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The Nature of the Religious Right:  An Interview with Neall Pogue | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Picture of the book cover for "The Nature of the Religious Right" by Neall Pogue.
Image of Neall W. Pogue’s book cover for The Nature of the Religious Right: The Struggle Between Conservative Evangelicals and the Environmental Movement (Cornell University Press, 2022)

Neall Pogue is an assistant professor of instruction at The University of Texas at Dallas.  In April his research was published as a monograph by Cornell University Press titled  The Nature of the Religious Right:  The Struggle Between Conservative Evangelicals and the Environmental Movement.  This book is an intellectual history that offers the first historical account delineating how politically motivated white conservative evangelicals who make up the religious right ultimately learned to oppose environmental protection efforts including climate change over the last fifty years.  Here is a link to his post on how fundamentalist textbooks deal with environmental issues

We at rightingamerica are very pleased that Pogue was willing to be interviewed about  The Nature of the Religious Right.

  1. What factors – academic, personal, whatever — drew you into this topic? And how did you come up with such a clever title for the book?

As an older teenager in the 1990s, I recognized from the media and personal experiences that white conservative evangelicals who supported religious right ideals opposed environmental protection initiatives, including efforts to curb climate change, while progressives strongly supported the opposite.  

Years later, as an environmental history graduate student looking for a thesis topic, I became interested in the relationship between the environment and the religious right movement.  While it seemed to be expected that progressives and conservatives would disagree on issues, but how did conservative evangelicals, who pride themselves on using theology to understand the world, decide to reject environmental protection?  

The first chapter of Genesis in the Christian Bible, for example, explains that God created the earth and the cosmos, all of which is described seven different times as “good.”  Consequently, why would it be acceptable to oppose efforts to preserve what God created?  To answer this question, I set out to write the first history on the subject.

The title for the book was something I decided on late in the writing process.  My Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book is titled “The Lost Environmentalists:  The Struggle Between Conservative Protestants and the Environmental movement 1970-2010.” During the peer-review process, it was correctly pointed out that the book never portrayed white conservative evangelicals of the religious right as environmentalists.  Beyond that problem, the title would have lacked the name of the community that the entire book centered on – the Religious Right.   I soon came up with The Nature of the Religious Right, which satisfied everyone and did a better job representing the subject matter.  

  1. Perhaps your most significant and surprising argument in The Nature of the Religious Right is that from the late 1960s to the early 1990s “conservative evangelicals did not support secular environmentalism, but at the same time they did not ignore or oppose environmental protection,” instead “develop[ing] an eco-friendly theologically based philosophy, termed here as Christian environmental stewardship” (2). Could you elaborate on the components of this evangelical eco-friendly philosophy? 

Often times the first image we think about when picturing environmental protection is two opposing sides; those who want to preserve it and those who want to sacrifice nature for human development.  

But how humanity understands itself in connection with other living things and the earth can be much more complicated than just preservation or destruction.  Likewise, as I studied the white conservative evangelical response to historical events such as the birth of the environmental movement in 1970, it became apparent they were not simply on one side or the other. 

As the 1960s came to a close, and popular concern about the health of the environment grew, people within the conservative evangelical community looked toward the Bible for answers.  Respected Christian writers such as Francis Schaeffer used the Bible to easily demonstrate that God valued creation.  Humanity, Schaffer argued, might indeed be God’s greatest achievement, but humanity was nonetheless a creation like everything else, including whales, insects, trees and the soil.  Therefore, he reasoned, humans must respect all creation as we do ourselves.  Such an idea was furthered to add that humanity did not actually own the earth; it was God’s and humans are only caretakers, custodians or, in other words, stewards.  This theologically based perspective could be called Christian environmental stewardship.  

Christian environmental stewardship is similar to how secular conservationists understand the human relationship to nature.  Humanity can use the earth’s natural resources, but must go about it wisely and sparingly.  Logging companies, for example, can cut timber for houses, but must leave a portion of trees to grow and continue to support the ecosystem.  Christian environmental stewardship is very closely related to this perspective, undergirded by Christian theology.   

  1. Related, how robust was the evangelical notion of environmental stewardship? Was there a willingness to support state-imposed limits on capitalism?

This is a great question.  When trying to get access to one pastor’s sermons, I spoke to a secretary who, upon learning my topic, laughed and said that the pastor had never talked about the environment and she attended every Sunday sermon he delivered.  Indeed, the environment was never a “hot button” issue that was spoken about frequently.  Thus, during the research process finding positions on the subject was a little like finding needles in a haystack.  Nevertheless, the more I looked the needles did exist and revealed that the evangelical community supported an established eco-friendly position of Christian environmental stewardship, which lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. 

As stated in the book, the eco-friendly views existed largely as philosophies and in the background behind the traditional “hot button” issues like abortion and gay marriage.  

Religious right supporters did discuss state-imposed limits on capitalism in preference for Christian environmental stewardship, particularly in response to the first Earth Day in 1970 and its twentieth anniversary in 1990.  In both cases, however, it never evolved into a plank of the religious right’s political agenda for a variety of reasons.

