The anticipated publication on Thursday of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, has American conservative Protestants up in arms. Firmly grounded in Catholic teachings on social justice, the encyclical is the culmination of half a century of Catholic thinking on the environment. Why then do American conservative evangelicals so adamantly oppose environmentalism?
Since the environmental movement’s peak in the 1970s, evangelicals have pilloried environmentalists and cast doubt on problems like global warming.
In his recent biography of Billy Graham, Grant Wacker nicknamed the Baptist preacher “America’s pastor.” Owing to a prolific career that began in 1949 and has now spanned nearly 70 years, which saw him as the spiritual advisor to multiple U.S. presidents, the moniker is arguably fitting.
Graham began his career at a pivotal time in American history, as Cold War anxieties pitted American piety against “godless communists.”
Next to the First Amendment, then-President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 has perhaps come to represent the most popular understanding of religious freedom in the collective mind of America. Because of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, some would like the letter to pass back into the shadow of obscurity under which it rested prior to the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision. Others rejoice that the letter provides the lens through which religion itself is defined and applied in contemporary America.
Jefferson’s famous metaphor is important, but it is a star drawing into its orbit the comet of our short attention span.