Christian volunteers have turned the dirt once trapped below strip mall pavement into garden plots to grow vegetables for the hungry. These experiences meant she was primed when she heard about YECA.

YECA Program Coordinator Lindsay Mouw (right) speaks with students at a training session in Indiana, along with Climate Leadership Fellow Christine Seibert. Credit: Tori Goebel

Lindsay Mouw, program coordinator for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, speaks with students at a training session in Indiana. The group works to mobilize other students and influence religious leaders to pressure lawmakers on climate action. Credit: Tori Goebel

Though non-partisan, YECA is targeting conservatives, since that's where the facts of climate change have failed to lead to action. According to the organization, they've engaged more than 10,000 young evangelicals so far. Along with Chelsey, there are another half-dozen fellows at other schools across the country, helping to build the grassroots movement. The fellowship includes a summer training session that covers the science of climate change, as well as the socio-cultural and religious aspects of the issue. As a YECA fellow, Chelsey organizes campus events such as the session I attended in September and she serves as Wheaton's executive vice president of campus sustainability, a new position that YECA helped develop.

Chelsey Geisz. Credit: Meera Subramanian

When it comes to climate change and the environment, "I think there's some misunderstanding about what our faith compels us to do," said Chelsey Geisz. Credit: Meera Subramanian

It can be tough to be an evangelical who cares about climate change, Chelsey said, "because the environmental activists don't trust you and the evangelicals hate you." Or they could hate you; she was quick to point out that the evangelicals she knows personally are generally tolerant of her views. "I'm not encountering anyone at Wheaton, even among my most conservative friends, who disagree with climate change," she told me. She's having some trouble with her father, though, who's troubled by her YECA work. He holds a Harvard law degree, works at a company that invests in resource-rich properties, and associates Chelsey's transformation into a "climate activist" with a liberal agenda he finds suspect. "For a man who has such well-reasoned opinions, I just feel like there's so much emotion for him that it's not about the science at all," she said.

As for liberals themselves, Chelsey said, some of them do treat evangelicals like her with some suspicion. After all, aren't evangelicals the ones who elected anti-environment Trump?

"I think there's some misunderstanding about what our faith compels us to do," she said as the sun set behind her, creating a halo around the edges of her auburn hair.     

Praising Natural Systems

Sean Lyon is a recent Wheaton graduate who was also a YECA fellow while he was in school. He feels that he was born to love the natural world; his first word as an infant was "bird," after all, and flying creatures remain a passion he can't quite explain. While in school, he created his own interdisciplinary major of biology and business and spent significant time in Tanzania working with ECHO East Africa, a faith-based sustainable agriculture organization. He still lives in the town of Wheaton, easy commuting distance to Chicago, where he's volunteering at the Field Museum of Natural History.   

Sean Lyon. Credit: Meera Subramanian

"If you focus too much on only a personal relationship being the core tenet of your faith, then it means that you're more easily able to marginalize topics like human suffering, which in some cases is spurred by climate change. We are embodied creatures in this planet, so let's live like we are," said Sean Lyon. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Sean, 23, grew up in upstate New York, among "classic North American white evangelicals," where climate was not a concern and politics were conservative. But his love of the natural world shifted his perspective. He saw heaven on earth, and something worth saving, in every wingbeat he witnessed.

"Every ecosystem carries His creativity in it," Sean said, "and every species is a mark of His design." He had a thick brass bangle encircling his wrist, and blue eyes behind clear Lucite-rimmed glasses. Sean drew an analogy to his sister and grandparents, who are all artists. "So how would I treat the art that they created? If I love them, then I'm going to treat their art well. I'm not going to deface it. I'm not going to ignore it. I'm going to really honor it. And so when I see my God as having created everything that I'm interacting with, I want to honor it because that's a way that I can show my love for this Creator."

But God didn't just create singular works, Sean said; he created systems, natural systems that every living being relies on. He hoped that all Christians—no, he corrected himself, all faiths—would unite to protect those systems.

"That's my current prayer."

'Structural Sin'

Climate science isn't questioned at Wheaton College the way it often is in the wider evangelical community. The school is a brick-and-mortar rebuttal to the myth that science and religion must be at odds with each other. When Wheaton students step into their-state-of-the-art science building, for instance, they are greeted with signs stating that a "sound Biblical theology gives us a proper basis for scientific inquiry," and a display featuring locally excavated Perry the Mastodon, which carbon dating shows to be more than 13,000 years old.

