One of the most difficult aspects of writing The Gospel of Climate Skepticism for me related to audience. The audience is the writer’s invisible dance partner, that person or group whose imagined existence shapes the rhythm of the book. But I could never settle on a voice or perspective that simultaneously worked for the three major audiences I envisioned—evangelicals, environmentalists, and academics. And especially as the United States became more divided after 2016, I worried that my attempts to engage three audiences simultaneously would result in not being understood by any of them.
Given my anxieties, it was gratifying to read Evan Berry and Susannah Crockford’s generous essays. It was gratifying to be understood so well, and to see my work through their eyes, a slight alteration of perspective that miraculously adds depth.
I would like to begin my brief response to these thoughtful commentaries by considering one point that they both addressed, the “crypto-Protestant nomenclature of ‘belief’ and doubt’” (and as many others have pointed out, apocalypse) that Berry rightly notes permeates discussions of climate change. Crockford similarly critiques the tendency for research on climate change to overemphasize beliefs, and to focus in particular on the beliefs of evangelicals. Isn’t the denial of “each one of us, including me, and most likely you” a bigger problem, she asks? I have wondered the same. And I agree with them; there is little doubt that self-identified environmentalists do place too much emphasis on belief, and that flying to one or two conferences per year would make me far more implicated in the climate crisis than some of my informants. Yet in a country where votes matter, it is hard for me to accept that beliefs do not. Don’t beliefs affect votes? In the course of my research, I uncovered efforts to sway evangelical votes with antienvironmental messages. While accepting Berry’s point that how people respond to climate change is “not a matter of belief, but an existential condition,” I am still wary of dismissing the focus on beliefs entirely. Millions of dollars are spent every election year to try to change Americans’ beliefs. So I have to believe that beliefs matter.
But this critique points in the right direction: we do need to provincialize environmentalism. Environmentalism—by which I mean the movement that is popularly understood to have begun in 1962 with the publication of Silent Spring—is so often assumed to be a set of universal values to which all people can and should aspire. In this it should be painfully reminiscent of how nineteenth-century scholars treated Christianity, as Tomoko Masuzawa describes in The Invention of World Religions. Thanks to Berry and others, it has become apparent that US environmentalism is anything but universal. Rather, it has provincial roots in white US Protestantism (especially of the Calvinist variety), which may explain its excessive focus on orthodox belief, its schismatic tendencies, and its struggle to appeal to people of color. Yet part of provincializing environmentalism—that is, not universalizing the US experience—would seem to entail recognizing that in the United States, which is still a very Protestant nation, opponents of environmentalism have found it useful to frame environmentalism as a matter of belief so that it can be rendered, and defeated, as a Christian heresy. Are we perhaps stuck on belief and doubt not because we scholars have failed to examine our inherited Protestant categories but because our path forward to richer formulations is blocked by political inaction? What is the point of vanquishing crypto-Protestantism in a nation where belief—that is, misinformation—still rules the day? How can the conversation move on (where to?) when the politics are stalled? Perhaps we US-based scholars will be able to think better once we get beyond our provincial politics.
Which brings me to my second point. Crockford notes, perhaps disapprovingly, that academics construe evangelical climate denial as a problem to be explained. “What’s wrong with evangelicals, anyway?” we implicitly ask. A related question is raised by the thought-provoking essay she references in making this observation, written by the anthropologist Susan Harding. In “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” published in 1991, Harding argued that fundamentalists (as evangelicals were called in the 1920s) were treated unfairly during the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925, which tested a law against teaching evolution in public schools. In the wake of this trial, fundamentalists were cast in the public eye as “aberrant, usually backward or hoodwinked, version of modern subjects, who are thereby established as the neutral norm of history.” After a scathing critique of how modernist academics have secured their own standing by denigrating fundamentalists, Harding jarringly concludes that academics need more nuanced and complicated readings of repugnant cultural others not in order to empathize with them or to facilitate some kind of harmonious resolution, but so that “we . . . can . . . design more effective political strategies to oppose directly the specific positions and policies they advocate.”
