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Do End-Time Believers Care About Climate Change?

Research suggests a belief in the apocalypse, common in the GOP, reduces interest in the government taking action.


End time belief has an almost salacious appeal in America—and not just to the four out of ten Americans who believe that Jesus Christ will return to Earth by 2050. At least since the Millerites were laughed off the national stage in 1844, watching prophecy fail has become something of a national pastime. The attitudes of the two groups—heavenly-minded believer and smirking spectator—are well captured in a pair of bumper stickers: “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned” and “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?”

But some in the spectator camp hold that America’s remarkably durable “rapture culture” is no laughing matter; that it might, in fact, be a menace to society. At issue is end time believers’ perceived lack of investment in the earth’s future. That is, if they believe Jesus is coming back, do they have any incentive to preserve and protect the environment for future generations?

Many who are concerned about the environment—including prominent figures like Al Gore, E.O. Wilson, and Bill Moyers—argue that for such believers the answer is no.

Although mistrust of end time believers’ earthly intentions has smoldered for decades, a new study about “End Times Theology” has added fuel to the fire. According to the study’s authors, political scientists David Barker and David Bearce, when it comes to climate change, “a belief in the Second Coming reduces the probability of strongly agreeing that the government should take action by more than 12 percent.”

The reason, according to Barker and Bearce, is that while “non-end-times believers have little reason to doubt humankind’s infinite persistence, all else being equal, end-times believers ‘know’ that life on Earth has a preordained expiration date, no matter what—and that all Christians will be raptured before the going gets too tough.”

With 76% of Republicans identifying as end times believers in their sample, they argue that end time belief may be a key factor stymieing climate change legislation.

But as someone who spent 14 months doing interviews and focus groups with conservative Christians on their views about climate change and the end times, I see major problems with their approach.

The study’s main flaw is that it measures attitudes toward climate change using a double-barreled question—one that’s actually comprised of more than a single question. Barker and Bearce asked respondents to state the degree to which they agreed with the following:

Global warming is a problem that requires immediate government action, in order to prevent environmental devastation and catastrophic loss of life for future generations.

The statement actually contains four parts, each of which could elicit a different level of agreement: global warming is a problem; the government should be the institution to address it; action needs to be immediate; and the reasons for acting are to prevent environmental devastation and catastrophic loss of life.

The authors did acknowledge one shortcoming of the statement; namely, that it does not allow them to distinguish between those who are skeptical that global warming is happening, and those who believe it’s happening but do not feel anything should be done about it. Since the latter claim is the one these researchers sought to prove, they controlled for “media distrust,” which they argued would be correlated with climate skepticism.

There are, however, at least two other reasons some conservative Christians would disagree with the statement besides their belief in End Times. First, having seen the government “take” prayer out of schools, and “force” the teaching of evolution, the Christians with whom I spoke had an especially negative view of government in general.

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