Sep 22, 2008

From the Archives

Evangelicals Go “Green” with Caution

Everything and everyone seem to be going “green” these days. Advertising boasts the environmental friendliness of products, services, and companies.  Presidential candidates are also adopting the trend, vying to offer Americans the best sustainable energy proposal. Are Christians, and the oft-discussed evangelical segment, going green, as well?

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A new study released by The Barna Group provides the most comprehensive look at the Christian community and environmental issues. The study explores Americans’ perceptions about the environment, global warming, lifestyle changes, and how much impact their faith has on these issues.

One of the intriguing findings of the research is that millions of evangelicals – often perceived to be on the sidelines of the green movement – have become more environmentally conscious in the last year. Yet, evangelicals do so with some skepticism about the environmental movement, specifically the implications of climate change. Evangelicals are concerned about what they perceive to be media hype surrounding global warming, as well as skepticism about the role humans play in causing it. Moreover, evangelicals express strong concern that proposed environmental solutions would hurt the poor, particularly in developing nations.

Environment Intersects Faith

Most Christians are not satisfied to be mere observers of the green movement. Three-quarters of self-identified Christians (78%) agree they would like to see their fellow Christians take a more active role in caring for God’s creation in a way that is both informed and biblical. Among evangelicals, 90% would like Christians to take a more active role in caring for creation, with 67% agreeing strongly. This sentiment is firmly endorsed by a majority of active churchgoers who are Catholic (52%), mainline Protestant (62%), and non-mainline Protestant (67%). [Note: Barna defines evangelicals based upon their personal belief profile, not based upon denomination or self-identification. See below for more details.]

Interestingly, the survey shows that while the environment is on Americans’ radar, few consider it one of the top challenges facing the nation. Many surveys show that a majority of Americans believe it is important to increase our investment in protecting the environment. Yet, when asked to name the top challenges facing the nation, only a minority of Americans identify issues such as energy (6%), the environment (3%), or global warming (3%) as crucial problems. Instead, among the nation’s top concerns are the economy (50%), fuel costs (30%), the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (27%), health care (11%), unemployment (9%), moral concerns (8%), and education (8%).

Each faith segment has its own unique hierarchy of concerns. For instance, evangelicals are not surprisingly focused on social issues and the perceived moral breakdown of culture. Yet, when it comes to the priority of environmental issues, Christians’ rankings mirror the national norms. This suggests that Christians – like most other Americans – are open to environmental concerns, but these issues tend to be relatively minor top-of-mind concerns. If anything, the importance of environmental issues tends to be interpreted through the lens of their economic reality, such as how it affects fuel costs.

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In terms of embracing the so-called “green” movement, one out of every two adults say they have made specific changes to their lifestyle in the last 12 months because they are aware of the environmental impact. A slim majority of each churchgoing segment – Protestant and Catholic – reported that they had embraced more environmentally friendly lifestyles in the last year. Despite their past reluctance to embrace “green” lifestyles, nearly half of evangelicals had made changes in the past year to become more environmentally conscious (45%), a proportion slightly less than average.

When asked to identify the primary motivation for lifestyle changes, three-quarters of Americans (74%) indicated that their behavioral change resulted from their general concern about the environment rather than their specific concern about global warming (10%). Across the faith spectrum, adults were more likely to be motivated by wanting to take better care of the environment, rather than specifically by anxiety about global warming.

Global Warming

One of the most widely debated environmental subjects is global climate change: whether it is happening, what causes it, and what to do about it. Americans maintain a wide range of opinions about whether global warming is real. The margin is three-to-one of those who are certain it is happening (63%) versus those who are not certain (22%). Another 15% of Americans have not made up their mind on the issue. Those who are very certain that climate change is happening (40%) outnumber those on the opposite extreme by a four-to-one ratio (11% are not at all certain).

What makes Americans skeptical about global warming? The survey explored five common objections and discovered that roughly half of Americans maintain some reluctance about climate change for each of the following reasons:

  • 49% of Americans contend that some solutions proposed to help global warming would have a negative influence on the poor, especially in other countries
  • 48% believe the earth has undergone climate change before and the current warming is not primarily caused by human activity
  • 47% indicate the news media have made global warming a bigger story than it deserves
  • 47% agree that the U.S. economy is not strong enough right now to take on the problem
  • 46% say that if America leads the way tackling the problem other countries will not follow suit and it would hurt American businesses and workers

A majority of the Christian community, regardless of how it is defined, believes that global warming is happening. Still, only a minority of churchgoing Catholics (36%), non-mainline Protestants (36%), and mainline Protestants (45%) are very certain climate change is occurring.

Evangelicals are among the most skeptical population segments when it comes to global warming – just 27% firmly believe global warming is happening. In particular, evangelicals express the greatest caution regarding their perception that media has hyped the story (65%), their belief that cyclical climate change is not primarily caused by human activity (62%), and their concern that proposed solutions would hurt the poor, especially in other countries (60%). Interestingly, evangelicals’ concern about the impact global warming policies will have on the poor is the one shared point of skepticism also held by secular Americans (atheists and agnostics).

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Missing Pieces

Despite the appetite for doing more, relatively few Christians have been exposed to the term “creation care.” This phrase has garnered recent attention among Christian leaders as a useful way to frame environmentalism as a biblical concept of being good stewards of the world God created. However, the term has not reached church pews: the vast majority of Christians (89%) and active churchgoers (85%) have never heard the phrase “creation care.”

One of the reasons few Christians have heard about “creation care” may be because few congregations teach the topic. The survey explored whether churchgoers have ever been exposed to any teaching about how Christians should respond to environmental issues. Overall, most active churchgoers (64%) have never heard any such sermons.

Green Perspectives

David Kinnaman, who directed the research, notes that “the Christian community is in tension about environmental engagement, being surprisingly active and engaged, but unsure about what to do next or whom to believe. Many Christians are reluctant to embrace the modern environmental movement, with concerns about the objectivity of the media as well as the best way to solve the problems. Rather, many evangelicals are concerned that proposed solutions to global warming would actually hurt the poor.”

“Still, millions of Christians – no matter how you slice it, Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or not – want to see their faith community become more active in environmental stewardship,” commented Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group. “There is a void in Christian leadership on environmental issues, as well as an inability to articulate clearly and confidently a biblical understanding of creation care. Since climate change is controversial, many churches have simply avoided dealing with the subject, ceding the conversation to other voices. It may not be an easy arena to venture into, but the Christian community is ready for balanced, thoughtful, non-partisan and engaged leadership on this crucial issue.”

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in August 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

“Evangelicals” are born again Christians. In the survey, people qualified as evangelicals if they met the born again criteria (i.e., said they had have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their religious faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Mainline Protestants: Includes Protestants who say they attend one of the following denominations: United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Episcopal, the Presbyterian Church USA, Lutheran, and United Methodist.

Non-Mainline Protestants: This category includes any Protestant denominations not covered in the mainline category above. Major groups include Adventist, Assembly of God, Baptist (various types), Church of God, Evangelical, Nazarene, non-denominational churches, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, and so on.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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