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For evangelicals, climate change causes a split between young and old that could hurt Republicans

Lindsay Mouw spoke to guests arriving for the Iowa Democratic Party Liberty and Justice Celebration in November.
Lindsay Mouw spoke to guests arriving for the Iowa Democratic Party Liberty and Justice Celebration in November. Steve Pope for the Boston Globe

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — Cornfields flank the highway that forms the main road here and grain elevators tower overhead, constant reminders of how farming permeates this rural community in the state’s northwest corner.

What also permeates Sioux Center is evangelical Christianity. It is, for most, an unquestioned way of life here in the most Republican county in a state that plays an outsized role in presidential elections. There is an evangelical college, a Christian secondary school, and churches up and down the main road. Bibles are as commonplace as smartphones in the local coffee shop. Business meetings sometimes begin with a prayer.

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Lindsay Mouw, 25, grew up here, her family well-known for the Ford dealership they have owned since the days of the Model T, and she shares their deep Christian roots. But her ideas about religion are different now, because of a topic few people in her community talk about — climate change. Concern for the environment has challenged her political views and those of many other young evangelicals, a trend that could one day spell trouble for the Republican hold on this religious group.

Mouw’s evolution began in 2015 on a study-abroad trip to New Zealand, where she learned about the devastating effects of noise and plastic pollution on the ocean. “From that point on, I remember being pretty committed to saying, ‘I’m not going to contribute to these problems anymore. This isn’t going to be on me,’ ” she said.

It was for her, as for many of her peers, the beginnings of a wedge between them and their older evangelical counterparts. Other issues, including LGBT rights and immigration, have likewise caused an internal reckoning that breaks along generational lines. Many — though not Mouw — now call themselves ex-vangelicals.

“The church has become unrelatable to the world today,” she said.

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This split also reminds that while a generational divide seems already sure to affect the Democratic Party in 2020 — with both the oldest- and youngest-ever candidates in pursuit of the White House — so too could it shift the picture in the GOP. White evangelicals are one of the largest, most loyal voting blocs of support for President Trump, and a crack in that support could foreshadow trouble for the Republican Party — if perhaps not in this election season, then in time.

“They’re reading the Bible and they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, something is not jibing and we need to rethink this,’ ” said Randall Balmer, a religion professor at Dartmouth College who studies evangelicals.

About a quarter of all American adults identify as evangelical protestants, according to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center. One in six of those is between the ages of 18 and 29,

Mouw lives a life well outside the norm in Sioux Center, a community of 7,000 with a strong Dutch heritage. Having left the GOP, she is working to elect a Democrat from Iowa to the US Senate, someone who believes in working to address climate change.

Also, for the moment, she no longer attends church.

Mouw and other young evangelicals find themselves caught where two political statistics collide. White evangelical Protestants are the most skeptical of any religious group about climate change, a recent poll found. But the overwhelming majority of young people believe climate change is happening and is caused by humans, according to the same poll.

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And so, these young evangelicals have found that they share more in common with their generation broadly than with their faith community. Young people believe that climate change will harm them directly in their lifetime, giving the issue a personal sense of urgency that does not exist for some older Americans. And young people are poised to play an especially influential role in this election, projected to vote in numbers greater than ever before.

“You’re right to say that younger evangelicals are probably particularly more attuned to the issue and probably give it a higher priority than maybe some of our older members,” said Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a group that considers climate change a problem but does not lobby lawmakers on the issue. “But we’re not giving up on our older members either. We want everyone to recognize what a concern it is.”

Young people who care about climate change should push their elected officials to embrace both environmental issues and also antiabortion policies, he said.

But some of those young people, it’s unclear how many, have chosen to leave the evangelical church altogether. Others are turning to more progressive denominations. Then there are those, like Mouw, who have chosen to retain their evangelical identity even as they hope to redefine it.

“I think we can reclaim it and say that this is what we stand for, and we can do good in the world, and we can be that light whereas most of society has written us off,” she said.

