Let’s Talk about Young Evangelicals and the Environment

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I always enjoy reading the Twitter feed of John Fea , who wrote the popular book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” Fea is an evangelical and a historian working at Messiah College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania. His latest book has gotten quite a bit of traction in Christian academia, it would appear, and John has been doing some invited talks at various Christian schools around the United States. I like how he tweets about his experience on these campuses and what he is seeing and learning from young evangelicals.

In a recent post on his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Fea highlights a group called Young Evangelicals for Climate Change. He has noted on several occasions that he is seeing a lot of enthusiasm and activism among college students regarding environmental concerns. That piqued my interest, so I wanted to take a look at what is going on with white evangelicals and their perception of the environment. I know that I have written ad nauseum regarding young evangelicals and their continued allegiance to the GOP, but maybe there is some moderating on the issue of the environment?

I had to go back to the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study to find a specific question about climate change, but was pleased to see how the response options provided some nuance to respondents. Here is the question: “From what you know about global climate change or global warming, which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion?” I broke the evangelical sample into six different age groups and the results are displayed below.

There are obviously some generation differences at play, but the story isn’t a simple one. For instance, 42.3% of the youngest evangelicals felt that there was enough evidence that climate change was real to take concrete steps to mitigate the problem. However, that number looks paltry compared to the results from the entire sample of 18-29 year olds, where 66.5% believe that action needs to be taken. Looking at the other end of the response options: that same group of young white evangelicals was just as likely to say that climate change is not occurring at all as were any other age group. So, the answer is yes, younger evangelicals do seem to believe in science at a slightly higher rate than older evangelicals, but they are still much more skeptical of what climatologists have been saying than young people in general.

I wanted to take a look at some recent data, so I analyzed all the questions in the 2016 CCES that related to the environment. They posed a series of scenarios to respondents, asking if they would support an environmental policy even if it meant increased prices for fuel or the potential loss of jobs. The results of those questions can be found below with 95% confidence intervals indicated by the vertical error bars.

Here, there is a much clearer pattern. For each of the four environmental issues posed, the youngest evangelicals were the most supportive. For instance, at least 3 in five supported the EPA being given the ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, raising fuel efficiency standards on cars, and requiring power companies to use alternative fuels. The only area where that support drops is given the EPA more power to enforce the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. All these things do tend to support the overall hypothesis that younger evangelicals do, in fact, care more about the environment and are willing to make financial sacrifices to protect the planet. To turn back to the discussion of young evangelical college students, I also checked to see if those with a college degree were supportive of measures to protect the environment, and there was no statistical difference (graph here). However, let’s take a look at that another way.

The graph above displays the mean result for a question: “How important is the environment to you?” Respondents options ranged from “no importance” to “very high” importance. Using the same age categories the results stand to stark contrast to those described previously. Note that evangelicals under the age of the thirty believe that the environment is just as important as evangelicals who were over the age of 75. In fact the difference between the two groups is 1%, which is statistically an insignificant difference. So, while it seems that young evangelicals are supportive of specific environmental policies, they don’t believe that the environment should be at the top of the priority list.

Finally, I wanted to try to determine if environmentalism played a role in the vote choice of white evangelicals in the 2016 presidential election. Displayed above is the share of the two party vote for Donald Trump among each age group broken down by whether they thought the environment was of high importance or low importance. In addition, the middle bar for each group is how all white evangelicals in that age group voted in 2016, regardless of their position on the environment. There are clearly large differences to be seen here. For instance, young white evangelicals who thought that the environment was of low importance voted for Trump at a rate of 90% compared to 42.3% of those who thought it was of high importance. Across all groups the average difference in vote share between the high importance and low importance group was more than 30%.

The bigger takeaway from the graph maybe is this: the average vote share for each of the six age groups looks much closer to the “low importance” group than the “high importance” group. Yes, there are evangelicals who look like environmentalists, but even those who believe that the environment is important don’t catch votes for Democrats in large numbers. For white evangelicals over the age of thirty who thought the environment was of high importance (49.9% of the sample), three in five voted for Trump. It seems like an issue that gets a great deal of lip service, but is not become a wedge among evangelicals. Instead, this group is more concerned with things like taxes and immigration.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in this gist.

Featured Image Credit: Sharefaith

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