By Thomas Larson | September 2015 Issue
The Truth Seeker
Snowballs from Hell
All things Christian, all things American, reside with the Oklahoman. A few years ago, a local reporter from Moore, Oklahoma, who was hooked in, via his affiliate, to CNN, was doing live interviews in the aftermath of a May tornado. He was broadcasting at the end of a mile-wide, seventeen-mile-long swath of destruction, which included the remains of two grade schools that were rebuilt on the same spot after previous deadly twisters. Beside him was a wary-eyed, ball-capped farmer or trucker, randomly culled, no doubt, who would express the horror of an EF5 tornado that had just splintered his community on winds of 210 mph.
“How awesome it is,” the breathless man said, “to witness what God’s wrath can bring!” The reporter did not ask if that wrath was aimed at the seven children who died that morning in one of two schools whose concrete-block walls lacked reinforced steel. No. This was not a social or a political visit. It was Armageddon in the Heartland. Or a reminder to the forgetful that the end times were upon us. In his immediate exclamation, I got the philosophy of climate-change belief and disbelief: humankind didn’t create this murderous storm, God did. And He meant it.
Or take another Oklahoman’s recent comment. In February 2015, Republican James Inhofe palmed a snowball he scooped from the Capitol lawn. He said from the Senate floor that snow in winter proved his claim that scientific conjecture of a human-altered climate is a hoax. “Climate is changing,” he continued, “and climate has always changed and always will. There is archaeological evidence of that, there is biblical evidence of that, there is historical evidence of that.” Global warming, he said, is clearly not the problem. But its advocates are. “There are some people who are so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change climate.”
Both of these Okie avowals ring with charismatic authority. Neither man is raising palms to God on high as evangelicals do. But both—and this is key to how born-agains emote—are testifying publicly, with “natural” evidence, to Biblical truths. These men attest because God has saved them, and they can’t help but fit their scriptured righteousness to the news of the day.
Evangelical and scientist alike distinguish between climate and weather—the former long-term, the latter, current. Recent bad weather may seem predictive of historical changes. But even if monster tornadoes are a sign of a worsening planet, humans, according to evangelicals, cannot shift the climate or the weather. That’s God’s domain. What’s more, no matter how loving God was to have created us or how much we’ve despoiled and are trying to repair Eden, he can still dispense with our home and us if he chooses. Calling up his blessing won’t stop his retribution.
When Inhofe identifies our “arrogance” in manipulating “the heavens,” how puny we are meant to feel in the face of apocalyptic certainty, how miniscule government and corporate fixes would be against God’s will. The chaotic reprimand of a tsunami is nothing like the dependable order of a Hoover dam. Catastrophic weather seems hopelessly more willful than a wall to control a river’s flow. (Imagine the earthquake that will one day crack the dam wide open.)
The essential thing about climate-change, when evangelicals get a hold of it, is its emotionality. Their view of climate change is not subject to a rational discussion of its causes. It’s subject to emotion, the more intense the better. In this case, the chief one is denial: what argues against a literalist’s belief in the Bible, they deny. It can’t be true. Why? Because God is mightier and more inscrutable than anything we can imagine or anything we can influence.
The consequence of this prevarication comes at a terrible cost. Concerted inaction. Despite 2014 as the hottest year ever recorded, forty percent of Americans agree with evangelicals that climate change is not manmade. Is this mere denial—letting go of our “responsibility” and letting God fix it or not as he chooses? Or is it an admission that climate change is biblically unavoidable and welcome, a secret desire for raptured annihilation? In the recent rise of millennialism, we may be contending with a non-interventional plea that the world end, expressly to bring about, as prophesized, a “new heaven and a new earth.” The upside of doom.
The Evangelical Position
Before James Inhofe nailed up the core Christian thesis on climate, other ministers and doom-savvy politicians have made similar points. In March 2009, Representative John Shimkus said that according to Matthew 24, “the earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over,” a lousy paraphrase of Scripture. Matthew 24 actually lists famines, pestilences, earthquakes, false prophets, and other iniquities before it says, “and then shall the end come.” Either way, in one fell swoop or punishingly slow, we must suffer these other catastrophes before God makes his declaration.
Many evangelicals see climate change as neither bad nor obliterating. Whatever the peril now, our looming towers don’t compare to the Great Flood, survived by Noah and kin, which came at God’s behest, not our “over-development of carbon energy.” Some born-agains claim that the soupy air of dinosaur days (that is, just 6000 years ago!) was healthy even when carbon parts per million were well over 4000 as compared to 400 today. What rightwing Christian doesn’t share the glad tidings of Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson: “We are not to weep as the people of the world weep when there are certain tragedies or breakups of the government or the systems of the world. We are not to wring out hands and say, ‘Isn’t that awful?’ That isn’t awful at all. It’s good.”