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For her, things began to change while she was attending Dordt University, a local college affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. When she studied abroad in New Zealand, she encountered an approach to life utterly foreign to her. There, students composted, ate vegan and vegetarian food, rode bikes whenever possible, and grew their own food. “This is some weird hippie stuff that I’m not OK with,” she thought at first. It seemed excessive.

Then her world turned.

In her marine ecology class in New Zealand, she heard from a marine biologist about the real effects of climate change on the environment.

“Eventually I stopped pushing back. I was like, OK, this is pretty important,” she said.

An introvert by nature, Mouw returned to Sioux Center energized and started an environmental club and initiatives on campus. This was in 2015 with the presidential election quickly approaching and Republican candidates starting to cycle through Sioux Center.

Mouw connected with the national group Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and soon they gave her a job — asking every Republican who came to town for their views on climate change. She pushed through her fear of public speaking and started to seek out the microphone at rallies and town halls. Quickly she became frustrated and discouraged with their answers — or lack thereof.

“I really still believed at that point that Republicans could do this,” she said.

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Mouw tried speaking to her church pastor about climate change, but he told her the topic wasn’t important enough to address in the 30 minutes he had each Sunday to preach to his congregation.

So she found other ways to apply herself. She journeyed to rural Minnesota, where she did environmental conservation work, and is now back in Iowa assisting the campaign of Democrat Michael Franken, who supports efforts to combat climate change.

“I don’t think it was really until two years ago that I abandoned the Republican Party,” Mouw said, referring to the aftermath of Trump’s election. “I kind of gave up hope because you get to the point where you’re just like, ‘This is a losing battle.’ ”

This splitting away of younger evangelicals started in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president, according to Balmer, the Dartmouth professor. Young conservative Christians had been raised to believe that abortion and same-sex marriage were the only salient moral issues to vote on, he said. But on college campuses, Balmer said, he began to hear from young people who cared about a broader spectrum of issues including climate change, hunger, poverty, and the Iraq War.

The 2016 election only exacerbated the generational divide, he said.

“It’s kind of a sad thing, in some ways, because this is something that they grew up with and they just can’t, some of them, bring themselves to abandon it,” he said. “But they also kind of know instinctively that something is wrong, something is very, very wrong with this movement.”

Young Evangelicals for Climate Action has sought to capture the energies and attention of these people hungry for change within their faith community.

“More and more, we have younger evangelicals who are pretty disillusioned and disenfranchised with that traditional political alliance,” said Ben Lowe, 35, who founded the group in 2012. Interest in climate change has only grown since then and the organization works to educate young people on Christian college campuses and in churches, as well as political leaders through legislative meetings and advocacy.

Mouw’s personal story and political work have attuned her to the views of older conservative Christians so now when she talks to them about climate change, she is prepared. One morning this fall, Mouw met some of her grandfather’s friends, men in their 70s and 80s who gather every morning for coffee at the Dutch bakery downtown. The men agree that climate change is happening and they are concerned, but they do not think the government can be trusted to fix it.

Mouw listened quietly for the better part of an hour. When the conversation turned to her, she spoke without a hint of judgment.

“I think we have the climate crisis because we are sinful, and we have failed to [care for the Earth] properly,” she said, the men murmuring in agreement. She mentioned ways to curb global warming like energy-efficient home heating and alternative agricultural practices.

But then she continued, in her gentle but firm tone, with a second notion that is more controversial: “I think it’s important for us as evangelicals who care about climate to really be involved in the political scene and make sure we are electing people who promote the sustainability of the earth.”

The men weren’t sure what to say about that. One of them, Willis Alberda, a retired professor from Dordt University, asked Mouw if she makes that same provocative point when she meets with members of Congress. Mouw said she did.

“Oh really?” the 83-year-old asked with genuine curiosity. “Some would agree with what you say?”

Yes, she said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.