Friday, December 4, 2009

Some Things Never Change, Whether the Climate Does or Not

In my time I've seen a lot of Baptists throw stones at Baptist journalists, often alleging either implicitly or explicitly that journalists within our denomination aren't real journalists like the folks without who work for major wires or other news organizations.

I think that these allegations are largely unfounded. Over the past few years I've interacted with people from Baptist Press, Associated Baptist Press, and a number of state Baptist news organizations. That list represents a wide spectrum of viewpoints, to be sure, but I've encountered among our Baptist journalists a determination to get the facts of the stories straight. Some people may wish that they would report different stories than the ones that they report, but the accuracy rating on the facts for our denominational news entities seems to me to be much higher than either mine or Dan Rather's (you really have to watch out for the story that you badly want to be true).

Anyway, one difference that I've noted in dealing with secular journalists is that, when one of them approaches you for an interview, it seems to me that they often already have their story basically in mind. They're going to take all of your interview, sift through it, pick out what fits their thesis, and go with that. If nothing that you give them matches their pre-existing thesis, then you probably won't be appearing in the article.

Journalists aren't alone in this phenomenon. I think you see it in a lot of academic research also, as well as in a great deal of what passes for statistical analysis. I don't think it represents any sort of a deliberate skewing of the news in an attempt to mislead the public. I think that human beings just tend to behave in this manner sometimes, and that some of the pressures inherent to the journalistic profession (e.g., if an editor has already shown interest in the concept of a story that goes a certain way) perhaps make this natural human tendency appear a bit more frequently when one is writing newscopy.

Of course, this is not a dispassionate treatise on the concept of journalism in general. Earlier this week I was interviewed by a very congenial Ed Stoddard of Reuters. Ed called me because he was curious to speak with an evangelical from the "American heartland" (i.e., a non-urban, middle America sort of place). Farmersville fits that bill, and someone thought I might turn out to be quotable, and so Ed picked up the phone. He's a really nice guy. I enjoyed speaking with him.

Thanks to a Google Update, I learned this morning that the article has now hit the ether, if not the newsstands, complete with a quote from me. In a section trying to explain why mainstream Americans might be skeptical about global warming, this paragraph appears:

One in four U.S. adults is also an evangelical Christian and, while secular Europeans may find this odd, many really do believe that biblical prophecy foretells the planet's end.

"If you are an evangelical Christian in the American vein then you believe it is our responsibility to look after the planet but it will be ultimately destroyed no matter what we do," said Bart Barber, a Southern Baptist Convention preacher in the small north Texas town of Farmersville.

No, I was not misquoted. I really did say that, word-for-word. However, I also stated explicitly that I did not regard that as a reason why Americans were skeptical about global warming. My conversation with Ed went pretty much along these lines.

Ed asked why I thought people in a place like Farmersville might be skeptical about global warming. Omitting the back and forth with Ed, here are the basic elements of what I told him:

  1. Knowing it was Reuters, I opened up by saying that I was skeptical about global warming because I read the BBC and have come to see that, over the course of my lifetime, scientific predictions about the climate have been consistently inconsistent. Self-contradiction tends to bring out the skeptic in me.

  2. I mentioned that earlier on the very day of the interview I had heard on the radio the report on the ending of the 2009 hurricane season. Expert scientists had predicted a season of above-average hurricane intensity in 2009. Instead, we had one of the weakest hurricane seasons in memory, with zero hurricanes making landfall in the U.S. and only three tropical storms making their way on shore. In fact, only four named storms made landfall anywhere on the planet in this hurricane season. And let's not forget that, just four years ago, we were all told that, because of global warming, the average hurricane season would be growing worse and worse (see also this story in which scientists posit different theories in addition to global warming, but all concur that we were in for a decade of bad hurricanes). The data over the past four years simply have not turned out at all the way that the experts predicted.

  3. I told him that middle-America has an historic skepticism toward ivory-tower academia. People in the "American heartland" tend to see "common sense" as a thing not always opposed to, yet not always aligned with, "book learning." Everyone in middle-America wants their children to go to a university, but not everyone in middle-American wants their children to swallow everything they hear at a university.

  4. I told him that I would not use the word "hoax" to describe the global warming discussion, so much as I would use another word beginning with 'H': hubris. Earning a Ph.D., I said, comes with a terrible temptation to forget how to utter the words, "I don't know." Our hard weather data goes back really not very far at all into history. The science of climatology is in its relative infancy.

  5. When he asked whether I saw anything particular to evangelical theology that would lead someone to doubt global warming, I specifically and emphatically answered in the negative. "There's human-induced climatological cataclysm right there in the first few chapters of the Bible," I said. "Nothing in the Bible nor in evangelical theology contributes to skepticism about global warming," I said.

    I also told him that biblical theology compels us to good stewardship of the earth. I told him that I, because I am an evangelical believer, would consider it immoral for me to throw a wrapper out the window of my car and leave it for someone else to pick up. Evangelical theology, I told him, supports good stewardship and conservation of the earth (although I told him that I am a conservationist and not an environmentalist).

    But I want to reiterate, I specifically told him that there was nothing in evangelical theology that would make any evangelical believer any more likely to be skeptical as to whether the earth is warming due to human activity.