Jumping forward thirty years, the questions Harding’s work raises remain relevant: How should academics position themselves toward their subjects when the political stakes are real? This is an implicit question in much work on evangelicals, but it becomes particularly acute when the main subject, climate change, is an issue that requires (or so I believe) political strategy to address.
Crockford is right to look askance at how researchers have framed evangelicals’ climate attitudes. I had similar reservations, which is why I ultimately pointed out how some measures of environmental concern are biased against evangelicals, and explored my informants’ environmental values outside of these limited conceptions. But at the same time, as my research progressed, I realized that there was in fact a problem with the self-critical position that would place the researcher’s construction of evangelicals as climate denialists on equal footing with traditionalist evangelicals’ construction of secularists as denying God’s power. (As I write in the book, traditionalist evangelicals are a subset of evangelicals, a politically conservative and mostly white segment that desires to preserve traditional beliefs and practices in a changing world.) Careful scholarship has shown that the worldview promoted by leaders in the Christian Right—which asserts that Christianity is under attack by secularists—is fanciful, paranoid, and depends on a revisionist reading of history so problematic that even evangelical scholars denounce it. To posit some kind of equivalence between the two sides—an “academic perspective” alongside “an evangelical perspective,” both of which must be regarded as equally justified because proponents on both sides believe them to be true—is to fall into the trap of false equivalence. That trap was set by evangelical culture warriors themselves, who, beginning in the late 1970s, appropriated the rhetorical strategies of civil rights activists, reimagining themselves as victims of a systematic war on Christianity, in order to gain political advantage. Honoring the perspective of elites in the Christian Right does not reflect a laudable generosity of spirit, but rather a naïve willingness to privilege certain uncareful, strident, historically revisionist voices within the white evangelical community as normative. Scholarship exists to historicize and contextualize totalizing claims, not to perpetuate them.
This leads directly to the question Harding raises, but here I am less certain of my position. On the one hand, I am uncomfortable with how Harding conflates a scholarly “we” with a political “we.” And as an ethnographer, I am also wary (need it be said?) of researching people in order to better inform political strategies against them. But is that not exactly what I do in my book?
Before we address the question of whether scholarly and political voices should be conflated, I think we should question Harding’s premise that scholarship (her kind, anyway, and mine) can directly inform political strategy. Having once worked for a lobbyist, I have my doubts. Nuance does not translate well. That is why I left. While I do not think it makes sense to see our work as directly informing political strategy, I do think it is important, if not morally incumbent upon scholars, to create work that both serves and guards the public interest—and under certain circumstances, to do so even if it takes us into territory that undercuts our informants’ political objectives.
The reason here is personal, but the personal in this case is also political. For decades, conservative commentators have sought to undermine the public’s trust in scholarship by falsely asserting that it furthers a liberal agenda (a recent debunking of this myth can be found here). This discourse is deeply entangled with the history of fundamentalism that Harding analyzes, which fueled the culture wars that eventually provided cover for the decrease in public funding of universities that has taken place over the past fifty years.1 To proceed as if that assault were not underway, producing work that refuses to see that evangelicals’ political mobilization has helped put a target on our backs, thereby implicating us politically whether we like it or not, will not do. It would be as grave a mistake as a previous generation of scholars made in unself-reflexively denigrating repugnant cultural others.
Academic research does not operate in a vacuum. Society is our invisible dance partner, shaping the rhythm of our work. This recognition burns through both Berry and Crockford’s pieces, in Berry’s desire to transcend the “totalizing grip of culture wars rhetoric” and Crockford’s reminder that “a house divided cannot stand.” I feel the heat, and I cannot turn away.
Natalie Avalos. “Religious Studies: A Pawn in the Culture Wars.” Conference presentation, North American Association for the Academic Study of Religion, November 2019.↩