Theology and environmentalism

It's no secret that the mainstream media have struggled to understand what's happening politically in the country right now. You could say they're more Stewart/Colbert than Tea Party. They're just not terribly well suited to understand or explain how, exactly, the Republicans likely are about to retake the House of Representatives. Sometimes when reporters try to make sense of the phenomenon, it creates funny results. This New York Times report tries to blame one Democrat's campaign trouble on climate skeptic rubes who are motivated by Scripture alone. The article reminds you why it's important to have reporters who understand a bit about religion or at least reporters who try to understand a bit about the language people are using. The piece definitely reads more like "gotcha" quote-grabbing journalism than a journalistic effort at understanding what voter's think about, say, cap and trade.

But that's not even why I bring the story up. The story is headlined "Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith." An article of faith, eh? So the Tea Party movement has articles of faith -- basic fundamentals about their beliefs -- that you have to subscribe to if you want to be part of it? And one of these is doubt in climate change? This will be news to all tea partiers, whether or not they're skeptics about climate change. Here's the evidence for this "article of faith" claim:

Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. ...

[A]ccording to a New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted this month. The survey found that only 14 percent of Tea Party supporters said that global warming is an environmental problem that is having an effect now, while 49 percent of the rest of the public believes that it is. More than half of Tea Party supporters said that global warming would have no serious effect at any time in the future, while only 15 percent of other Americans share that view, the poll found.

Oh, so you're saying that some percentage under half of Tea Party supporters think that global warming will have at least some serious effect in the future. Some article of faith, there, ascribed to by all (or half, whatever).

Religious metaphors are great to use if they fit. But "article of faith" is a term with, you know, an actual meaning. And it doesn't fit in this case.

Now having said that, this does give me an opportunity to mention a lecture I recently attended about The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America. Quick book description here:

The present debate raging over global warming exemplifies the clash between two competing public theologies. On one side, environmentalists warn of certain catastrophe if we do not take steps now to reduce the release of greenhouse gases; on the other side, economists are concerned with whether the benefits of actions to prevent higher temperatures will be worth the high costs. Questions of the true and proper relationship of human beings and nature are as old as religion. Today, environmentalists regard human actions to warm the climate as an immoral challenge to the natural order, while economists seek to put all of nature to maximum use for economic growth and other human benefits. Robert Nelson interprets such contemporary struggles as battles between the competing secularized religions of economics and environmentalism. The outcome will have momentous consequences for us all. This deep book probes beneath the surface of the two movements rhetoric to uncover their fundamental theological commitments and visions.

The book's author Robert H. Nelson was one of the panelists at the event I attended. He made me laugh when he told me that the economists all embrace his idea that environmentalism is a theology with it's own creation myths and apocalyptic scenarios, high priests and piety. But they all get confused when he points out that economists have their own "invisible hands," consumerist meta-narratives and high priests, too. Likewise, the environmentalists see faith and religion in everything the economists say, but have a much harder time accepting that their own views could be described theologically.

So discussions of religious aspects of our guiding belief systems are great -- but they're more complex than this article hints at and they work on all sides, to boot.

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