Emily Robertson is a senior at Covenant College on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. She’s also an evangelical Christian, which makes her part of a key voting bloc for President Donald Trump.
But Trump won’t get a vote from Robertson, who describes faith as the most important thing in her life, and who is a fellow with the growing Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. She does not like the president’s climate change agenda, or rather, the lack of one.
“It’s clear what has happened,” she said. “He’s very opposed to good climate policy. He’s a very adamant denier of climate change. For me, I intend to vote for Joe Biden, especially because of climate. I do not want to support the president for his efforts slashing more and more environmental policies.”
Robertson, 21, is part of Generation Z, the newest generation of American voters. Along with Millennials, these younger Americans are more likely to believe humans are largely to blame for causing global warming and that the federal government is doing too little about it, according to the Pew Research Center.
But within her faith-based voting group—evangelical Christians—Robertson is distinctly in the minority in this election.
About a third to a half of all Trump supporters are evangelicals of some sort, and they’re not moving, said Jason Husser, a political science professor at Elon University in North Carolina. “Most polling suggests they have stayed with Trump,” Husser added. “If there was a big shift away from President Trump, we’d be seeing it.”
Even the Rev. R. Albert Moehler Jr. of Louisville, the influential Southern Baptist evangelical leader and theologian who in 2016 described Trump as a “sexual predator” and someone who was “beneath the baseline level of human decency,” is voting for him in November.
His decision has less to do with any deep affinity for the president and everything to do with his deep dislike for the Democratic Party, which he said has “swerved so far to the left” on issues such LGBTQ rights, religious freedom, and abortion.
“For the rest of my life I am going to just vote for … the Republican presidential candidate,” Moehler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in an April question and answer session with his followers.
Moehler said Monday in his daily analysis of the news that the death on Sept. 18 of the liberal icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg only raises the stakes of this election.
“We knew already that the future of the Supreme Court of the United States for a generation or more was at stake. … For Republicans, for conservatives in the United States, for conservative Christians who’ve been so concerned urgently about the Supreme Court for a matter of a half century and more, we now face a stewardship that simply can’t be missed.”
A Match Made in Heaven
For Trump and evangelical Christians, theirs has been a match made in heaven.
Evangelicals helped Trump eke out a narrow Electoral College win in 2016, and they continue to be a sizable and loyal segment of the voting public for the president, less than two months before U.S. voters decide whether to give the businessman and former reality television star another four years.
Pew Research in July found that 82 percent of white evangelical Protestant registered voters said they’d vote for Trump or lean toward voting for him this year, compared to 17 percent who said they’d vote for Biden. A Pew survey after the 2016 election found that 77 percent of voters had supported Trump compared to Hillary Clinton’s 16 percent.
Trump, in turn, has governed by paying close attention to evangelicals’ socially conservative politics, working with Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Ky.), to reshape the federal judiciary. The Senate has confirmed more than 200 lifetime appointments for conservative judges, including two new Supreme Court jurists.
Climate change is not a political priority for most evangelical voters, even though according to scripture Christians are called by their God to care for the Earth.
Many evangelicals remain skeptical of climate science, despite a consensus among scientists globally that climate change heightens extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires and leads to increased rainfall, droughts, sea level rise and flooding.
Wildfires raging across the West and severe flooding in Gulf Coast states in Hurricane Sally’s aftermath are not expected to shake evangelicals’ long identification with the Republican Party and what it stands for on social issues like race, immigration and climate change, which President Trump denies.
“Evangelical churches, in general, have become Republican echo chambers,” said Nancy T. Ammerman, professor emeritus of sociology and religion at Boston University and the author of a dozen books and numerous articles on religion and society. “People don’t know how to disentangle being a good Bible-believing Christian and being a Republican.”
Some of that has to do with evangelical Christian views on abortion (they are opposed to it), family values (traditional) and gender (conservative), but race also comes into play, especially for white protestant evangelicals, said Ammerman.
“Over and above what people theologically believe, it is that bundle of ideas about white superiority and importance of Christians being in charge,” she said. “This helped him (Trump) get elected.”
Still, amid a summer of racial discontent and reckoning, Southern Baptist leaders encouraged their churches to drop “Southern” from their name, calling themselves the Great Commission Baptists, a reference to a passage in the Bible, and further distancing the denomination from its slavery-supporting past, the Washington Post reported on Sept. 15. The Southern Baptists voted to condemn white supremacy in 2017 and to apologize for supporting slavery in 1995.
Other Religious Leaders Have Embraced Climate Action
Despite efforts by some evangelical leaders to come together around a climate and creation care agenda, most stand apart. Mainstream and progressive religious leaders of other denominations have raised objections to Trump’s climate denialism and environmental policy, saying his record of overturning or relaxing dozens of environmental regulations and ignoring scientists’ warnings about the cataclysmic impacts of climate change contradicts the Bible’s call for humans to care for the Earth and for each other.
Major Jewish organizations, and most mainstream protestant denominations, have taken strong positions on the need to address climate change, as have Islamic leaders. Conservative and progressive Catholics, meanwhile, debate Pope Francis’ 2015 teaching document, “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home,” a seminal cry for action on climate change.
But when it comes to taking action on climate change that requires movement away from fossil fuels and big agriculture and an embrace of renewable energy, white evangelicals have lagged behind other faith traditions, said Laurel Kearns, professor of ecology, society and religion at Drew Theological School in New Jersey.
