October 24, 2010
The Religious Right Takes a Hard Left
We live in an age of scientific hegemony (if I may borrow a term from the Marxists and feminists), where access to intellectual power and influence is granted to those who demonstrate their loyalty to the approved theories of the ruling elite. Scientists who refuse to bow at the altar of uniformity are labeled heretics and cast out of the intelligentsia, condemned to lives of unfunded grant proposals, tenure denials, and ruined reputations.
The scientific theories to which we must pledge allegiance are not threats in and of themselves. For example, global warming, which used to be known as global cooling and is now called global climate disruption, attempts to explain changes in the weather by assuming that global temperature increases (or decreases) are primarily caused by human activity. Of course, it requires more than a little faith to take short-term measurements and extrapolate to an apocalyptic assumption about the ultimate fate of the earth. Hence, it should not at all be surprising that many successful challenges to man-made global __________ (fill in the blank) have been made over the years. What is surprising, even distressing, is the systematic effort by the scientific community to denigrate the talented men and women who have exposed serious flaws in this theory. Ironically, the end result is that our secular institutions of science often expel those committed to objective inquiry while rewarding those committed to upholding dogma.
As a mathematician and a conservative at a small, Christian liberal arts university, I have a keen interest in the extent to which the hegemony of secular science has worked its way into evangelical academia. When it comes to man-made global warming, most Christian universities are too small to support a faculty of climate researchers. Nevertheless, the theory has been enthusiastically embraced on many evangelical campuses. This allegiance to bad science is often seen in various university-wide "environmental stewardship" or "creation care" programs complete with lengthy scriptural justifications. Program initiatives include sustainability pledges, housing students in shipping containers, or creating an Institute for Sustainable Practice with courses taught by a "nationally recognized food justice leader." Even my alma mater, a university known for its conservative values, has proudly announced its own "Go Green" campaign, which among other things affirms the university's commitment to reducing its environmental footprint and supporting fair (as opposed to free) trade. Thus, despite the mounting evidence against man-made global warming, it appears that the number of evangelical universities willing to stand up and say "the emperor has no clothes" is actually shrinking.
This Johnny-come-lately dedication to environmental issues is perhaps related to evangelical leaders being minimally influenced by leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia and heavily influenced by university theology departments. Indeed, the trendy theology of our day is one that puts environmental activism at the forefront of the church's mission for the world. On most evangelical campuses, such theology is promoted on both a shallow-but-popular level by Emergent Church celebrities like Shane Claiborne -- who asks hosting universities to offset the carbon emissions created by his travels -- and on an academic level by theologians such as N.T. Wright.
As with the secular environmental movement, this new "green theology" is rooted in the premise that the United States is a force of evil in the world. Consequently, Christians should focus globally on reducing U.S. influence and domestically on transforming our capitalist system, which is viewed as the root cause of socioeconomic injustice at home and abroad. In his widely read book Surprised by Hope, Wright even goes so far as to compare today's supporters of Western capitalism with history's supporters of slavery and Nazism. Of course, the vehicle seen as having the best chance of dismantling the free market is the environmental movement.
And so, a theological smokescreen is developed: Jesus will return someday to remake the earth. Our purpose in this life is to help him get started on this renewal project. Things we do in this life to that end will continue into the new earth. These things include creating beautiful music or art, planting trees, promoting fair trade, and campaigning for cap-and-trade legislation. Above all, they include weakening the power and influence of the United States, because God doesn't like nations that act as bullies. On the other hand, those who persistently choose to collude with the evil American empire by (among other things) refusing to reduce their carbon emissions will gradually become something less than human. In the new earth, such beings will have lost all humanity and will simply be absorbed into the new animal kingdom.
Thus, superhuman global warming alarmists will eternally rule over subhuman skeptics. It's hard to imagine a more self-indulgent left-wing fantasy.
The fact that the Religious Left has convinced so many people to make man-made global warming an integral part of their faith is, in my opinion, a direct result of artificial science surrounding this theory with an air of infallibility. Specifically, many otherwise conservative Christians have embraced (some knowingly, some unknowingly) a progressive political theology largely because our media, politicians, educational institutions, and corporations have successfully portrayed man-made global warming as an undeniable truth. The decision by science to participate in this dissemination of propaganda is inexcusable. If it will instead renew its commitment to objective inquiry, religion will be able to free itself, at least temporarily, from faith in bad science. Until that time, those of us who continue to use incandescent light bulbs and set our thermostats to 72 degrees may find ourselves increasingly unwelcome in our religious communities.
 What follows is my one-paragraph summary of N.T. Wright's theology based on his book Surprised by Hope, published in 2008, as well as several of his writings and speeches, many of which can be found here.