What would Jesus do (about climate change)?
Gordon College science professor Dorothy Boorse wants evangelical Christians to connect practicing their faith with caring for the environment.
At first glance, Dorothy Boorse's office could belong to any science professor. The desk is strewn with papers. Office hours are posted on the door, alongside photos of Boorse and her students sloshing through Essex County marshes with nets. Shelves are crammed with textbooks, including one that Boorse co-wrote. But they also hold titles like The Genesis Enigma and Flesh-and-Blood Jesus as well as back issues of Christian Scholar's Review.
Boorse teaches courses in biology and environmental science at Gordon College, the Christian school in Wenham that was recently in the news when its president spoke out against an expected executive order banning hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation when federal dollars are involved. But Boorse, an evangelical Christian, is involved in a different political debate — the one over how to respond to changes in the earth's climate. A full-time professor with a doctorate in oceanography and limnology (the study of freshwater systems) and a specialty in wetlands ecology, Boorse is also a leader in a national effort to frame environmental problems in Christian terms and to figure out what to do about them.
There are almost as many definitions of evangelicalism as there are evangelicals. It's an approach to religion, not a separate church: About one-third of religious Americans call themselves evangelicals, depending on how the question is asked. The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois lists more than 60 evangelical denominations, including large groups like American Baptist Churches USA and the African Methodist Episcopal Church and smaller groups such as the Vineyard Movement. According to the National Association of Evangelicals — the closest thing to an organized voice for the broad, decentralized movement — evangelicals interpret the Bible as "the only infallible, authoritative Word of God." In practice, that means interpreting it strictly, if not always literally. Evangelicals believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, and see their personal relationships with Jesus as routes to salvation.
They also are interested in public policy and social causes. That includes science issues, from debates around teaching evolution in schools to the use of embryos for stem cell research to what to do about global climate change. Many US evangelicals skew politically conservative, especially in Southern states, where they are heavily concentrated, and that tendency has fed a perception that they are anti-science. For their part, many evangelicals believe that scientists and the media stereotype religious believers as anti-intellectual.
For Boorse, scientific inquiry and religion are absolutely compatible. Raised in rural Pennsylvania by Christian parents (her father, a Baptist, was ordained but never served as a minister; he taught middle school, high school, and junior college biology), she attended several churches growing up and a Mennonite junior and senior high school. "Mennonites always make connections between living simply, using less stuff, doing justice, loving your neighbor, and caring for the environment," she says. "It was a whole cloth for me."
As an undergraduate at Gordon, Boorse, who is now 49, went through a doubting phase and had to rethink her beliefs. Today, though, she is clear about the role that faith plays in her life. "I am utterly compelled by the teachings of Christ, especially the Sermon on the Mount. And my own inability to live up to my own beliefs is so strong that I have to conclude that it's the same for other people," she says. "I have a strong sense of my own desire to reach for something better." She also sees signs of God in her research. "I've had transcendent experiences looking at the beauty of things under microscopes," she says.
Boorse believes strongly in the idea of creation care, which asserts that God tasked humans as the earth's stewards, not its owners, and holds us accountable for the job we do. So several years back, when she learned that the association of evangelicals was developing a guide to climate change, she saw a chance to make that connection for a wide audience. She sought the job of lead author.
The report, called Loving the Least of These, focuses on how climate change is affecting the earth's poorest and most vulnerable inhabitants. The title echoes a passage in the book of Matthew in which Jesus tells his followers that God judges them based on how they care for the hungry, naked, and sick, saying, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
"Evangelicals are very engaged with the world's poor through relief and development work," says Galen Carey, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president for government relations in Washington, D.C. That work provided a natural way to frame the topic of climate change. Carey previously was employed by World Relief, the association's global aid and development arm, which has a $60 million budget and operates in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the United States.
More than two dozen scientists, religious leaders, and environmental advocates reviewed the report before it was published, but Carey credits Boorse for weaving a compelling statement. "She has a very winsome way of expressing complicated concepts in an understandable way that also speaks to people's beliefs."
Loving the Least of These asks the reader questions. What does the Bible tell Christians about engaging with the world? What do we know about changes in the earth's climate? How will climate change affect the poor, especially in countries that have few resources to help people cope with floods, drought, and displacement? And what should people in rich nations do? It offers options: Christians can pray for insight, change their own lifestyles to use fewer resources, and help vulnerable communities adapt — ideally, by preparing them for climate change, not just responding after disasters.
"Moved by God's love for the vulnerable, evangelicals are quick to give when disaster strikes," Boorse writes. The effects of climate change are "threat multipliers for the many problems faced by the poor around the globe. Recognizing this reality will strengthen our witness."
The association has distributed Loving the Least of These to member churches, opinion leaders, and members of Congress and offers print copies for a small fee and free downloads from its website. Christian college professors, congregations, and individual members are using it, says Carey, adding that the message really rings true for millennials.
"Loving the Least of These is a huge resource for us," says Ben Lowe, the national spokesman for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, an offshoot of the Evangelical Environmental Network that works to mobilize Christians age 30 and younger. "When people ask what we base our work on, it's the first document we go to." And once those young people learn the facts about climate change, most want to address it, Lowe says.
Recent polls by the Associated Press and the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute show that US evangelicals are overall less likely than non-evangelicals to believe that climate change is happening or is being worsened by human activities. But in Lowe's view, many are simply unaware. "What we find is that many of our churches aren't having a conversation about climate change. It's happening in some areas, but it isn't as widespread and deep as it needs to go," he says. When the group brings the issue to college campuses, he says, "people are eager to figure out what they can do to help." This spring, for example, the Evangelical Environmental Network drummed up more than 130,000 comments from Christians supporting an Obama administration proposal for cutting carbon emissions from power plants.
Boorse believes that caring for creation has always been a thread of evangelical thinking, if not the majority view. "The culture, in general, that has been associated with the term 'evangelical' has not prioritized the environment," she says. "But that is changing dramatically, and a huge generational shift is taking place."
The change hasn't registered in Congress, where Republicans and a few red-state Democrats strongly oppose federal limits on carbon emissions. Last year, Boorse helped craft a letter to Congress from more than 200 evangelical scientists urging action. "Our changing climate threatens the health, security, and well-being of millions of people who are made in God's image," they argued.
Boorse recognizes that some evangelical Christians believe that the earth's fate is already written and humans have no power to change it. But she disagrees. Even if you believe the world will end at a certain time, in her reasoning, that doesn't dictate how you should act from now until then. And if you believe that God is sovereign and made the earth, "you should care about it even more," she says. "Theology does not tell us to trash the world, although people can find ways to read it that way."
But students are her main focus. Along with teaching, researching, and raising two sons, she helps Young Evangelicals for Climate Action find contacts at Christian colleges. She also serves on the board of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, a field school run by a consortium of Christian colleges. And she writes regularly for blogs and Web forums on science and faith. Recently in a blog she described persuading the minister at her church in Hamilton to expand its annual Stewardship Sunday, which typically focuses on giving time and money to the church, into a yearlong reflection on many kinds of stewardship — of land, cities, people, the church, God. Boorse compared it to Jubilee, a blessed year in both Jewish and Christian traditions that occurs once every 50 years. Jubilee years are meant to bring liberation, restoration, and renewed faith in God's blessings.
"This is our calling," Boorse writes. "It will be the year of Jubilee right here in suburbia, in the conflicted zone, the place of terrible compromises. I feel great hope." The endpoint isn't known, but the vision is clear: caring for the world as a community and passing something better to the next generation.