By Michelle Hiskey
How would Jesus vote on the upcoming T-SPLOST referendum?
What about Martin Luther King Jr.?
Or the members of Atlanta’s evangelical megachurches?
A conversation with Rhodes Scholar Katharine K. Wilkinson, 29, provoked these questions as related to her recent book, “Between God & Green: How Evangelicals are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change.”
While the issue of climate change is global, and her book focuses on national politics, Wilkinson is a Paideia graduate who lives in Midtown. Atlanta is where, as a little girl, she started to become aware of the vast natural resources in the Appalachian foothills and beyond.
Only much later did Wilkinson, an agnostic, begin to see the power and numbers of people in Atlanta and beyond who call themselves evangelical Christians.
“If you understand American evangelical Christianity, representing at least a quarter of the U.S. population, as the politically and theologically complex, fractious, and ultimately mainstream phenomenon that it is, then you’ll appreciate the nuance and sensitivity with which Katharine Wilkinson navigates her subject,” said a Boston Globe reviewer. “Wilkinson tells a vitally important, even subversive, story.”
As a religion major at the University of the South (Sewanee), Wilkinson observed the conflicts between environmentalists (some of whom blamed Christians for dominating the earth) and Christians (some of whom dismiss environmentalists for worshipping the earth instead of God). If historical patterns held – between science/evolution and Christianity/creationism – there would be no common ground.
While working for the National Resources Defense Council, her jaw dropped in 2006 when full-page ads in national newspapers announced the Evangelical Climate Initiative, signed by more than 80 prominent leaders who called upon Christians to take action now.
Returning to Atlanta during her PhD, she gained the trust of some “green evangelical” leaders, such as former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt, now at CrossePoint Church in Duluth.
“What is really powerful is how evangelical leaders have taken an issue that so many of us have allowed ourselves to be very removed from – that it’s far away and there’s not much we can do – and tied it into a religious identity for a far greater number of people,” she said.
“When these ministers say that the environment is our responsibility, and that one day I will stand before my maker and be asked what I did – that builds in a really powerful set of consequences.”
The green spark, for many of these evangelicals, felt a lot like the God spark. Richard Cizik, one of the country’s most influential evangelical lobbyists, was one of those who likened his “a ha” moment about the environment to being “born again.”
The message of caring for God’s creation and one’s neighbor stretches beyond environment to social justice issues such as HIV/AIDS, poverty and defending those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” The focus is less Ten Commandments, more Sermon on the Mount.
“I thought I was writing about climate change and creation care, but realized I was encountering bigger questions within American evangelicalism about ethics and responsibility and how people should be engaged with the world,” said Wilkinson. “These leaders talked about the way many white evangelicals failed during the civil rights era and not wanting to repeat mistakes with issues like climate change today, and they are deliberately challenging existing theology the way that [Martin Luther] King did.”
Wilkinson hopes her book helps move political discourse into considering the deep questions of morals and ethics on pressing issues like climate change. Evangelical Christians are like the rest of us, facing the world and making decisions. How do our political and social actions – or lack of same — reflect our deepest held beliefs? What do we believe about life? About suffering? About our place in the world and the way we treat it for future generations?
“We heard the same things about abolition and civil rights that we hear about the environment today,” Wilkinson pointed out. “Our economy is built around this system. How can we possibly up-end that way of life? Regarding slavery, even sympathizers [of abolition] said it was too big change, and rationalized that they personally weren’t doing anything wrong….
“But when we look back at those times, that’s a cop out. If you’re not actively engaged in trying to effect change, then you are a bystander. And there’s not much difference between a bystander and perpetrator. There’s no ethical fortitude in standing on the sidelines.”
In the following Q&A, Wilkinson shared more specifics about the role of Atlanta in this alliance and turns her lens to the controversial local transportation referendum on July 31.
Evangelicals are a much greater force, in numbers, than environmentalists. What made you want to document their connection?
KW: I came to this topic with a sense of frustration. Environmental issues have this inherently challenging ethical component, yet so often we cruise around as if they’re not happening. Despite all of their work, environmentalists can only speak to one part of the population. We need to move the needle on political will and public engagement, and environmentalists alone are not going to get us there.
If you look at the history of most social movements, religion ends up being a huge factor, from organization and communication to giving moral gravity to an issue.
Did Atlanta spark your interest in the environment?
KW: My mom [Lucy Keeble] tells a dopey story about how my dad [former AJC sportswriter Jack Wilkinson] was away at the Olympic trials in 1984. I was only 1 1/2 , and she taught me all the names of the trees in Druid Hills. He came back and was totally freaked out.
Did you have a transformative moment about the environment?
