Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh chastised Secretary of State John Kerry during Monday’s show for having the audacity to believe in God and climate change at the same time.
Limbaugh evidently took issue with recent comments Secretary Kerry made while speaking before the State Department’s Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, particularly his assertion that climate change was “a challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians–safe guarders of God’s creation.”
According to Limbaugh, Kerry’s prayerful call to protect the planet was simply too much for the mind to handle:
See, in my humble opinion, folks, if you believe in God, then intellectually you cannot believe in manmade global warming … You must be either agnostic or atheistic to believe that man controls something that he can’t create.
Rush Limbaugh may not be a master of theological nuance. Still, his core assertion — that someone can’t believe in God while also believing that humanity has contributed to global climate change — dusts off an old conservative myth that, like climate change-denying in general, ignores data, facts, and the lived experience of billions of people across the globe.
In reality, millions of church-goers in the United States already recognize that the evidence for climate change is undeniable. A December 2012 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that strong majorities of most American faith traditions agreed that the recent string of natural disasters were the result of climate change, especially among mainline protestants (65 percent) and Catholics (60 percent).
What’s more, scores of religious institutions have responded to our shifting environment in ways that fully acknowledge humanity’s role in creating the crisis. The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have all issued statements or launched initiatives aimed at acting on global warming, and the United States Council of Catholic Bishops has an entire section of their website dedicated to combating climate change and its disproportionate impact on the world’s poor.
In fact, when Pope Francis officiated his inaugural mass after being elected head of the Catholic church earlier this year, he cited climate change as a core concern for the faithful:
Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of good will: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.
And while evangelical Christians have historically been less willing to tackle the issue of climate change, scientific evidence is starting to shift perceptions in the pews. Polls now show that roughly half (50 percent) of white evangelical Protestants agree that the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence of global climate change, and groups such as Evangelical Environmental Network and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA) are increasingly making their voices heard at environmental protests and rallies. Most of these faithful see their activism as a direct expression of their faith, with the YECA website arguing that overcoming the environmental crisis is a “part of our Christian discipleship and witness.”
In fact, despite Limbaugh’s claims, many people of faith appear to be balancing their intellectual understanding of climate change and their belief in God rather well: some 200 self-identified evangelical scientists from secular and religious universities sent a letter to the U.S. Congress last month, citing their faith as they urged elected officials to take action to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment.
“Science helps me understand how human activities affect global conditions, but it is not my primary motivation in trying to call attention to climate change,” wrote Dorothy Boorse, an aquatic ecologist at Christian-affiliated Gordon College and a signer of the letter, in an Op-Ed for Religion and Politics. “That motivation comes from my faith commitment.”
These groups aren’t alone. Organizations such as Interfaith Power and Light, Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, and others have been working for years to organize religious groups for collective action around climate change. After all, it was the impassioned efforts of Massachusetts faith leaders, partnered with faith-based groups such as the Good Steward Campaign, the American Values Network, and Catholics United, that successfully made opposition to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline an election issue during the Bay State’s Democratic Senate primary this past April.
Still, too many members of congress cloak their climate denial in religious terms. On Tuesday, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) told constituents that “It wasn’t just a few years ago, what was the problem that existed? It wasn’t global warming, we were gonna all be an ice cube. We’re not ice cubes. Our climate will continue to change because of the way God formed the earth.” North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx lamented that some environmentalists “think that we, human beings, have more impact on the climate and the world than God does.” Representative John Shimkus (R-IL) told a congressional hearing: “The earth will end only when God declares it is time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.”
Ultimately, Rush Limbaugh is, of course, free to come to his own conclusions about religious matters. But when it comes to using faith as justification for denying climate change, would-be theologians like Limbaugh may soon find themselves preaching to empty pews.
Jack Jenkins is the Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Follow them on Twitter @CAPFaith.