On November 17, 2023, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) rejected science textbooks and teaching materials from eight educational publishers. Their objections were based in large part on references to “manmade” climate change, on “negative portrayals of fossil fuels,” and, amazingly enough, on evolution. In a nod to the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the “Judeo-Christian” culture warriors at Texas Values issued a press release celebrating the “Unanimous Vote to Stop Science Textbooks from Making a Monkey Out of You and Your Kids.” For them, the “most egregious textbook was a Biology book” that dared to discuss “how humans are members of the ‘great ape family’ and asked students when humans appeared in primate lineage.” Even worse, the McGraw Hill-produced textbook “contained images comparing a human skeleton to a chimpanzee skeleton.” They warned the SBOE against rubber-stamping science materials that “present Evolution as fact” or fail to offer students the theological alternative of “Creationism.”
The SBOE also heard objections from Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, whose job, as the Houston Chronicle’s Chris Tomlinson pointed out, “has nothing to do with railroads and everything to do with oil and gas.” Christian, who’d previously “found success in the music industry with his country/gospel band, the Mercy River Boys,” was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to serve as Texas’s representative on the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. So it’s unsurprising that, Tomlinson noted, he “fired off a letter demanding that textbooks ignore global warming and the role fossil fuels play in overheating the planet.” It’s also unsurprising that the SBOE agreed. Simply put, oil and politics do mix in the Lone Star State. The overlooked catalyst of that mixture is reactionary forms of religion. And it’s increasingly fueled by Christian “dominionism.”
Dominionism embraces the notion that some Americans are “called” by the Almighty to impose Christian-based governance over the land and its people. It’s essentially interchangeable with Christian nationalism. Political dominionism also conveniently echoes a belief in terrestrial dominionism, which, using the Book of Genesis as its guide, asserts man’s right to dominion over the entire natural world. And yes, it is “man’s” right, not “humankind’s” or “humanity’s,” because it’s overtly patriarchal, with a male God atop their theological pyramid. It is a worldview deeply threatened by the fact of biological evolution. At stake is dominionists’ belief that they are uniquely created in God’s image. If humans, like all of this planet’s lifeforms, are the product of a natural, ubiquitous process, their role as God’s special “Mini-Me” is in jeopardy. Evolution also implies that the Earth wasn’t given to man to simply use as he sees fit. And using the Earth as man and his oil companies see fit is a very appealing idea in Texas.
Theology of Hydrocarbons
There’s little doubt that Texas is the buckle on this nation’s Bible Belt. It also happens to be its leading petrostate. But this marriage of oil and religion, of profits and prophets, is not unique to Texas. A similar coupling is found in neighboring Louisiana, the home state of recently “raised up” Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and home to both a politically dominant oil sector and a politically potent cadre of white evangelicals. A similar pairing is found in the leading OPEC-Plus nations (the “Plus” denotes Russia’s recent coordination with the cartel’s production quotas). Saudi Arabia, in particular, is an infamous purveyor of a once-obscure, extremely fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. It’s a variant the country exported around the Muslim world throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Saudi Arabia’s cocktail of hydrocarbons and religious dogma served it and the interests of its U.S. partners in the oil- and military-industrial complexes in the decades after President Richard Nixon essentially switched the U.S. dollar from the gold standard to an “oil-based” standard rooted in Saudi petrodollars.
Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabia’s oil- and gas-rich OPEC-Plus partners in Russia are currently in the process of promoting religious fundamentalism and a reactionary culture war to their economically weary population. And in what might be the oddest example of religious hydrocarbonization, the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya population from the Rakhine State in Myanmar was catalyzed by a Buddhist fundamentalist’s incendiary propaganda. That purge coincided with the discovery of vast gas reserves in the hydrocarbon-rich Rakhine Basin. Although it’s rarely reported, Myanmar’s ruling junta is fully enmeshed with the oil industry. We could even view Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government in Israel as a potential example given Israel’s recent discoveries of oil and gas and his government’s embrace of the most radicalized, fundamentalist elements in all of Judaism.
Although correlation does not necessarily mean causation, the repeated correlation between the exploitation of hydrocarbons and the exploitation of religious doctrine is striking. Norway and the U.K. might be the exceptions that prove the rule. Both are major hydrocarbon producers, but both are notably (perhaps even famously) irreligious nations. Is it just a coincidence that those two governments are not mired in denial of anthropogenic climate change, nor have they been hostile to ameliorating its impact? The U.K. has its share of denialists. But even former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was often referred to as “the British Trump,” made significant commitments to address climate pollution — quite unlike the real Donald Trump. The real, windmill-hating Trump rehabilitated and rescued Saudi Arabia from an economic crisis, turned over environmental policy to the oil-industrial complex and is now regarded by many political evangelicals as this nation’s first truly evangelical president. Some even see him as “elevated” by God. It’s a term similar to the one used by the GOP’s new climate- and evolution-denying speaker of the House, who also compares himself to Moses.
In many ways, Trump’s 2016 election epitomized the marriage of oil and God. It was the consummation of a long courtship that began when Ronald Reagan romanced Jerry “Moral Majority” Falwell during the 1980 presidential election. That politically convenient coupling blossomed into a decidedly messy affair during the oil- and violence-soaked presidency of George W. Bush, who, as it happens, was an oil-drilling evangelical hailing from the Bible Belt’s buckle in Texas. Sadly, this marriage has divorced many evangelicals from reality.