KW: As a high school sophomore, I spent a semester at the Outdoor Academy in Pisgah Forest, NC. We lived in the woods and the impact of our way of life was engrained in everything—very deliberate and conscientious…. [I remember] hiking through part of the forest and coming out into this big expanse that had been completely decimated by clear cutting. Whole ridge sides of the mountains, those East Coast forests that are so dense and wet and green, were now scorched ridges. It just had this crispy feeling. It forced me to see the power of speed, efficiency and profit in a way that I hadn’t previously – how the way that we are living has an impact that most of the time we are insulated from. It gave me an early sense of outrage.
Why did you study religion?
I did not come to it from a place of being a believer personally. I was drawn to the openness to wrestle with big questions… and the way that religions wrestle with the social issues confronting particular people at particular times. I was very interested in ethics around the Holocaust and in civil rights, which was an interesting tie to Atlanta.
Did anything surprise you about Atlanta’s religious landscape during the civil rights era?
KW: The biggest takeaway was that the civil rights movement would not have happened without the black church. It was the important institutional power, a gathering place with a microphone and a way to communicate. It offered some means to wrestle with the grave moral challenges of that time. Yet, people spoke from the position of religion on both sides of [civil rights]. That’s why King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is so powerful – the way he challenged the individualistic, upward-looking mode of religion. Instead, access to the divine comes through ultimately just and ethical interactions and societies.
In your research, did you find more deniers of climate change among conservative evangelical groups?
KW: What I found is that’s not ultimately about religion; it’s about free market economics. You poke a little bit, and find all the funding for the backlash to evangelical climate care is from far-right think tanks at the heart of the conservative political machine. I’m not saying that there are not individuals who believe that same thing. But the reason that point of view has legs is because it has political funding behind it.
How do you see issues of sustainability in Atlanta, given that we are smack in the Bible Belt?
KW: Transportation is a good example. We feel stuck, that we don’t have options. We also primarily look at what will serve me best – not what will serve Atlanta’s community best, or what will serve the kids who live in the center of the city and suffer from extreme asthma rates in the summer. We stop at the edge of those safe conversations. So would I rather pay the 1 pct sales tax [for transportation projects] or am I kind of ok with the way my life is functioning?
I couldn’t help but think about an [early evangelical environmental campaign] when Jim Ball, an activist, asked, “What would Jesus drive?” It’s a great question…. I think he’d ride a bike.
Can you see evangelical ministers preaching this Sunday, July 29, about voting on T-SPLOST as an expression of creation care and caring for one’s neighbor?
KW: I haven’t read anything that [local] religious leaders have said or written about transportation, but … if we are interested in continuing to make Atlanta a more equitable and just place, transportation is one lens for reflecting on what civil rights means now and should mean in Atlanta….
To me there is a clear ethical choice, though it’s imperfect legislation. There is a balancing act. This referendum isn’t going to get us where we ultimately should be, but you have to take incremental steps. I don’t think you can go from zero to 60 on this stuff. It would be good to know what Gerald Durley [senior minister of Providence Missionary Baptist Churchin southwest Atlanta] and other pastors like him say.
Transportation should absolutely be a concern for those committed to caring for creation and “the least of these.”
Do Atlanta’s environmental issues and our location in the Bible Belt give the city a possible synergy for positive change?
I think about the pivotal moment in the civil rights era, when Birmingham looked backward and Atlanta decided to look forward. I think we are looking at a pivotal moment with sustainability in general. There will be institutions and communities and cities that get it and get moving. And there will be those that don’t. It will be the same splitting out of the pack …
It’s a pivotal moment on transportation, green building, a sustainable food supply, how we handle water and threats to the Chattahoochee. There are a range of ways to galvanize a city and so many opportunities, though [Atlanta’s effort] feels a little bit patchwork at the moment.
Who is active in Atlanta at the intersection of evangelical Christianity and sustainability?
KW: I could not have done my research without a former Emory University professor, Rusty Pritchard, who started Flourish [note: www.FlourishOnline.org “serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.”]
Among the burgeoning group of younger evangelical leaders is Jonathan Merritt, the son of James Merritt. Jonathan talks about his ‘conversion” in graduate school when a professor told him that polluting the environment is like ripping a page out of the Bible. He’s been key in challenging the far right of the evangelical community.
David Gushee, a professor at Mercer University, has been involved in these issues for many years. He writes about Christian ethics and their role in the public square, as with resistance movements during the Holocaust. He helped start the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, which hearkens back to the 1940s, when “neo-evangelicals” originally emerged away from fundamentalists. He’s been a very important intellectual voice and guide for this movement.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur. She can be reached at [email protected]