It would be unfair to cast all Biblicists in this role. Take climatologist and evangelical, Katherine Hayhoe, who needs no proof climate change is real. In fact, she lectures to church groups about their Christian duty to save the planet, and soon—to stop blaming the messenger. Helping (and saving) others is Christly, she says, because climate change “is disproportionately affecting the poor, and the vulnerable, and those who cannot care for themselves.” Even before his encyclical on climate in June of this year, Pope Francis termed deforestation a “sin.” And David Kepley, of the Providence Presbyterian Church in Rhode Island, says that “to be wasteful of the land’s bounty or to despoil it with substances that are harmful to people or other life forms is not just unproductive, but is an affront to God.”
Still, end-timers have a greater influence, in part, because the media blesses their side as though denying climate change were the equal of affirming it. That same forty percent of Americans who don’t believe in manmade global warming also expect Christ back by 2050, the onset of the feared or hoped-for apocalypse. A majority of evangelicals (seventy-seven percent) see this end as unstoppable because it’s biblically forecasted. Indeed, some born-agains argue that the rise of planetary disturbances in our era proves “the science of eschatology.” As W.H. Auden wrote in 1963, “Christian and Atheist alike are eschatologically minded.” Which is to say the world is more likely than ever to end soon so it doesn’t matter whose sickle brings it down.
Making the Case, Evangelically
First, the difference between fundamentalist and evangelical and second, why it’s important. The fundamentalist possesses a set of beliefs, “the five points,” advanced by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1910, which counterattacked Darwinism and modernist alienation. The five points are the inerrancy of the Bible as the word of God; the authenticity of miracles; Jesus’s virgin birth; his crucifixion for the atonement of our sins; and his resurrection, which, vampire-like, means he’s undead and on his way.
By contrast, the evangelical who preaches this gospel concentrates on winning souls for Christ. Think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, banging on doors. A fundamentalist believes the five points, an evangelical acts on those beliefs. Evangelicals do the denying. The current lamentation about climate has pushed them to mobilize against the godless and the government—homeschool, staff Bible camps, missionize Africans, back Republicans, advocate creationism (the planet has a self-correcting blueprint), advance lawsuits (see Hobby Lobby), and argue, vociferously, against gay marriage, abortion, and climate change.
Part of the forcefulness of evangelical opposition has arisen because, as Randall Balmer writes in Protestantism in America, the clan is really good at
mass communications—the open-air preaching in the eighteenth century, which prefigured the Patriot rhetoric during the Revolution; the Methodist circuits on the frontier, which anticipated grassroots political organizations; [and] the adroit use of broadcast media in the twentieth century, from the radio preachers of the twenties to the televangelists of the seventies.
Of course, advancing the faith is not advancing the end of the world. Still, I would say that the born-again who proselytzes against science has weaponized denial: opposing the human role in climate change, even if many prominent Christians recognize it as true (like Jeb Bush), suggests that evangelicals are pushing, harder than ever, for Christ’s Second Coming. Whatever it takes to bring Jesus back—and any worldwide calamity may do since present-day scourges like pollution in China, overpopulation in Africa, and Armageddon in Iran (Obama-wrought) are easily folded into biblical prognoses. Denying and desiring the end are the Jekyll-and-Hyde personas of the righteous.
Those who heartily hail the end, letting God, in his “wisdom,” undo planetary synergy, are courting the unspeakable: mass death for disbelievers. Of course, no one says he wants this. But there it is, a bald-faced threat. In fact, this threat censors the dialogue: we seldom discuss the wholesale slaughter of profuse life, whether human or natural. Instead, we waste our time on examining Americans’ irrational “belief in” such prophecy, pitting science against the Bible’s “historical evidence.” We even debate a person’s right to her religious liberty to console herself with the dream of such annihilation. We do not talk about the murderous sensibility that seeks what can only be called a massacre of the innocents.
I’m reminded of one of many pithy sentences in Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: “As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all [our] hard-won human attainments.”
Eschaton: here’s a word edging its way back into usage. It means the end of the world, the time of the last things, where eschatology is the study of the end. If the end is nigh, and Billy Graham says it’s imminent, then know it is God’s judgment for the awful things we’ve intentionally done to ourselves, to him, and to the planet. Our core fuckup has been to reject the personal salvation Jesus Christ offers each of us. After all, he promised that there’d be hell to pay if we didn’t.
With the number of unwinnable wars, Ebola crises, and religiously unaffiliated Americans growing, eschatological thinking has a concomitant rise. Kyle Keefer writes in his The New Testament As Literature that “the book of Revelation has strongly influenced how Europeans and North Americans have coped with and interpreted imminent threats to their existence. From the bubonic plague to the Cold War, the apocalyptic overtones of Revelation have colored people’s reactions to catastrophic events.” If one is searching to reconcile the signs of climate change with like-minded Bible-begat warnings, Scripture, and its hallowed place in our culture, gives abundant license.
