Lukas Szrot, a University of Kansas doctoral candidate in sociology, examined data from the 1973-2014 General Social Survey to determine whether and to what extent environmental concern has been fostered among diverse religious groups in the United States, because of a 1967 argument from historian Lynn White Jr. who claimed Western Christianity was the most anthropocentric religion that has ever existed. This caught on in geopolitical circles, where it was claimed the United States was abdicating its "global leadership" on environmental issues in recent decades.
Religious people disagreed. Scholars noted that classic environmentalism in the United States has religious roots dating back to the Puritans, who placed an emphasis on environmental stewardship -- the idea that humans bear a special responsibility to care for creation that comes from God. Just because modern professional environmentalism has any number of social authoritarian aspects that people object to doesn't mean the rest don't care.
Still, quantifying the connection between environmental concern and those Americans who consider themselves religious is difficult, because surveys are not very rigorous. Thus a new sociological look, with existing limitations still intact. The dataset accounted for various Judeo-Christian religious traditions, including Protestant denominations, Catholics and Jews.
And there was a big difference, by age cohort. Younger generations of Christians are more apt to say they care. Blind acceptance that environmental groups were ethically superior to science and technology reached its apex in the 1990s, meaning younger people have been less jaded than older Christians who have suffered "green fatigue" from multiple claims each year that we are killing the planet unless we send a check to Natural Resources Defense Council
This finding likely represents the influence of the heyday for the environmentalism movement in the United States that began in the late 1970s and lasted through the mid-1990s, he said. This focus likely led religious groups to begin to discuss environmental stewardship and care in light of their religious duties, he said.
Religious people can put aside their politics to care about the environment but will those who claim to care the most be able to do the same toward religious people?
"It's been rather uneven so far in a lot of ways. Environmental issues are much more polarized than the 1970s," Szrot said. "There are definitely some challenges, but there is also the idea that church has a sort of social-networking function as well. People who wouldn't normally associate with each other could instead get together. It is possible that in the long run, this will lead to new conversations about environmental issues in the United States."