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Gulf Oil Spill and an Evangelical Crisis of Conscience

4 years ago
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Some conservative Christians, from Sarah Palin to Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, have seen the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a chance to tar Barack Obama with a legacy like the one Hurricane Katrina left for George W. Bush.

But as the slick spreads and the toll mounts and hopes for a quick solution fade, a number of other Christian conservatives, notably evangelicals who have in the past taken a largely laissez-faire approach to environmental protection, are seeing the disaster as a moral challenge to their own free-market dogmatism and are even repenting of their previous positions.

In one of the most passionate and penetrating reflections, a blog post titled "Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience," Russell D. Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, compared the oil spill to the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

"After Roe, what seemed to be a 'Catholic issue' now pierced through the consciences of evangelical Protestants who realized they'd not only been naive, they'd also missed a key aspect of Christian thought and mission," Moore writes.

The BP disaster, he says, is doing the same thing for evangelicals on the environment.

"For too long, we evangelical Christians have maintained an uneasy ecological conscience. I include myself in this indictment," says Moore, whose denunciation was prompted by an emotional return to his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast.
We've had an inadequate view of human sin. Because we believe in free markets, we've acted as though this means we should trust corporations to protect the natural resources and habitats. But a laissez-faire view of government regulation of corporations is akin to the youth minister who lets the teenage girl and boy sleep in the same sleeping bag at church camp because he "believes in young people."
Moore's indictment continues in powerful fashion, adopting an almost prophetic tone as he channels the Psalms and St. Paul and warns his fellow believers of what is at stake: "Pollution kills people. Pollution dislocates families. Pollution defiles the icon of God's Trinitarian joy, the creation of his theater."

At the website of Christianity Today, the evangelical monthly, managing editor Mark Galli approaches his jeremiad even more literally, starting his lament, called "Judgment in the Gulf," with paraphrases of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah and then riffing onward in the same Old Testament style. Like any good prophet, Galli calls everyone to account -- presidents and politicians, environmentalists and activists, oil producers and us regular folk: "Woe to you, O consumers, who drive when you could walk..."

But neither does his verbal lash spare his growth-obsessed co-religionists:
Woe to you, O churches of the land, who tithe and fast, who preach and pray, who grow megachurches in the twinkling of an eye, who care about souls but not the land on which they live, which I too have made and called good. Woe to you who trust me not for their daily bread, but look anxiously to smoke billowing diesel to deliver them from their hunger. Woe to all who lift up their eyes to call upon my name, but who do not look down at that which they destroy by sucking up energy in their spacious megabuildings and at international gatherings to glorify my name.
In reality, evangelicals have been coming around to the notion of a faith-based environmentalism -- or "creation care," as it is sometimes called -- for several years.

But evangelical environmentalism has also led to sharp divides within the community, especially in debates over climate change and in how and even whether government should be involved -- an approach favored by Democrats much more than Republicans, who are currently the natural political allies of most evangelicals.

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon platform and the ensuing debate over the culpability of the rig's operator, BP, and the response by the Obama administration, have focused the theological differences even more and showed that not all Christian conservatives are on the same page as Moore and Galli.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, for example, famously suggested that the platform explosion was "an act of God that occurred" and "cannot be prevented" as he warned against any halt in drilling.

And in an online forum at The Washington Post's "On Faith" page this week, the Rev. Jason Poling, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, Maryland, wrote that "Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake" with no larger moral implications.

"The only religious issue here is for those who placed too much faith in human technology," Poling writes. "Quite often it turns out we're not nearly as smart as we think we are, and our mistakes are far more destructive than we think they'll be. This phenomenon is not confined to oil wells."

Whether the BP disaster will prove to be a turning point in evangelical thinking on the environment is still as unclear as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But whatever the armchair theologians say, at this point the people in the pews around the region can only get on their knees and pray for relief.

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