Buckle Up: It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Century
A comprehensive survey released in October 2023 by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that while a “majority of Americans (61%) believe that climate change is caused mostly by human activity,” white evangelical Protestants remain steadfast in their refusal to accept it, year after year of record-breaking heat notwithstanding. Despite mounting evidence, “just three in ten white evangelical Protestants (31%) believe that climate change is caused by humans.” According to PRRI, those white evangelical Protestants are decidedly out of step with other Americans of faith:
Three-fourths of Hispanic Catholics and religiously unaffiliated Americans (76%) believe climate change is caused by human activity, as do the majority of other non-Christians (70%), Jewish Americans (67%), Hispanic Protestants (61%), Black Protestants (59%), other Protestants of color (59%), white Catholics (56%), white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants (54%), and about half of Latter-day Saints (48%).
Amazingly, about “two in ten white evangelical Protestants (19%) believe there is no solid evidence of climate change,” meaning they don’t explain it away as something “natural” or as an expression of the will of God. Instead, they simply think it doesn’t exist. It’s all the more daunting given PRRI’s findings on white evangelical Protestants’ views of the “climate crisis.” While the percentage of “religiously unaffiliated Americans” who described climate change as a “crisis” rose from 33% in 2014 to 43% in 2023, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants who believed climate change was a crisis “went down from 13% to 8% during the same period.”
That’s right. As climate-stoked disasters and record-breaking heat waves piled up after 2014, the sense of urgency among white evangelicals actually declined. Amazingly enough, the mounting evidence they saw or perhaps even experienced did less than nothing to convince them.
Importantly, though, there is a widening gulf between politically ascendant Evangelicals and the majority of U.S. Christians who do not reject well-established science or the evidence they can see with their own eyes. As the PRRI survey notes, more than twice as many of the people described in the study as Hispanic Catholics agree with climate science, which may reflect the reality that they are all too often on the receiving end of climate pollution’s consequences. Climate-accepting Catholics also have a champion in Pope Francis. He is the first pope to hail from Latin America, and he is also the world’s most prominent religious advocate of both mitigating climate pollution and halting mass extinction. But his revolutionary 2015 letter on the environment hasn’t had the impact in the U.S. that it’s had in the rest of the Catholic world.
On the eve of the COP28 global climate summit in the oil-soaked United Arab Emirates, Reuters reported on the unique recalcitrance of U.S.-based Catholic institutions in the face of the pope’s clear call to care for creation. Titled Laudato Si’, his letter inspired “hundreds of Catholic institutions around the globe” to divest from oil and gas — but not in the U.S. Reuters found that eight years after the pope’s letter, “not a single diocese has announced it has let go of its fossil fuel assets.” In fact, U.S. Catholic “dioceses hold millions of dollars of stock in fossil fuel companies” and “at least a dozen are also leasing land to drillers.” As the PRRI survey revealed, this puts them at odds with their own parishioners.
Hitting the Gas
The findings from PRRI might be little more than a sociological curiosity if this motivated minority didn’t also wield disproportionate political influence. Their dogmatic sense of manifested destiny obstructs the path to not only mitigating climate pollution, but all forms of pollution and, saddest of all, our cataclysmic consumption of the animal kingdom. But it is perfectly in keeping with a self-serving theological invention that hands dominion over all things to a self-appointed “elect.” And if they ever pause to doubt the righteousness of facilitating mass extinction to service an insatiable hunger for hydrocarbons, they can find solace in the “Ark Encounter” amusement park in Kentucky.
There, the “young Earth” fiction spun by curator and evolution denier Ken Ham is set against the biblical story of the Great Flood. Ham, with an assist by Mike Johnson before he was “raised up” by God to the speakership, built what he claims is an exact replica of the ark Noah built to save his family and Earth’s terrestrial creatures during a mass genocide orchestrated by an angry God. Ham’s ark is meant to demonstrate both the literal truth of the ancient biblical allegory (one predated by the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh) and reveal “the lie” of evolution. He even tries to “prove” that dinosaurs lived side by side with humans. This fantastical claim is made necessary by the equally fanciful claim that the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old. He’s only off by about 4.54 billion years.
The belief, though, that God did, in fact, wipe out every living human save for Noah and his family is an End Times “proof of concept.” Through the Great Flood, God has revealed his apocalyptic proclivities. At the same time, our collective responsibility for stoking calamitous floods in Pakistan or Africa or Europe or even central California is not only ignored, it is actively denied. Thanks to this willful ignorance, their apocalyptic End Times prophecy starts to fulfill itself as the seas rise, the storms get angrier, and animals die off in ever more staggering numbers. The behaviors catalyzing that quite palpable, human-generated apocalypse are not only not stopped, but embraced with a type of fanatical zeal once displayed by inquisitors and crusaders. And if they continue to pursue their agenda and feed its self-fulfilling prophecy of eschatological doom, I think we’re going to need a bigger ark. We certainly won’t need any more oil tankers.
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