Climate-Change Denial is a Church-State Separation Issue

By Paul Golin

[This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. Reprinted with permission.]

There are few existential crises for our species that loom larger than global warming. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that human activity has contributed to climate change, and that the growing threat to life on earth is real and significant.

This “inconvenient truth” about the environment should have galvanized our country into action long ago. Our current U.S. administration, however, not only lacks a policy addressing climate change, it is actively working to roll back existing protections. For example, our greenhouse gas emissions rose last year[1], likely thanks to reduced regulations on the coal and oil industries.

Worse, politicians at the highest levels of our government have embraced a disinformation campaign—originally initiated by the fossil-fuel industry—to make the public question the scientific consensus. The president claimed global warming is a “hoax, a money-making industry,”[2] and continues to disallow federal agencies to study or even refer to climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently run by a former coal lobbyist! Let that sink in. And he’s only there because the prior EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt—a climate-change denier and serial-suer of the EPA while Oklahoma Attorney General—resigned amid ethics allegations.

Why would these so-called leaders, who drink the same water and breath the same air and have children and grandchildren to consider, hurl us toward global catastrophe that many scientists believe will be irreversible in just a matter of years?

Money, of course, and the power that comes with it—the future of humanity be damned. It’s greed and hypocrisy on a world-destroying level.

But why would so many regular people vote to support these policies? For some, it is also about the money: coal miners who know no other work, oil workers making the highest salaries of their lives in the fracking boom, the universal fear of gas price hikes.

But there’s something else at work: religious fundamentalism. And that’s where addressing climate change also means fighting the Christian supremacy ascendant in our government.

It is no coincidence that Scott Pruitt was also a trustee at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and once said that there are not “sufficient scientific facts to establish the theory of evolution.”[3] Anti-science misinformation campaigns in the service of politicians and business oligarchs easily glide down a path already paved by fundamentalist Christianity.

For the “true believer,” if evolution is a lie, if the age of the universe is a lie, if God gave us the earth to do with what we please, if none of it matters anyway because we’re so close to End Times when the saved will be lifted directly into heaven… why should we bother listening to science when it contradicts the literal written word of God?!

For those of us who want to positively address climate change, we must also take on climate-change denial. And if we’re going to take on climate-change denial, we must address the inherent anti-science beliefs of religious fundamentalism.

At the very least, we must demand leaders who believe in science, particularly when charged with operating actual science-based government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. A secular democracy as intended by the First Amendment of the Constitution requires that the government not base policy solely upon one religion’s theology.

And that’s where Jewish voices need to be amplified. This Rosh Hashanah we will welcome the Jewish New Year of 5780. Yet almost no Jews believe the earth is only 5,780 years old. (Even if all the ultra-Orthodox hold that belief, they are only 5% of American Jewry.) Clearly, Judaism is a religion that—for almost all adherents—coexists with modern science, in part because the source text is and always has been up for interpretation.

Candidates and appointees for office must be questioned on their ability to be neutral to all religious beliefs when carrying out their duties, and challenged on how they’d be able to do so if they hold fundamentalist beliefs. One role for SHJ’s Jews for a Secular Democracy initiative is to put those kinds of questions to candidates and into the hands of lawmakers who vet political appointees.

Unfortunately, “devoutly-held religious conviction” is seen as a positive attribute in American society. The Jews for a Secular Democracy initiative allows us to take two approaches concurrently. The first is the secular approach that demands science be used, particularly by science-based agencies, because most Jews are secular. The second is by explaining the Jewish religious tradition, which really is very different than the Evangelical literalist approach to Biblical text. Helping more Americans understand that there isn’t such a thing as a “Judeo-Christian” tradition will make it clearer that policy influenced by such a myth is actually discriminatory to the “Judeo” side of that equation.

[1] “Donald Trump Called Climate Change a Hoax. Now He’s Awkwardly Boasting About Fighting It,” by Justin Worland, Time Magazine, July 9, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Scott Pruitt’s Dirty Politics: How the Environmental Protection Agency became the fossil-fuel industry’s best friend,” by Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, March 26, 2018.

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