Senator James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) recent comments about climate change have turned a policy debate into a theological conundrum.
As has been reported, Senator Inhofe cited Genesis 8:22 during a Christian radio station’s interview to argue that it was “arrogant” to presume that humans could influence the climate. After all, God had promised that “as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest.”
James Inhofe has long been a bête noire of environmentalists. He’s an over-fifty enfant terrible who gives liberals and air traffic controllers fits in equal measure. The senator from Oklahoma might even take pride in such characterizations-even though his well-known dislike of the French might lead him to take umbrage at the specific phrasing. He seems to relish his role as the Senate’s provocateur par excellence.
Senator Inhofe has long declared global warming to be a hoax. His biblically buttressed position against the very idea of human-caused climate change is really a fallback stance: not only is catastrophic global warming scientifically unsubstantiated; it’s a possibility foreclosed by God Himself.
The facts of human contribution to climate change are well attested. But beyond questioning established scientific consensus, there is a theological problem lurking under the surface. Climate change is not the only policy matter that the Oklahoma senator views through a biblical lens.
James Inhofe’s support of Israel is as steadfast as his opposition to theories of global climate change. Speaking in 2002, the senator enumerated seven reasons why the United States should support Israel. While his overall narrative--which seems to exclude Palestinians entirely--would be hotly contested, most of the specific geo-political and ethical reasons he gives for supporting Israel would find general support. There was no explicit need to quote Genesis 13:14-17 to advocate a specific policy position, but Senator Inhofe did so to extend his case: God had promised the land to Abram and thus the West Bank belongs to the Jewish people. Indeed, the senator argued that by restraining Israel’s efforts to defend itself “the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America.” Inaction and wrong action have deadly consequences, whatever God wills in the end.
Human action is necessary to safeguard Israel; no human action is needed to safeguard our climate. In one context, action is humble obedience; in another, it’s arrogant presumption. But Senator Inhofe’s reading of the Bible tells us that God Himself is acting both in the Middle East and in the atmosphere.
Debates about global warming and the status of Israel don’t naturally go together. While I personally support the right of Israelis and Palestinians to independent states and I believe that humans contribute to climate change, I would usually not fold those policy questions together--unless I was in the unlikely position of having to comment on global warming and strategic access to water resources.
But Senator Inhofe’s opportunistic biblicalism has now brought them into a weird proximity by means of a theological conundrum.
The issue is not what the Bible says about each specific issue. The problem is more akin to those addressed by 12th century theologian Peter Abelard, who documented apparently contradictory statements by Church Fathers in Sic et Non . The issue here, for some Christians at any rate, is conceptual: Does the plan of an omnipotent God need the cooperation of finite human beings to reach fulfillment?
Of course, this question doesn’t just concern policy and its relationship to biblical narratives. It arises when any one of us--myself included--believes that God has a purpose for every person. Does God’s will trump our actions and those of others? Can we frustrate God’s designs? Does it matter whether we act at all?
Within the Christian tradition, there are multiple approaches that touch upon these questions. Of course, there are Calvinist theories of predestination that dissolve the underlying issues entirely. But there are other theologians and philosophers who have attempted to balance human and divine agency. There’s Augustine who argued against deterministic systems like astrology but nonetheless maintained that humans need God’s grace to reach perfection. There is also Boethius who defined human rationality as being in accord with the mind of God.
Following these lines of argument, Senator Inhofe would be more consistent if he argued that since protecting the environment and Israel are both necessary from a biblical perspective, it is a Christian responsibility to act in accord with God’s will. Some Christians would call that “stewardship.” But there’s also no easy way to avoid the paradoxical conclusion that human beings are free and responsible and that God’s plan shapes creation as it unfolds.
Paradox might characterize religious truth, but it makes for bad policy. Admittedly, a debate over human freedom and divine fiat would be more productive than anything the Senate has done over the last few years. But justifying policy through ad hoc biblicalism leads to a series of odd juxtapositions and intellectual tangles that only become rougher over time. Not only do you have to worry about biblical and political consistency; theological and personal consistency are concerns as well. Of course, consistency may very well be a hobgoblin that bedevils little minds, but that’s a good reason why it still has an important role to play when religion and politics meet.
Mathew N. Schmalz is an On Faith panelist and a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross.