by Neall Pogue
Neall Pogue is an assistant professor of instruction at The University of Texas at Dallas. His research on the relationship between the environment and white conservative evangelicals of the religious right was published in April of 2022 by Cornell University Press. The book is titled The Nature of the Religious Right: The Struggle Between Conservative Evangelicals and the Environmental Movement.
This post analyzes the environmental messages taught by popular Christian school publishers who produce educational material for students attending Christian day schools and home schools throughout the United States. The educational material is largely written by and for white conservative evangelicals, who understand the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who make up much of the religious right movement.
The year 1993 marked the first time A Beka Book (Abeka since 2017), a top selling Christian school textbook publisher, denied the existence of human-caused climate change. In addition to stressing this sentiment in bold and italicized type, the authors stated that if it did occur, the increased carbon dioxide would benefit crop production. This assurance was reprised in a poem on the top of the page that read: “Roses are Red; Violets are Blue; They Both Grow Better with More CO2.” The section concluded by advising the reader that any lingering concerns were unwarranted because the “fate of the earth rests not in the hands of chance but in the hands of its all-powerful Creator.” Such was the three-pronged rejection of climate change as portrayed by the science textbook.
In addition to addressing climate change, the book took a noticeable stand against any other contemporary environmental concerns. Elsewhere for instance, students were incorrectly told that pesticides like DDT were harmless to bird populations, and that worries about acid rain and ozone depletion were simple fabrications from extremist environmentalists who were wasting taxpayer money by pushing the government to study nonproblems.
What is particularly fascinating about this textbook is that it not only marked the adoption of a new anti-environmental attitude, but it reversed previous eco-friendly lessons commonly taught by A Beka Book and other Christian school publishers.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, A Beka Book’s environmental messages were relatively sparse, but nevertheless consistently supported the message that Christians should be responsible caretakers of the earth. This view, which could be called Christian environmental stewardship, was structured very similarly to the idea of conservation, in which people could use nature but must do it carefully without abusing and wasting resources. The idea included the theological warning that the earth is owned by God and therefore humans are simply caretakers. Other popular publishers such as Bob Jones University Press (BJU Press) also communicated the idea of Christian environmental stewardship in their science textbooks first published in the later 1970s.
As late as 1989, like BJU Press, A Beka Book continued supporting Christian environmental stewardship, as demonstrated in an economics textbook that praised capitalism, but not if it meant the destruction of the environment. For evidence the author cited famous economist Adam Smith in a section titled “Pollution, Waste, and Ugliness.” Here students were warned that unrestricted capitalism ruined the environment of Smith’s hometown of Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Later the author stated, “The short-run costs of pollution prevention, conservation, and urban restoration are high. Yet the long-run costs to humanity of neglecting those economic responsibilities would be far higher.”
Such Christian environmental stewardship messages, as reflected by the A Beka Book economics textbook, were commonplace amongst wider conservative evangelical culture throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
It was in the early 1990s, however, that these traditional environmental messages were contested by conservative think tanks and special purpose groups like the John Birch Society, who increased the amount of anti-environmental information disseminated to readers. This information found its way into the hands of everyday Americans, including the churches of traditionally politically conservative white evangelicals associated and within the religious right movement.
With the increase of material attacking environmental protection efforts, it is no coincidence that the same arguments from the think tanks were repeated in Christian school educational material. In the 1993 science textbook cited above, the idea that increased CO2 levels would be good for plants could easily be found beyond the conservative evangelical community (also see William Trollinger’s excellent analysis of creationist Ken Ham’s anti-environmental information). In time other Christian school publishers reproduced similar statements.
Today A Beka Book continues to deny the existence of environmental concerns including acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change. The writers frame environmentalists and sympathetic scientists as misguided souls who fabricate these problems. Although the science books do repeat the tenets of Christian environmental stewardship, it has become marginalized and a shell of what it once was. In this vein, Christian environmental stewardship can be ignored by stating that environmental problems do not exist.
This situation presents our society with an interesting dilemma that centers around the extremely important issues of democracy and education. Students in secular schools may be taught that human-caused climate change is real, while the opposite is learned by Christian school and home school students.
These conflicting beliefs are not harmless differences of opinion. When a fact is confirmed by the scientific community, the information traditionally finds its way into student textbooks and the general public. When this process is hindered, it puts the wider community at risk because the education system is failing the students who then cannot make informed decisions when they become voters as adults. The result is political inaction because the voting populace continues to debate the legitimacy of a confirmed fact.
Although this ongoing situation seems grim, the positive view is that denying climate change among conservative evangelicals lacks theological support. More than this, in their effort to bypass traditional understanding of Christian environmental stewardship, conservative evangelical textbook authors simply state scientists are wrong.
Consequently, anti-environmentalism among conservative evangelicals has met challenges. The Evangelical Environmental Network, for example, knows climate change denial is scientifically and theologically indefensible and as a result they have successfully grown a small but noticeable group of supporters since its founding in 1993. Other gains include the 2006 Evangelical Climate Initiative and recent eco-friendly publications produced by the National Association of Evangelicals.
This environmental conversation evolving within the conservative evangelical community should also encourage outsiders to think about engagement. In today’s extremely polarized political and social climate it may be easy to “other” groups, in the process leading some to think of the religious right supporters as unchangeable social and political enemies. The religious right may indeed hold a number of views that seem totally alien to those outside the movement, but at least when it comes to the environment, history reveals that the situation is somewhat nuanced and has evolved over time. Perhaps by taking into consideration the history of this topic, bridges of communication could be built to find solutions to environmental problems.