Analysis: Has there been a “greening” of Christianity?

Analysis: Has there been a “greening” of Christianity?

Recent efforts by religious leaders to emphasize environmental stewardship, particularly as it relates to climate change, has led some scholars to argue there has been a "greening of Christianity."


However, my recent research finds that environmentalism among Christians in the United States has not increased—and, if anything, Christians over the past two decades have become less concerned about the environment.

A half century ago, the prominent historian Lynn White argued that Judeo-Christian beliefs have contributed in a significant way to environmental decline. In the decades since his essay was published in Science, there has been debate about the role of religion, and specifically Christianity, on shaping attitudes and behavior toward the environment.

There are two main arguments: First, consistent with White's thesis, is that Christianity emphasizes human dominion over the Earth, which undermines any obligation to protect the environment. A second, competing perspective emphasizes the importance of stewardship, and that the Christian faith instills an ethic of "creation care."

The relationship between religion and the environment has taken on more practical significance in recent years with the increasing importance of climate change. Many faith-based organizations have become vocal advocates at the local and national level for policies to address climate change.

The highest profile example came in 2015 when Pope Francis released his encyclical letter on the environment, which elevated climate change, and stewardship of the environment more generally, as issues central to the Catholic Church's teaching and mission. In the United States, efforts include several initiatives led by Evangelical Protestant groups, such as the Evangelical Environmental Network.

These developments, however, contradict arguments made by Lynn White and extensive social science research—including my most recent work. In a study recently published in the journal Environmental Politics, I analyzed nearly 20 years of public opinion data collected by Gallup to evaluate whether Christians express higher levels of concern about the environment over time.

In short, the answer to this question is decidedly no. The evidence suggests that Christians in the United States have become less concerned about the environment over the past two decades.

I studied Christians' responses to multiple questions pertaining to the environment that have been regularly asked by Gallup, including how people prioritize between environmental protection and economic development and energy production, levels of concern about environmental quality generally, and levels of worry about pollution (air, water, and toxic waste) and global warming specifically, and attitudes toward the environmental movement.

The figures below shows the likelihood that a self-identifying Christian responded to the Gallup survey questions with the most "pro-environmental" answer for four of the measures. (The comparison is between Christians and individuals that identify as atheists, agnostics, or have no religious affiliation, controlling for other factors such as political beliefs and demographic characteristics.)

Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian denominations all exhibit less worry about the environment over the time period studied—and do not differ depending on an individual's level of church attendance.

The analysis does not allow me to infer why this is the case and it's important to emphasize that, even though the evidence of a "greening of Christianity" has yet to emerge on a wide-scale basis, it is undoubtedly true that many religious organizations and faith leaders are actively engaged in promoting stewardship of the environment.

This engagement is important, and should not be dismissed.

Sustained leadership among religious organizations over the long run has the potential to generate more interest in protecting the environment, and stronger demand for actions to take on challenges such as climate change.

The figures show the likelihood that a Christian respondent, compared with individuals that identify as atheists, agnostics, or have no religious affiliation, indicated the most “pro-environmental” response to the Gallup survey question. More details are provided in the paper.

David Konisky is Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington. The full article discussed is "The greening of Christianity? A study of environmental attitudes over time," Environmental Politics."

Despite some inroads, Christians remain largely unconcerned about the environment

Remembering Hurricane Agnes’ impact on Pittsburgh, 50 years later

It’s been half a century since Agnes delivered its devastating downpours. But decades later, the hurricane’s legacy lives on for those who witnessed it and those who study storms of similar proportions.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Australia ‘ill-prepared’ for food insecurity driven by war and climate crisis, former defence leaders say

Australia is badly prepared for food insecurity fuelled by the climate crisis and war, former military leaders have warned.

DOE keeps hiring oil industry public relations firm

The Department of Energy retained a global public relations firm with longstanding fossil fuel ties, continuing a practice that ramped up during the Trump administration.

Redesign around Notre-Dame to keep tourists moving and lower temperatures

Plans call for more trees around the famed Paris cathedral, which is being rebuilt after a devastating 2019 fire, and for a cooling system in front of the building.

Global warming causes fewer tropical cyclones

By the early 2010s there were about 13 percent fewer storms across all oceans than there were in the late 19th century, according to a new study published on Monday in Nature Climate Change.

Scientists grow food in complete darkness using artificial photosynthesis

Researchers say that a new breakthrough could lead to new ways of growing food in a world wracked by climate change.

World is not going to avoid 1.5C global warming 'tipping point', researchers warn

Two scientists have reviewed data around global warming, and concluded that the battle to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius by 2050 is doomed.
From our Newsroom
Global Warming: Why the problem is worse – and solutions simpler – than you thought

Global Warming: Why the problem is worse – and solutions simpler – than you thought

Noted ecologist John Harte offers a fresh take on the dire topic of climate change.

Colorado fracking

Colorado is the first state to ban PFAS in oil and gas extraction

The toxic “forever chemicals” are used in fracking wells across the country.

gun control

Peter Dykstra: Gun and climate change delusions

Millions here suffer from twin hallucinations: Guns don’t cause our mass shootings, and the climate isn’t changing.

Op-ed: An engine for social justice leads the way to change

Engine for social justice leads to change

Virginia Organizing's 27-year history as a role model for The Daily Climate

Using comedy to combat climate change

Using comedy to combat climate change

The Climate Comedy Cohort aims to help comedians infuse climate activism into their creative work.

roe v. wade

Derrick Z. Jackson: Roe v. Wade draft bodes ill for air, wetlands and the EPA

Justice Alito’s longstanding consistency in wanting to restrict EPA authority makes it transparent where he wants the court to go.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.