  1. The Nature of the Religious Right takes a turn in chapter 5, where you assert that, in beginning in the 1990s, “anti-environmentalist positions from political conservatives eventually crushed calls for environmental action” (109). In reading your book I was struck by how quickly many/most evangelical leaders and many/most evangelical institutions abandoned concerns for the environment. How do you explain this remarkable turnaround?

Like the wider American public in the early 1990s, conservative evangelicals of the religious right had to decide what to believe regarding important environmental issues, particularly anthropogenic climate change. 

On one hand they were told by conservative think tanks and special advocacy groups that environmental protection initiatives involving climate change were fake and harmful.  On the other hand, scientists warned that anthropogenic climate change was real and threated all life on earth.  Even mainstream media sources offered both viewpoints.   

A variety of reasons allowed or encouraged some white conservative evangelicals to immediately believe the arguments coming from the think tanks and advocacy groups.  As stated in the book’s conclusion, sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild points out in her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, many conservative evangelicals live in industrial-heavy states where jobs in that sector are really the only option for employment.  To further this point, Hochschild quotes one person who states, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” (179).  In this perspective, it’s not hard to understand why a religious right supporter would choose to believe the arguments from conservative think tanks stating that climate change isn’t happening, and that any action to combat it would ruin the economy.  It might be easy to condemn this group for making a greedy choice, but as is also pointed out in my book’s conclusion, the economy usually is the top issue at elections among both Republican and Democrats. 

With the above information in mind, it is important to highlight that the religious right community did not turn against their eco-friendly views at the same time.  There were those who indeed immediately embraced the conservative think tank and special advocacy campaign material, but they had to work hard to convince others to agree with them.  Robert Dugan of the National Association of Evangelicals is a great example of this.  As discussed in the later chapters, he was a strong religious right advocate, but initially found nothing wrong with wanting to save the environment.  As the calls to condemn the environmental movement grew in his community during the early 1990s, he became confused about what to believe and just dropped the issue.  Such calls were loud and saturated with ridicule aimed at anyone who held eco-friendly views.  With this scenario in mind, it is not unreasonable to posit that there are many in the community who, even in the present, still support Christian environmental stewardship, but simply remain silent. 

  1. I love how this book takes historical contingency into account, best represented by the title to your final chapter, “It Could Have Taken a Very Different Path.” How might that have happened in the 1990s and early 2000s? Today, what would be required for evangelicals to address climate change, given the fusion of conservative evangelicalism and conservative politics in the Christian Right, and given that prominent fundamentalists such as Ken Ham refer to those who are concerned about global warming as being part of a “climate cult”?

When considering theory, this question is easy to answer, but how it could be implemented in practice seems an insurmountable problem.   

The religious right already has the solid theologically defensible concept of Christian environmental stewardship.  As Francis Schaeffer argued (chapter one), humanity may be God’s crowning achievement, but people must care for creation as they care for themselves.  People are allowed some profit within capitalism, but not if it destroys God’s creation.  

Overall, Christian environmental stewardship is rational and reasonable.  It is basically a version of the respected and proven practice of nature conservation, but with a religious bent.  Again, the concept is there, it just needs to be followed.  If it were followed, they would support efforts to curb climate change in a way that is balanced and allows for people to use, but not abuse/destroy “God’s world.”  

Of course, such a decision would require conservative evangelicals to take a step back from popular narratives that categorize environmental initiatives with nature worship and other conspiracies.  Calling citizens who want to stop global warming a “climate cult” is an easy way to dismiss and ignore the problem by demonizing it and weaving it into larger political narratives that fuel the ongoing culture wars.  

In this vein, The Nature of the Religious Right is not only a history book, but could be used as a way for readers to look beyond today’s political polarization and realize that environmentalists and religious right supporters, at least for a period, held similar views towards the environment.  Perhaps this information offers ways for a conversation to develop between the two groups. 

  1. What research project(s) are you working on now? Are you staying with evangelicals and the environment, or are you moving on?

In connection to my last answer, my next project is not so much based in new research but an attempt to address polarization and promote solutions. 

One of the fundamental problems regarding environmental issues amongst the general public is simply trying to decide what is true or not, all of which is connected to the informational sources we consume as a society.  

To explore this situation, I would like to start a new book intended specifically for the general public, which would take the reader through examples reflecting the sources that conservative evangelicals used, which led to an evolving understanding of climate change.  Like the general public, this community began the 1990s with the view that anthropogenic climate change was real.  The information offered by conservative think tanks and special advocacy groups, however, allowed evangelicals the option to choose what they wanted to believe.  

This book would encourage readers to think more deeply about the sources of information they use to understand the world by employing the historical example of climate change and conservative evangelicals.  While achieving this goal, the book would help answer questions such as what makes sources credible?  How does science evolve from unsettled to settled?  What are the obstacles of information communication in our society?  

I have a few other, more scholarly, research ideas floating around, but for the moment I am excited about this new book project intended for general readers.