  6. But, I told him, evangelical eschatology could cause evangelical believers perhaps to be much less ALARMED about climate change, even if they believed it to be true. Evangelical Christians, after all, tend to believe that the timing and manner of the end of the world is a matter fixed by God and not susceptible to human modification. It was in this part of the discussion that I uttered the one quote that appeared in the article.

Many Americans come down differently than most Europeans on the question of global warming. Many Americans come down differently than most Europeans on the question of the gospel of Jesus Christ. People want to connect the dots, whether they ought to be connected or not. I refused to connect the dots, and this story connected them for me nonetheless (not explicitly, but by implication). What remains constant is that those who view American Evangelicalism from the outside fare poorly in understanding us, and I don't think that's substantially the fault of Evangelicals.


Dave Miller said...

I have had limited experience with the press, but one thing I have seen pretty early is that they tend to have an agenda, something they want to say. When you say something that comes close to what they want, they jump on it.

A local reporter interview another SBC pastor and me about some issue related to the SBC (Disney boycott? Resolution on Homosexuality? some evangelistic thrust? don't remember).

Wes and I were good friends and in general were in agreement. Evidently I worded my answer a littel differently than he did.

The headline in the Gazette: "Southern Baptist Pastors at odds over (SBC Issue)." Wes and I laughed about it.

I get frustrated by those spin doctors who keep repeating the same answer over and over again, regardless of the question. But the more I deal with press, the more I understand why. The reporter and the reportee both have a message they want to convey. Its intricate swordplay to get your message across while they try to mold you to fit their message.

I'm getting cynical in my old age.

Bart Barber said...


You have an excellent point about how fastidious political press secretaries are about remaining "on-message."

Bart Barber said...

Beautiful poem, anonymous. I'm sure that the folks who inspired it had a beautiful love.

It is quick and easy to set up a blog with Blogger or any number of other providers. What a great idea it would be for you to start one to feature your poetry!

Big Daddy Weave said...

People might want to connect the dots as you say. But the line of thinking that says evangelical theology is not earth-friendly goes back at least to the Lynn White thesis (which students in intro-level environmental history and environmental science courses around the world cover).

That thesis from an article titled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" essentially puts the bulk of the blame on traditional Christian theology. White argues that the Bible asserts man's dominion over naturs which historically took us down a path of anthropocentric policies and practices which have done much harm to the environment.

Scientists ran with this argument for many years. There's naturally been much debate and criticism of the White thesis. But, I would guess that in largely secular Europe this thesis is still taught as Truth.

And of course, in response to White, *some* Baptists and evangelicals (Henlee Barnette, Eric Rust and Carl Henry in early 70s) began to articulate a theology of environmental stewardship which has been reflected in past SBC resolutions, etc. A guy I'm studying right now - Jitsuo Morikawa (a 1940 grad of SBTS) left SBC life and became the Richard Land of the ABC-USA in the 60s and 70s. He steered that group in the direction of eco-justice in response to the White thesis and the debate that followed.

You'd be interested in what I'm reading about Morikawa. At a time when mainline groups were starting to decline, ABC-USA hired a religious pluralist to head up their Department of Evangelism. Morikawa then redefines "evangelism" to include salvation of society and nature (ecological wholeness). While Morikawa insists that individual salvation is still central; little attention is given to traditional evangelism and church planting. Tony Campolo later acknowledges that this "new evangelism" basically stopped the ABC from growing and directly caused its slow decline in membership. Talk about how to kill a denomination - just put a pluralist in charge of evangelism!

Big Daddy Weave said...

Also, I would note that the White thesis has been popularized by liberals in America and Europe who like to throw around the term Dominionism/Dominionist to describe everyone from your average evangelical to Christian Reconstructionists.

Bart Barber said...

Aaron (BDW),

I have encountered Morikawa before, and I concur with your analysis of his impact upon ABC evangelistic efforts.

Also, before engaging in the conversation of whether evangelical theology is inherently anti-green, I want to clarify one aspect of my post—I'm not suggesting that nobody would attempt a link between evangelical theology and skepticism about global warming theories. Not at all. If Reuters wants to advance that idea and attribute it to White, so be it.

I just don't want the sentiment attributed to yours truly that evangelical eschatology is any part of the reason why "heartland evangelicals" are skeptical about global warming. I didn't say that, and I don't believe that, although others may.

Now, having gotten that out of the way.

Once we change the question from "Is there anything in Evangelical theology that would make one skeptical about the idea of anthropogenic climate change?" to "Is there anything in Evangelical theology that would make it more difficult to be a thoroughgoing member of the modern environmentalist movement?", then my answer would change. I agree that ideological tension exists between evangelical theology and modern environmentalism. I further agree that this tension occurs at precisely the point of whether mankind has dominion over the earth.

I would categorize it as a tension rather than a mutual exclusivity. One can believe that he has dominion over the earth, and yet believe nonetheless that such dominion is secondary rather than ultimate (i.e., that God has ultimate dominion over all) and that humans are under obligation to execute their dominion in a responsible way that amounts to good stewardship. This way of thinking can put evangelicals arm-in-arm with environmentalists on a number of issues.

Nevertheless, certainly some influential elements of the environmentalist movement would bristle at the idea of a human right to dominion over nature—at the separation of humanity from nature and the superiority of humanity over nature—however it were exercised.

Even without being an environmentalist, however, one could come to believe that the earth is getting warmer and that human activity is contributing substantially to that trend.

Bart Barber said...

Excellent comments, by the way. I appreciate your putting such well-researched information before my readership.