The school is not alone in intertwining commitments to love God and protect the earth, often referred to as "creation care." The Cape Town Commitment, a global agreement between evangelical leaders from nearly 200 countries, includes acknowledgement of climate change and how it will hurt the world's poor (and it is required reading for Wheaton freshmen). Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and an evangelical, has been an outspoken advocate for climate action. And in addition to YECA, there are numerous groups active in this arena, including the Evangelical Climate Initiative, Climate Caretakers, Care of Creation and A Rocha. 

Science at Wheaton College. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Wheaton College is a brick-and-mortar rebuttal to the myth that science and religion must be at odds with each other. Credit: Meera Subramanian

In late 2015, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)—the biggest umbrella group of evangelicals in the country, representing 43 million Americans—issued a statement accepting climate change, acknowledging the human contribution to it and encouraging action. YECA's advocacy helped bring that statement, called "Loving the Least of These," into being. In it, NAE argues that Christians should be compelled to care about climate change as a matter of social justice, equating those without the resources to adapt to failed farming or dry wells or rising seas as the modern-day equivalents of the widows and orphans of Jesus's day.

When Chelsey reads the Bible, she hears this gospel of social justice, too.

"Instead of talking about climate change," she said of her work as a YECA fellow, "I talk about environmental justice. There's definitely a guilty complex, especially among the white evangelical community, about how complicit we've been, and apathetic. People really want to redeem that."

Chelsey's framing reveals that she is steeped in a liberal arts ethos friendly to intersectionality, the idea that humanity's ills, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, cannot be conquered until root causes are addressed. This perspective is shaping academic dialogue in both secular and faith-based schools.

But does fighting climate change detract from evangelism? Here there's a rift within the evangelical community. Should the emphasis be on saving souls or saving God's creation? And are the two really at odds?

A sign in a Wheaton College science building: What Would Jesus Do in chemistry lab?

A sign in a Wheaton College science building reminds students about lab safety by asking: What Would Jesus Do (in chemistry lab)? Credit: Meera Subramanian

"That's the Billy Graham evangelicalism," Chelsey said of the personal salvation perspective, referencing Wheaton's most famous alumnus. "It's your faith between you and Jesus." But the problem with that approach, she said, is that it doesn't force Christians to deal with larger systems of injustice. "The evangelical community is really limited when it comes to talking about systemic and structural sin rather than individual sin. Most of us have never heard about systemic racism and climate change in church," she said. Even as evangelical organizations embrace the need for action, the message isn't coming across from the pulpit. "These things never come up because they're apparently not gospel issues," Chelsey said, "But at Wheaton, we think they are."

For Sean, there's not one speck of conflict between his love of God and the gospel and his fierce desire to see action on climate change. They're complementary, he said.

"If you focus too much on only a personal relationship being the core tenet of your faith, then it means that you're more easily able to marginalize topics like human suffering, which in some cases is spurred by climate change," he said. "We are embodied creatures in this planet, so let's live like we are."

Could his concern for the climate be a threat to his faith? I asked him.

"Actually, I see more of a threat in the idea that we can divorce our lives on this earth and the lives of other people and the lives of other creatures from our life of faith," Sean said. Better to revel in God's love. "How much deeper and how much more beautiful is a way of loving Him that involves my whole being and the whole world around me rather than just simply the status of my soul?" 

When Pro-Life Means Entire Lives

Abortion was the entry point into American politics for many evangelicals, after the Supreme Court affirmed abortion rights in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Before that, evangelicals were generally unconcerned about abortion rights, which had the uncontroversial support of Republicans; they were also generally disengaged from voting. Today, the single-issue anti-abortion preoccupation of many evangelicals, now considered a given by many political leaders, confounds some of the young evangelicals I met at Wheaton.

"If we say we're pro-life, we have to care for people who are experiencing incredible environmental degradation and so directly affected by climate change," Chelsey said. "If we're pro-life, that's a bigger issue to me than abortion."

Sean agreed. "So many people are now saying, okay, if you're going to be pro-life you have to be pro all-of-life, lifelong pro-life, which has primarily come up in the immigration debate. If you're pro-life, how can you be separating children from their parents?"

Diego Hernandez. Credit: Meera Subramanian

"I used to be like, oh, there's oil, go start drilling, you know, because of course it's all about the money, right?" Diego Hernandez said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. But "what is it doing to our environment? How is it going to affect us in the next 10 to 50 years?" Credit: Meera Subramanian

Diego sees it a little differently. "Abortion is definitely a deal-breaker for me," he said, even though he said he's not generally a one-issue voter. He echoed Sean and Chelsey to some degree, agreeing that "being pro-life doesn't just mean being pro-life to the baby at birth. It also means the life of the mother and the life of the baby after birth." But when he watched the 2016 presidential debates, he found himself agreeing with some of Hillary Clinton's points ... until he was appalled by what he saw as her "gung-ho" support of abortion rights. He decided he could just not get behind someone with those views. 

