The United States will withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change, President Trump announced Thursday. Environmental scientists say the consequences could be catastrophic for the planet. But for some Trump supporters, there’s no reason to worry.
“As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) told constituents last week at a town hall in Coldwater, Mich. “And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”
Among conservative evangelicals, that is not an unusual opinion. Nearly all evangelicals — 88 percent, according to the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life — believe in miracles, suggesting a faith in a proactive God. And only 28 percent of evangelicals believe human activity is causing climate change. Confidence that God will intervene to prevent people from destroying the world is one of the strongest barriers to gaining conservative evangelical support for environmental pacts like the Paris agreement.
Climate change isn’t the first issue where such faith has presented itself. During the Cold War, premillennialist evangelicals, who believe that the Second Coming of Christ is imminent, argued that God wouldn’t allow humanity to destroy itself in a nuclear war. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the fictional “Left Behind” series, wrote in 1972 that although the world might be destroyed in a nuclear fire, it would be God who authored that conflagration, not humanity.
Conservative evangelicals during the Cold War often saw disarmament as a greater threat to the United States than the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Jerry Falwell adopted the slogan “Peace through Strength” in the early 1980s and declared that a nuclear freeze would be “national suicide.” Premillennialists such as televangelist James Robison preached that the Antichrist, who was destined to unite the world under his leadership, would use fear of nuclear weapons and a promise of peace to deceive the world into accepting world government.
When scientists began sounding the alarm over climate change in the 1980s, conservative evangelicals, who had been somewhat accepting of environmentalism in the 1970s, became convinced that the Antichrist would use the fear of climate change to seize power. The 1970s environmental movement had enjoyed widespread support as it focused on smaller issues like pollution and litter. In the 1980s, though, scientists revealed problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming, which required worldwide cooperation and significant economic changes to redress. Economic conservatives downplayed the science or even argued that global warming wasn’t actually happening, and premillennialists like Texe Marrs seized on such arguments to accuse environmentalists of perpetuating a hoax in the service of the Antichrist.
Still, the perception that fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals ignore science is flawed. In recent works of Bible prophecy, writers suggest that global warming is possible and may even be happening. Evangelist John Ankerberg writes, “If our earth is warming dangerously as a result of human activity and this truth can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, human remedies are needed.” That’s a nod to the scientific consensus about climate change, but some believers, including Ankerberg, twist this science by tacking on arguments that humanity just doesn’t have that kind of power over the Earth. Any significant climate change will be occurring under the aegis of God himself.
For Christians like Walberg, globalism is the most dire threat to the United States, not rising oceans and more powerful hurricanes. Just as conservative evangelicals opposed arms treaties during the Cold War, they see environmental pacts, like the Paris agreement, as paving the way for a charismatic world leader to form a global government and begin the seven-year Tribulation that precedes the Second Coming of Christ. Hal Lindsey in 2015 denounced climate change as a scam “being used to consolidate the governments of the world into a coalition that may someday facilitate the rise of the Antichrist.”
Trump’s anti-globalism was part of what made him attractive to conservative evangelicals in last year’s Republican primaries and the general election — and still now as president. Even if Trump’s personal life is an affront to Christian values, his message means that the United States will be standing against the potential forces of the Antichrist.
Commentators in the 1980s feared that Ronald Reagan, who expressed some premillennialist beliefs, would purposely start a nuclear war. That was never a real possibility, however. A more realistic concern would have been that Reagan would refuse to sign any arms agreements, but in the end, Reagan wasn’t that captive to fundamentalist Bible prophecy.
But Trump doesn’t seem to have any firm beliefs, religious or otherwise. He didn’t pull us out of the Paris accord because he truly shares the conservative evangelical beliefs of many of his supporters and advisers. Still, by calling climate change a Chinese hoax, he’s shown a willingness to use similar arguments for his own purposes.
In his town hall meeting last week, Walberg brought up the concept of stewardship, or the idea that Christians have a duty to take care of the Earth. Those of us concerned about climate change must appeal to religious conservatives on that basis.
We must accept that a number of conservative evangelicals, especially from older generations, will never support significant action on climate change, especially if it means signing a global treaty. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement has proved that he lacks the flexibility and foresight of Reagan, who dared negotiate with the country he declared an “evil empire.” But we can appeal to moderate and liberal evangelicals with different or milder end-times beliefs, and nonevangelical conservatives can still be convinced to cooperate if persuaded that inaction threatens U.S. standing in the world. We have no choice but to give up on Trump now, but maybe we can hope the party of Reagan will find the moral courage to combat climate change.