Why Conservative Christians Should Care About the Environment

I’m a theologically conservative evangelical Christian who is ardently pro-life, pro-family, pro-traditional marriage. I’m also ardently pro-environment. All of these positions are connected and stem from my faith more than my politics (I did not vote for Clinton or Trump), particularly a glad acceptance of and respect for God’s created order.

In my mind there are clear and compelling reasons why a theologically conservative Christian should care about stewarding the environment, and I’ll list them below, with a little help from a Protestant named Francis (Schaeffer) and a Catholic named Francis (Pope). And maybe a friar named Francis too (of Assisi).

I think it’s important that Christians have a unified witness on this and resist the political partisanship that somehow occludes the more elemental truths involved. Man’s God-given task to steward the environment goes back to Eden and will continue until God sees fit to create anew. It’s a calling that is far older and far more significant than any temporal political program.

Partisan ideology or pressure from “It’s science, stupid!” types like Bill Nye are not good reasons to care for the environment. Nor should we be convinced by alarmist documentaries from Al Gore and juvenile tweetstorms from “I’m rich enough to only drive electric cars and only eat locally sourced food” celebrities.

Pragmatic arguments about overpopulation and limited resources are more compelling and reasonable, as is the economic argument that (rightly) highlights the benefits of environmental protections for spurring innovation in green technology and sustainable development. Compelling as they are, these are still pragmatic arguments and position the environment’s flourishing in sadly utilitarian terms. Isn’t there something in the goodness of nature itself that should motivate us to protect it from abuse? Yes.

Here are my arguments for why environmental protection should be a concern for conservative Christians:

1) Nature is valuable simply because God created it.

Nature is not valuable because of what it can do for us, but for what it is. Nature is a created thing, something that bears the signature of its creator and thus gives him glory (e.g. Psalm 19). The relationship between created things and their creator is crucial. Here’s what Francis Schaeffer (a tree-loving conservative evangelical) says in Pollution and the Death of Man (1970):

Simone Weil’s statement that modern man lives in a decreated world is acutely perceptive. Everything is decreated; everything is autonomous. But to Christians it is not autonomous, because God made it, and He made things on their own level. The value of the things is not in themselves autonomously, but that God made them… While we should not romanticize the tree, we must realize God made it and it deserves respect because He made it as a tree.

Created things, including humans, have intrinsic value simply because they are created by God. In mankind’s case there is a special dignity because man and woman are not only created by God but also in his image (Gen. 1:27). But the same principle applies to all created things, and Schaeffer summarizes it in this way near the end of Pollution: “If I love the Lover, I love what the Love has made.”

Pope Francis, in his 2015 encyclical (“Laudato Si”) on climate change and environmental stewardship, makes the case for an integral ecology that sees both abortion and environmental destruction as symptoms of a “misguided anthropocentrism”:

Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?

2) Nature speaks truth about God, and we should not contribute to the silencing of this voice.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). This is the theological notion of general revelation. Nature bears witness to God in its createdness, whether in the truths revealed in trees or in thunderstorms or in Santa Ana Winds. St. Francis of Assisi captures it beautifully in his 13th century Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.  

Part of honoring God is being present to what nature is saying in its givenness and being grateful for what it is before what it can do for us. We live this out by preserving the goodness of each given thing, whether a human, peach, honey bee or Jacaranda tree. We live this out by protecting these things from abuse but also manipulation, wherein the created goodness of something is mutated and marred because of some economic or otherwise selfish motive (as in genetically modified tomatoes or hormone-injected cows). In this way the drive toward “organic” food is a good thing, because it recognizes something about the health and beauty of nature in its givenness. Crucially, though, this also applies to the health and beauty of human bodies in their givenness. The same respect for God’s creation that leads us to avoid genetically modified food also leads us to avoid the temptation to hormonally alter our given body, surgically “re-assign” our given gender, or subvert God’s given design for the life-giving process of male-female procreation.

Here’s how Pope Francis articulates it in “Laudato Si”:

Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.

3) Environmental care speaks to the hope of the gospel.

The good news of Christ’s resurrection is good news for all creation, which groans for redemption (see Rom. 8:19–23). Christ reconciles all things (humans, animals, plants, etc.) to himself (Col. 1:20). If we are people of the resurrection, we ought not be apathetic about the flourishing of the physical world God has entrusted to us (Gen. 1:28). Here is Schaeffer again:

The Christian who believes the Bible should be the man who—with God's help and in the power of the Holy Spirit—is treating nature now in the direction of the way nature will be then [see Rom. 8]. It will not now be perfect, but there should be something substantial or we have missed our calling. God's calling to the Christian now, and to the Christian community, in the area of nature (just as it is in the area of personal Christian living in true spirituality) is that we should exhibit a substantial healing here and now, between man and nature and nature and itself, as far as Christians can bring it to pass.

Sin mars the relationship between man and creation. Fallen man “exploits created things as though they were nothing in themselves, and as though he has an autonomous right to them,” argues Schaeffer. But Christians, “who have returned, through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, to fellowship with God,” should demonstrate the proper relationship between man and nature: “We are to have dominion over it, but we are not going to use it as fallen man uses it. We are not going to act as though it were nothing in itself or as though we will do to nature everything we can do.”

4) Environmental care showcases the beauty of limits.

Abuse of nature happens when man exerts limitless dominion over nature. It is anthropocentric arrogance that assumes animals and plants exist only to serve the whims and pleasures of man. For Schaeffer a healthy dominion has limits and seeks to honor what God has made, “up to the very highest level that he can honor it, without sacrificing man.”

Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers. We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect. We may cut down a tree to build a house, or to make a fire to keep the family warm. But we should never cut down the tree just to cut down the tree… We have the right to rid our house of ants; but what we have not the right to do is to forget to honor the ant as God made it, in its rightful place in nature. When we meet the ant on the sidewalk, we step over him. He is a creature, like ourselves; not made in the image of God, but equal with man as far as creation is concerned. The ant and the man are both creatures.

This will necessarily impose limits on humans. Treating the land well “costs more money” and “usually takes longer,” notes Schaeffer, and it will force us to be more cautious about what technology makes possible. Modern man does everything he can do, using technology pragmatically with no reference point beyond human egotism, argues Schaeffer: “It is dog eat dog, man eat man, man eat nature. Man with his greed has no real reason not to rape nature and treat it as a reverse ‘consumer object.’”

This was the same sin of Adam and Eve in Eden: they were called to limit themselves, to refrain from doing something they could do. But they could not stay within this limit.

Limits are for our flourishing. God built them into the system in Eden, and to be rightly human is to be properly limited. Therefore, in contrast to the limit-transgressing tendencies of modern man, “The Christian does not do all he can do,” argues Schaeffer. “He has a limiting principle; and in doing less, he has more, for his own humanness is at stake.”

Pope Francis echoes this in “Laudato Si”:

Those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the lookout for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

5) Conservation is Conservative.

Environmental conservation is quite literally conservative. It’s about celebrating and conserving something good and God-given and not abusing it or remaking it out of some sense of human prerogative. This idea of conserving what is good is a conservative principle. “Conservatism is gratitude,” said Yuval Levin. Conservatism “encourages us to relish the givenness of things,” writes R.R. Reno in a First Things essay titled “Gratitude for the Given.” In that piece, Reno discusses Augustine’s comparison of use vs. enjoyment as ways we relate to the world. Whereas use “means taking up what is before us for the purpose of some greater end,” enjoying is simply gratitude: “resting in the blessing of its presence.” Reno uses the example of family as something we relate to in the mode of enjoyment, not use:

My family is not ideal. None are. But it’s mine, and that alone is a source of joy. I did not choose them; they did not choose me. This transcendence of purpose and usefulness gives our experience of family a sacredness that is the source of great consolation. My parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins are many things, but it is their givenness, their “assignment” to me, that allows me to rest in them.

This relates to the point above, about respecting and showing gratitude for God’s created good in its givenness. We don’t choose the color of trees or flowers or the movement of the clouds (anymore than we choose our own gender), and sometimes we might wish they were different. But the conservative approach is to accept these things and enjoy them anyway, resting in the fact of their createdness. Reno contrasts this view to modern liberalism, which he says “discourages rest”:

We must work in the present for the sake of the future. Everything is subject to improvement, which means we are required to forsake the mode of enjoyment. The injustices tolerated by our system of government cry out for remedy… Thus, the progressive mind disenchants reality so that we are not tempted to enjoy and rest in it. This has become the dominant approach of our era. Literature needs to be dissolved into race, class, and gender. Law students must be taught that the law serves as an instrument of power. The family is a factory of repression. Marriage is a patriarchal institution. What we receive as given is, at root, the present form of what the dead have used to advance their interests. Even the natural world is a vast arena of competition in which the fittest seek to survive, commandeering the flux of DNA for their own blind purposes. To enjoy is to be deceived and used by hidden others.

For conservative Christians, then, environmental conservation should be an obvious concern. Just as we are grateful for the givenness and concerned to conserve the family, the dignity of life, religious liberty and other good things, so too should we be concerned to conserve the natural creation and all of its God-given goods.