Young evangelicals wrestle with these difficult choices in the voting booth, confronted with either/or candidates, unsure who will best represent their hopes for life on earth, all life, all of God's creation. Right now, anti-abortion rights Christians typically have only one party to get behind. And it's that party, represented in the White House, that is aggressively rolling back climate protections, from pulling out of the Paris climate accord to promoting coal.

Future Powerhouse at the Polls?

Diego, Chelsey and Sean are the future. This younger generation has grown up with the realities of climate change and political polarization since they were swinging on monkey bars, and they aren't hesitating to break rank with evangelical Baby Boomers on the issue. They remain faithful and politically conservative for the most part, but they are more concerned about a climate that they will have to live with much longer than those boomers heading into retirement. The shift aligns with a recent Pew poll that found that among Republicans, young adults were far less likely than their elders to support reliance on fossil fuels.

"Every one of the people who I've talked to who's come to my events and engaged in climate issues from a Christian perspective said, 'My parents don't agree with me,'" Sean told me.

Wheaton College students have an active role model in former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican who has been leading a conservative movement for clean energy and action on climate change. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Wheaton College students have an active role model in former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican who has been leading a conservative movement for clean energy and action on climate change. Credit: Meera Subramanian

But even with this clear shift toward accepting climate science among young Americans, the quandary for young evangelicals in the voting booth remains.

Sean, who said he couldn't in good conscience vote for either party, opted for Jill Stein in 2016.

Chelsey, as a busy freshman in 2016, followed in her father's footsteps and voted for Trump.  Her father had been singularly focused on getting a Republican on the Supreme Court. Now, she hangs her head about the decision.

Diego, about to vote in his first election, grew up in a struggling, hard-working family in San Antonio. His father showed him how to mow lawns when he was six, he said.  His mother would pick up her raggedy old Bible and tell Diego, "This is what you should base all of your beliefs and all your values on. It shouldn't be what you hear from someone on TV or C-SPAN or NPR."

Lyndsay Mouw and other YECA members brought their message to Washington, D.C., during the People's Climate March. Credit: Kaleb Nyquist

Lyndsay Mouw and other YECA members brought their message of climate action in God’s name to Washington, D.C., during the People's Climate March. Credit: Kaleb Nyquist

Surveys show that the way people view climate change is determined more by political affiliation, along with race and ethnicity, than by religious affiliation. So while 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, it's important to remember that about a quarter of the country's evangelicals are not white, and it is among minority groups that the evangelical community is growing. And on the issue of climate change, Diego's Latino background makes him part of the American demographic that is most concerned about climate change. He wonders whether his mother deliberately pushed for that "scenic route" to wake him up a little.

What are the choices for these faithful young? With church membership in decline and the Republican party in flux, how vocal these young people are could shape the future of the climate debate. If the Christian right wants to hold onto the next generation, getting right with the planet might prove as important as getting right with God.

Many concerned about the environment rally for more evangelicals to understand climate change and embrace leadership positions on the issue. "It would be a milestone if you managed to take influential evangelists—preachers—to adopt the idea of global warming, and to preach it," Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman told the host of Hidden Brain, an NPR science show. "That would change things. It's not going to happen by presenting more evidence, that is clear."

And in the book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, renowned biologist E.O. Wilson wrote a long letter with the salutation, "Dear Pastor." It is an urgent, heartfelt plea. "We need your help. The Creation—living Nature—is in deep trouble. Scientists estimate that ... half the species of plants and animals on Earth could be either gone or at least fated for early extinction by the end of the century. A full quarter will drop to this level during the next half century as a result of climate change alone."

These new sermons and stories are unlikely to come from older pastors and preachers, most of whom have become representatives of the Republican Party platform that doesn't want to even acknowledge that climate change is an issue to discuss, let alone embark on the massive undertaking necessary to begin to solve it. But for the young, who will live with the catastrophic predictions that worsen with each new iteration of the UN climate report, there are new stories emerging. They are conversion stories of a new sort, springing from dirt once buried under Midwestern parking lots and held aloft on the wings of Sean's beloved birds. Preachers and politicians seeking to keep the young religious right in their midst may need to leap past the quagmire of a questionable climate change debate and get right to the root of finding solutions for the generations that will be living into the long tomorrow of a warming planet.

Top photo: Chelsey Geisz talks with U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam about climate change during a nature walk near Wheaton College. Roskam was defeated in the 2018 election by an engineer who specializes in energy efficiency. Credit: Jessie Smith

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