Two years ago, for example, the largest group of evangelical Christians—the Southern Baptists Convention, with a membership of 50,000 churches and about 14.5 million members—attacked a landmark United Nations report on climate change that called for a transformation of energy, transportation, and agriculture to prevent the world from hurtling past the global warming target of the Paris climate agreement.
The convention’s official news service quoted the controversial climate scientist John Christy of the University of Alabama, a former Baptist missionary, defending fossil fuels as a way to help humanity.
In the same release, Moehler said the U.N report was part of a “deep anti-humanism that runs through much of the ecological movement,” saying that while God calls for people to care for creation, that mandate does not include “a return to pre-industrial Revolution ways of life.”
Moehler, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this report.
The convention’s media office pointed to a 2007 resolution that recognized a Biblical mandate to care for the Earth, but cast doubt on climate science.
A Robust Evangelical Climate Movement
Still, evangelical Christians are not monolithic.
The year after the Southern Baptists passed their resolution saying Christians are called by God to exercise caring stewardship and dominion over the Earth and environment, while questioning climate science, 46 Southern Baptist leaders in 2008 signed a competing statement, declaring that the Baptists had been too “timid” on climate change, putting the denomination at risk of being seen as “uncaring, reckless and ill-informed.”
Those leaders concluded that people needed to “take responsibility for our contributions to climate change—however great or small.”
Like other Christians, evangelicals who are concerned about the climate draw upon Biblical teachings.
“Climate change is a profound threat to all of God’s creation, but especially to the vulnerable of God’s creation,” said the Rev. Jim Ball, a former Southern Baptist who has been at the forefront of the evangelical environmental movement for more than three decades. “That includes the poor, the children, and future generations.”
He added, “It is essentially a way of taking back the blessing of God, in Genesis.” Ball is a former executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, whose provocative “What would Jesus drive” campaign in the 2000s grabbed headlines by questioning the moral value of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.
“Instead of doing what we were created to do, which is reflect God’s care for his creation and for others, climate change does the opposite,” Ball said.
The Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox, the president and CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, says that a “pro-life” stand must go beyond abortion.
“The definition is conception to natural death,” Hescox said. “Anything that takes away life, from the killing of life to pollution that is deteriorating the quality of life is a pro-life concern.”
The environmental network is having success. Over the last couple of years, 2.1 million people who identify themselves as pro-life support the network’s call for clean energy by 2030, he said.
For many evangelicals, however, finding common ground with climate activists requires a leap of faith.
Faith shapes peoples’ worldviews, including their views on climate change, said Dr. Randy Brinson, an Alabama gastroenterologist, political activist and Southern Baptist.
Brinson acknowledges that climate change presents serious threats and said other evangelical Christians do, too.
But, he said, it’s hard to find common ground with Democrats they see as having views beyond climate that are antithetical to their own.
“We should be taking care of the Earth, but that voice gets drowned out by people who are strongly pro-choice or anti-family,” he said. “There is a tribalism mentality. We are seeing it play out in everything.”
Even with his concerns about climate, Brinson said he is likely to vote Republican this fall, even though, he said. “If we don’t don’t do something about (climate change) we are going to be in a situation with a point of no return.”
What Climate Means to Some Young Evangelicals
While polling suggests that President Trump has already locked in the vote from most evangelical Christians, there are signals of longer-term political change.
A generational shift is one of them.
Ball sees hope in the rise of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, a group that has engaged with more than 20,000 young evangelicals since it was founded in 2012.
Along with Robertson, the Covenant College student, Isadora Koch, a 19-year-old, second-year student at the faith-based Lipscomb University in Nashville, is also a YECA fellow. Koch, from Lexington, Kentucky, is studying environmental sustainability sciences, communication and policy, and is working toward graduate school in environmental economics.
Biblical references to God giving people dominion over the Earth have been wrongly interpreted to mean they can exploit it, when the truth is that God requires environmental stewardship, Koch said.
She said she’s finding ways to communicate that with fellow evangelicals to bring them along on climate and the environment.
“Alarmism” doesn’t work, she said, and “even if you can’t convince the church you belong to that climate change is real, then the next best thing is to point out the effects of fossil fuels on people.
“There is an indisputable call for Christians to care about our fellow brothers and sisters. Coal is causing illness and death. It is not providing for human flourishing,” she said.
Young people raised in evangelical churches are wrestling with “a panoply of issues that the religious right wants to lock together,” such as views on science, gender roles and sexuality, said Kearns, the Drew Theological School professor. As a result, she added, evangelical churches are losing a lot of young people as they grow into adulthood.
Among evangelicals, younger members are more likely to have an awareness that Black and brown communities pay the highest cost for environmental pollution and will be the most affected by the impacts of climate changes, she said.
In fact, Robertson said she is studying the health effects of climate change on communities of color as part of her senior project.
She said she first discovered a love of nature while hiking in the forests of her native Georgia. In college, she said she felt called by God to study environmental biology and is launching a campus environmental newsletter.
As part of her work with the young evangelicals network, she is attempting to get 100 students to vote with climate change in mind.
Without explicitly telling her fellow students whom they should vote for, she said she will try to make it clear what voting for the climate means as a Christian.
“You can care about the Earth,” she said. “God created it. We can listen to scientists and discern what we will from what they say. We can follow God’s commandments, and we can be good stewards of the Earth, and we can vote with that in mind.”