One reason why the Christian may welcome climate change is that those who get the last things must confirm the signs. The phrase is “realized eschatology,” the idea that the future hides in the present, which the saved know. They carry a count-me-in readiness, Jesus take me now. Such dystopic Hollywood films in which the chosen and the corrupt look to the sky as aliens arrive to wipe them out press the evangelical bias, no doubt to draw a paying audience. The accursed recognize their decimation is deserved while the chosen (Tom Cruise or Sigourney Weaver) escape because their believing hearts are true.
If people accept that the future is already, and ever will be, here and now, then you might think such acquiescence compels them to act on behalf of that future now, indeed, share and act on what they know. But if they believe that only Christ can save us and the planet upon his return engagement, why bother passing cap-and-trade legislation or signing the Kyoto Accords? Why would any evangelical bother with fixing anything if they can avoid Armageddon by sailing to heaven in the Rapture?
Predicated on this Rapture and the subsequent Seven-Year Tribulation (God’s torturing of those left behind) are some frighteningly duplicitous ideas. Before the late-great planet earth dissolves and Christians are rocketed away, lots of bad stuff needs to happen first. Whether an end is desired or not, imagine how much inaction on climate change is going to produce Noah-like conditions that are unbearable to live in not just for Americans but especially for those in the Majority World.
First, evangelical denial is really aimed at an obvious but hidden enemy: governmental overreach against religious liberty and government regulation of the environment. Here’s their case. If the federal government can dismiss creationism, ban prayer in schools, negotiate with the apostate Iran (the book of Revelation’s Satan), and exalt homosexuality by redefining marriage, then why should Christians trust the same secular sheriff to roll back what God is bringing upon the world for those very sins—Washington’s unchecked power and its cabal of “one world” government?
The irony, of course, is that while evangelicals trust the institutional mandates of the Bible and rightwing clergy, many disparage investments in or government support for the fields of green energy, organic farming, and reforestation. Though we have sustained a society that shares secular and religious values, Christians seem unable to serve two masters.
Second, some evangelicals genuinely fear that if green technologies prevail, the Christian worldview will be supplanted by a Pagan one, where the Earth is coveted and the Sky God blotted out. In this scenario, the state becomes a religion, environmentalists rule, and Christians are deposed. What’s more, an Earth Mother faith blasphemes God by raising the planet and human welfare above the all-powerful Oz. How odd an effect that the earth and the heavens are polarized—opposite that which Native Americans have taught us is the source of our endurance.
The third and perhaps greatest self-contradiction is that so many evangelicals do not live by their end-time faith, despite their political fervor. Who among them has dropped out of the world, “give no thought for the morrow,” and follow Christ in sandals and robe? Born-agains save for their IRAs, buy homes with mortgages, build communities of their creed, and send their kids to college. Where is this “death wish,” clearly explained in Scripture, operating in our culture except as election-year rabble-rousing or televangelist fundraising?
If Christians are really more than emotionally attached to climate change denial, why aren’t we seeing a Billy-Graham-like activism to entreat God to end it all sooner than later? Activating the end will bring it about quicker than doing nothing, so why not get on with it?
This last veil must be parted. Since the science cannot be reasonably refuted, climate-change denial is far more easily advanced on biblical than on climatological grounds. Such a plan is a political expedient, and a specious one at that. Endtimes rhetoric combined with Christian non-action on climate has been politicized, by Republicans and born-agains, not for religious reasons. The reality is, denying scientific evidence about the planet’s deteriorating health is a deviant way to keep free-market economics, a militarized foreign policy, and a ninety-two percent Christian Congress firmly in place.
Reprinted with permission from the Truth Seeker.
Thomas Larson is a journalist, critic, and memoirist. He is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness, The Saddest Music Ever Written and The Memoir and the Memoirist. He is a long-time staff writer for the San Diego Reader, Book Reviews Editor for River Teeth, and a regular contributor to the Truth Seeker, America’s oldest free-thought magazine. An active member of AWP and Nonfiction Now, Larson teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. He is available to speak about his book on heart disease, to hold workshops on “Writing the Memoir,” to edit nonfiction manuscripts, and to lecture on American music and nonfiction narrative. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.
— The Great Agnostic, American Freethought film series excerpt about Robert G. Ingersoll
— Thomas Larson’s article on the non-action attitude on global warming by evangelicals and the Christian Congress
— D.M. Bennett and Robert Ingersoll visit “Dr.” Henry Slade, the “clairvoyant physician”
— Charles Darwin’s religious views revealed
— Clarence Darrow explains his agnosticism
— Book excerpt from God and Government by Rev. Barry Lynn
Download the September 2015 issue of The Truth Seeker here. September 2015 issue $12.95, includes shipping. Limited number of copies available.
Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook