According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, religious Americans overwhelmingly believe they have a duty to protect the Earth, with 80% saying they have been given this responsibility by God. The survey also revealed that 42% have prayed for the environment in the past year.
But this sense of duty does not necessarily mean that they are demanding to tackle climate change. Less than half of highly religious people considered global overheating a “very” or “extremely” serious problem, although two-thirds said it was at least “somewhat” serious. By comparison, nearly three-quarters of people with low religious commitment said climate change was a very serious issue.
At more than 100 pages long, the Pew Poll is one of the most in-depth surveys of the connection between Americans’ religious beliefs and views on climate to date, offering a deeper look into why religious tend to be less concerned about the climate than their non-religious counterparts.
The researchers indicated that politics was the most compelling explanation. Responses to the Pew poll suggest that Americans’ views on climate change tend to be more heavily influenced by their political party than by what they hear in church.
Nationally, about 83% of Democrats are likely to see climate change as a very serious issue, compared to 25% of Republicans. “When you look within religious groups, you see the same pattern there, whether it’s evangelical Protestants or Americans with no religious affiliation,” said Becka Alper, who authored the Pew report. “Within religious groups, those who are Republicans are significantly less likely than those who are Democrats to say climate change is a serious issue.”
When asked to explain why they think climate change is not a serious issue, religious Americans often echoed Republican talking points. According to the poll, about half said tougher environmental laws could hurt jobs and the economy.
According to Robin Globus Veldman, professor of religious studies at Texas A&M University, the finding that partisanship plays such an influential role in people’s views on climate aligns with more than a decade of research. However, the relationship between politics and religion can be difficult to disentangle, as the influence goes both ways.
“People go really fast and say, ‘Oh, that’s just politics. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s just a coincidence that evangelicals tend to be more politically conservative and that fully explains their climate attitudes,” Veldman said. “I think there are a lot more interconnections between being evangelical and being politically conservative, and so you can’t separate it and say, ‘All this politics isn’t religion.'”
The Pew poll, which polled more than 10,000 Americans in April, found other reasons why those who believe they have been tasked with caring for the Earth might not make the connection to fighting climate change. More than a third of evangelicals said there are far bigger issues in the world than global warming; others said God controls the weather.
Another obstacle is that most places of worship don’t really connect the dots. Only 8% of Americans who regularly attend church services said they hear a lot about climate change in sermons. For pastors, “it’s such a politicized issue that there’s a huge disincentive to discuss this topic,” Veldman said. “You have to do it very delicately, and you risk alienating people and pulling them away from the other good things you do in your church.”
That said, there are signs that very religious people are taking environmental issues seriously, even among the most historically resistant group, evangelicals. In a report earlier this yearthe National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 evangelical churches, called climate action a Christian responsibility and advocated for saving the planet. Evangelical Youth led the push for climate action in the tradition.
More broadly, a majority of Americans of all religions believed that passing a bill to address climate change should be a priority for Congress, according to a Morning Consult and Politico poll Last year. This included 60% Christians and 79% Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. They got what they wanted, at least in theory, when President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act in Augustthe largest climate package in US history.
Internationally, faith groups have organized over 40 side events at the United Nations climate conference this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to offer a religious perspective on the climate crisis.
While the finding that many people pray for the environment may be encouraging, Veldman said to take it with a grain of salt, as the religious framing of the poll may have influenced their responses. “It’s like asking if you love your mom — you know what everyone is going to say,” she said. “Everyone thinks you should protect the Earth, right? Especially when it’s in a religious framing and in an investigation that highlights religious issues.