Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, June 26 2012
Snapshot: Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson, author of “Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change,” published by Oxford University Press
The notion of environmentalists and evangelicals working together on climate change issues might be surprising to those who view the two groups as stubbornly divergent. But in her first book, “Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change,” Dr. Katharine Wilkinson offers a glimpse into not just why evangelicals are asserting themselves in the “creation care” conversation, but how their voices might be the key to moving the issue forward in terms of policy.
“We’ve seen religious communities play that role repeatedly in American history,” she says. “It’s hard for me to imagine how we’ll make progress on climate change or sustainability, generally, without that leadership; especially when our political leaders refuse to take a stand.”
Wilkinson was named a Rhodes Scholar after graduating in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in religion from Sewanee: the University of the South. She earned her doctorate in environmental studies from Oxford University in 2009. Wilkinson has worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and is now a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. She lives in Atlanta, Ga.
Womenetics: How did you come to this topic, climate change and evangelicals?
Katharine Wilkinson: I had a long passion for sustainability issues starting back in high school, probably not disconnected from the influence of my parents. Having studied religion at Sewanee and gone on to work in the environmental space, I was intrigued and frustrated by the seemingly intractable challenge of getting people engaged in these issues. I was seeing all this great work being done, and it didn’t seem like we could move the needle on political will or public engagement in any kind of meaningful way -- certainly not big enough and fast enough, given the pressing nature of the issue (of climate change). When I went to grad school, I started thinking about whether there was a way to bring these two parts of my background together to help answer some of those questions. I was intrigued by what was happening in the evangelical community in creation care issues, broadly, but (also) thinking there could be something exciting here, given the power that sits in the faith community and the roles that faith leaders and communities have played in social movements in the past in American history.
Womenetics: When did the process of writing the book begin?
Wilkinson: I started the research in 2007. I went through a process of rambling around the Southeast, holding focus groups in churches and meeting evangelical leaders engaged on this topic in cities across the U.S., analyzing documents and blogs and sermons, going to church services and various events and tracking websites. I was immersed in that research for a few years as I was starting to write bits and pieces of my dissertation. Pretty quickly I realized there was a fascinating story beyond the dry academic analysis. There was a compelling narrative about the way these leaders found their way to this issue, the type of ‘conversion’ experiences some of them talk about, the passion they have for it and the way it is part of the reshaping of the evangelical landscape in the U.S. The actual writing process was post-dissertation, unbundling the damn thing and re-writing it in a way that told the story and gave voice to the different characters that have been at the center of the whole phenomenon. I enjoyed getting to go back and flesh out the vignettes, experiences and anecdotes of these folks.
Womenetics: Did you encounter skepticism from either side of the issue — evangelicals or environmentalists — about your thesis or your willingness to be open-minded toward both sides?
Wilkinson: Yes. It is interesting because, in a lot of ways with this book, I wanted to challenge the dichotomous thinking that there are these binaries of liberal versus conservative and secular versus religious and human versus environment. In the process of the research I had to come smack up against those.
When I was doing focus groups in evangelical churches, I certainly heard a lot of support for the theology of stewardship or the theology of creation care, but quite a lot of skepticism about the issue of climate change in particular. And both being in England while I was writing the bulk of the dissertation and engaging with people from a more secular, liberal, environmentalist perspective, I heard more, “What? Evangelicals and climate change? Do those things have anything to do with one another?”
If people pushed beyond that it was more, “Oh right, that’s because they all think the world is going to burn up anyway so who cares.” It was interesting because it placed me in a position where I became this mediator between these two groups that were, in a lot of cases, not talking to one another. That’s my ultimate hope with the book, that it will bring different communities, even those that are quite dismissive of or misunderstand one another, into conversation and maybe into collaborating on these kinds of issues.
Womenetics: What conclusions did you draw about the role evangelicals and the evangelical community would or could play in moving the climate change agenda forward?
Wilkinson: I think there’s a big role for them to play. We’re facing a situation where political will to tackle climate change is still in short supply. Public engagement seems to be slipping, and it was thin already. We see that people, evangelicals and non-evangelical alike, are aware of the issue and think that it’s real, but they’re not sure what’s causing it or what should be done about it. This leaves them in a limbo-land. Faith leaders in particular are in a unique position to inspire and engage their congregations and broader followings to challenge political leaders, to speak with real moral authority and wisdom and to leverage the power of the platform they sit on to drive change.
Womenetics: How do religious or evangelical leaders influence their congregations on creation care issues?
Wilkinson: A lot of it has to do with engaging the issue of climate change in a values-based way in community with other people. Churches create an amazing platform to do that. With the trends in the evangelical landscape of shifting across partisan lines, more willingness to partner with different allies on issues of mutual concern, of challenging an individualistic theology — all these things are working in the same direction, which opens up an opportunity for synergies to emerge.
In a more symbolic way, the book challenges the idea that religion and environment are in opposition to one another — that scientists and evangelicals and political liberals and theological conservatives are stuck on opposing sides. These guys are able to challenge that because in their very being, they cross those lines and push beyond the ways of thinking that limit us to half-truths and half-solutions. If we remain stuck in that limited and stunted way of thinking of these issues, we’ll never be able to create the dynamic and widespread partnerships and energy needed to really move the needle.
Womenetics: What chance do you give this partnership, the evangelicals and environmentalists? They are working together, right?
Wilkinson: Yes. I think there is a lot of interest in that partnership. I hear from mainstream environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and leaders periodically, asking, “How should we be thinking about this? How can we best engage?” What’s great is there is openness and energy toward it. There are already places where these partnerships are happening.
Larry Schweiger is the president and CEO at the National Wildlife Federation. He and Jim Ball (executive director of the Evangelical Environment Network) have a very close relationship, as do climate change scientist John Houghton and Richard Cizik (president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good).
One thing that climate care leaders on the evangelical side wrestle with is perceptions in their own communities of the environmental movement and environmentalists. They are trying to figure out if they can partner without being co-opted. Part of the reason they use the language of “creation care” rather than “environmentalism” is that it creates a space between the two (sides). I think they’ll continue to figure out the delicate dance, and I’m hopeful that “Between God & Green” can be a catalyst for that. If folks working on the secular side of environmental issues can better understand where their faith-based counterparts are coming from and the kind of issues they’re wrestling with and the potentially tricky dynamics at work, it puts them in that much more of a strong position to respond and partner.
Womenetics: Why are such partnerships important?
Wilkinson: For a host of reasons. There is real power in strange bedfellows in politics - from getting media attention to being able to pull folks on both sides of the aisle into action. I’m hopeful we’ll see more of that type of partnering.
Womenetics: What was the biggest challenge in researching the book?
Wilkinson: I found people (in the faith community) were willing to talk once I had the stamp of approval from someone else in their community. It was hard to get on the calendar of some of the evangelical leaders, and it was sometimes hard to get into churches because I relied on a pastor or other leader saying, “Yup, we’re willing to open our doors, pull together some people and have this conversation with you.” They didn’t know me from the guy on the street. It was incredibly generous of them to be willing to do that.
Especially with churchgoers, it was interesting trying to make heads or tails of what they were saying and the different tensions there. Oftentimes people said one thing, but you got the sense there was something else bubbling under the surface. One of the things that came out was this individualized theology of seeing interpersonal interactions as the measure of moral behavior and individual relationships between a believer in God or in Christ. There was resistance to the more systemic way of thinking about environmental issues, (for example), that my behavior in Atlanta, Ga., can affect someone living in sub-Saharan Africa. Mostly it was a wonderful process. People were incredibly kind and generous with their time and invited me into their homes and offices, fed me and offered to pray for my research.
Womenetics: What was the biggest surprise out of the process?
Wilkinson: Toward the end of the research a debate within climate care leadership arose. I was seeing in focus groups that church goers in many places were saying “Yup, totally agree that we have a responsibility to care for God’s creation, totally agree that we’re called to be stewards of the Earth, but climate change? Not willing to go there.” The leaders were wrestling with that dynamic as well. Some were saying we’ve got to forge ahead and push on, talking about climate change. The issue is too huge and pressing to set it aside. Others were saying we need to stop talking about that contentious issue and talk more about creation care generally; bring the grass roots on board in a less contentious way, and once we build that momentum we can leverage that toward climate change down the road. I hadn’t anticipated that they would end up having that debate. It was a nice surprise because it added an additional dimension to the work.
Womenetics: What was the best piece of advice you received when you began the book project?
Wilkinson: It was helpful for me to hear from several people that when you’re writing a book, you have to give yourself to the project. We hear about people who write books on the side, in bits and pieces and on their weekends. For me, it was helpful to hear that I needed to dive headlong into it and allow it to be the thing living in my brain. It’s hard to keep the narrative together otherwise. It gave me the impetus and courage to take the time I took with no income to speak of, to work on it and do justice to the story. I didn’t want this to end up locked in academic jail - sitting in the Bodleian Library. I wanted to get the story out into the hands of people who could use it and be inspired by it.
Womenetics: What sort of work are you doing now?
Wilkinson: I work for a strategy consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group, primarily in our organization practice. We help companies and organizations wrestle with really gnarly issues whether strategy, operations, people or dynamics. That’s how I think of it.
Womenetics: How did the Rhodes Scholar experience develop you personally?
Wilkinson: Two really amazing things about that experience. One is that it opened my mind and my gut to opportunities I hadn’t really thought about in an achievable way. I was part of a community full of people passionate about making a difference in the world, making a dent in the universe. Their energy is indefatigable; they blaze trails and think things are possible that probably aren’t, but they go after them with so much intellect, determination and savvy that they are possible.
Being surrounded by that group of people gave me energy for visions I don’t know that I would have gone after at this stage in my life. That was an incredible gift. Also, it was a community where anything was game for discussion. From a more tactical angle, I was surrounded by people from all disciplines - from the hard sciences to political science to the humanities. It didn’t matter what perspective they were coming from, we could sit down over a pint in a pub and talk about what is now “Between God & Green,” but then I didn’t know it would become that. Those conversations were incredibly valuable and gave a depth to this work that would have been a lot harder to achieve if I had just had the perspective from within my discipline.
Womenetics: What do you do to blow off steam?
Wilkinson: I have wonderful friends in Atlanta and elsewhere. I try to spend time with them and with family. I have two dogs that live with my mom, just five or 10 minutes down the road. Whenever I feel a bit stressed, I have a glass of wine and a cuddle with the scruffy pups, Henry and Bear. They have a giddiness and optimism about life. It’s hard not to take some of that with you. And I try and spend as much time as possible outdoors. For me that’s a real source of rejuvenation.
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Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.