EPA Director-designate Scott Pruitt has gained notoriety for his extreme anti-environmental positions, having sued the EPA multiple times and called for deregulation of the fossil fuel industry.
But in Christian religious circles, his nomination has led to a different kind of debate: over what kind of Christian he is, and what kind of environmental policies a Christian should support.
All agree that Pruitt is himself a staunchly committed, conservative Christian. He is a deacon at First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and on the board of trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, part of the conservative Southern Baptist denomination, which claims over 15 million members.
Pruitt’s first job out of law school was with a small legal practice which he founded and named “Christian Legal Services,” and which focused on defending Christians in religious liberty cases.
As state senator, Pruitt proposed one of the most onerous anti-abortion laws in the country, and as attorney general, he helped lead the opposition to the recent Department of Education guidelines on transgender students using gender-appropriate bathrooms.
It is also undeniable that Pruitt has unusually close ties to the fossil fuel industry. Indeed, in 2014, when Pruitt was suing the EPA, he sent a thousand-word comment letter to the government that was actually drafted for him by energy industry lawyers, according to an explosive New York Times investigation. That in itself is shocking: a public official not merely parroting a private party’s talking points, but using his public office to lip-sync their exact words.
At the time, Pruitt was heading up the “Rule of Law Campaign,” which was funded by Freedom Partners, part of the Koch Brothers’ constellation of political organizations. (The full extent of the funding is unknown because of rules shielding donors from scrutiny.) And the Republican Attorney Generals Association, which Pruitt headed for two years, has received at least $20 million from the energy industry. Pruitt himself has received over $215,000.
The ties have been of mutual benefit. Pruitt sued the EPA to stop it from reducing air pollution in Oklahoma (by requiring coal plants to install pollution controls). He sued on behalf of the Keystone XL and Pebble Mine in Alaska. He successfully blocked regulations on fracking. He opposed the listing of several endangered species, which would have limited offshore oil drilling. And so on.
And of course, Pruitt has repeated the misleading claim that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connections to the actions of mankind.” Well, sure—but 100 percent of peer reviewed articles agree that it is connected, and that the degree ranges from bad to catastrophic. (In the same article, Pruitt wrote that “the Obama administration lawlessly rewards its supporters and punishes its enemies.”)
But do these two parts of Pruitt’s life — his conservative Christianity and his promotion of fossil fuel interests — have anything to do with one another?
Absolutely — and Christians are on both green and brown sides of the debate.
On the green side, the Evangelical Environmental Network released a letter signed by “over 70 pro-life Catholic and Evangelical leaders and 450 pro-life Christians” urging Trump to reconsider the Pruitt nomination. The letter defined environmental protections as a pro-life issue.
“Caring for God’s creation is a matter of life and our faith compels us to act, especially to reduce pollution,” the letter states, noting that air pollution has been linked to birth defects, infant deaths, and an array of diseases. “All of us desire pure air and clean water and the opportunity for our children and grandchildren to aspire to the abundant life that Jesus’ brings. Unfortunately, that opportunity is hindered by pollution that poisons the minds, lungs, and hearts of our children, born and unborn.”
That, of course, is very different language from what’s come out of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and other mainstream environmental groups. But that’s exactly the point. The “Creation Care” movement isn’t about garbing environmental issues in Christian rhetoric, but of expressing sincere conservative Christian beliefs in the realm of environmental concern.
On the brown side, the anti-environmental Cornwall Alliance released their own letter with 133 signatories. It claims that the EPA’s “work necessarily integrates science, economics, law, politics, and ethics, all of which are rooted in religious worldviews.” Which, of course, Scott Pruitt possesses.
Now, you may be surprised to learn that science is rooted in a religious worldview, rather than empiricism and objectivity, but that view is a core principle of the Cornwall Alliance. Their claim, here from Cornwall’s 2009 “Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming” is that “Earth and its ecosystems — created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence — are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.”
In other words, there can’t be cataclysmic climate change because God’s design wouldn’t allow it.
That may not seem like science, but once it is accepted as a postulate, everything else flows from it: lack of concern over pollution, the notion that natural resources are meant to be fully exploited, and climate denialism. If God’s creation will just “self-correct,” there’s no need for us to protect air, water, or the climate. Indeed, it might seem arrogant to even try.
Now, do anti-environmental evangelicals really believe this stuff, or is it just a convenient rationale for greed (in the case of oilmen) or power (in the case of those who suck up to them)? I suppose it’s impossible to know. Or maybe there’s no difference; other Trump advisors profess the “prosperity gospel,” which holds, despite Jesus’s statements to the contrary, that God wants you to be rich. So if God wants you to be rich, and oil makes you rich, then there’s no conflict anyway.
As for Pruitt, we don’t know what he himself believes, only that his conservative Christianity and his anti-environmental ideology align with the “brown” side. So senators should ask him. They should ask if Pruitt agrees that “intelligent design” means that the Earth is “robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting.” They should ask if he believes that God put oil in the ground as a gift to humanity, as his close confidant, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin recently opined. They should ask if his religious views impact how he evaluates the science of climate change.
Of course, one of the nice things about facts is that they don’t care what you believe. In fact, toxic chemicals stay in ecosystems, and our bodies, for decades. In fact, climate change is real and undisputed by experts. And in fact, sexual orientation and gender identity (which the Southern Baptist Convention declared nonexistent) are also real and undisputed by experts.
Of course, one of the sad things about our political moment is how little facts seem to matter.