Cornwall Alliance’s “Christian Worldview”: Free Market Capitalism

Final Post in an Assessment of the Cornwall Alliance’s “An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming”

After the environmental movement had gained momentum in the 1970s with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Acts, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, economic conservatives and business leaders sought to fight back. With the election of business-friendly Ronald Reagan, whose glib dismissal of Redwood Trees was already legendary from when he ran for governor of California, those who dismissed environmental causes had their man. Reagan appointed James Watt as the Secretary of Interior, who was clearly antagonistic to the environmentalists of his day. Watt was a devout member of the Assemblies of God, and embraced a strict dispensationalist theology that underscored the return of Christ and the destruction of this world. “Watt periodically mentioned his Christian faith when discussing his approach to environmental management. Speaking before Congress, he once said, ‘I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations’” (Wikipedia). Watt had an extremely low regard for the Endangered Species Act. He sold oil and gas leases in wilderness areas. He sought to end the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He supported the development and use of federal lands by commercial interests. He cut the government’s regulations protecting the environment.

It is no secret that Ronald Reagan was the darling of the Religious Right, the politically conservative wing of evangelical Christianity. The Religious Right was unable to differentiate between social issues and economic issues, buying the entire Reagan Republican political philosophy hook-line-and-sinker. It became an expectation that if you were an evangelical Christian and wanted to support religious freedom to practice your faith, support family values, stop abortion, and stem other societal sins, you were also pro-big business and pro-free market capitalism.

But other evangelicals called this into question. Ron Sider’s landmark book, Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger was gaining a wide reading among many thinking evangelicals.

It’s no coincidence that Sider (along with other key evangelical leaders) was instrumental in the formation of the Evangelical Environmental Network (a network of individuals and organizations, including World Vision, World Relief, InterVarsity, the International Bible Society, and the American Scientific Affiliation).

As I said before, there is an ongoing debate in American evangelicalism concerning global Warming. I believe it is a good thing to have this in-house debate. I said, “It forces us to re-examine the Bible, our presuppositions about a Christian Worldview, and how all this has a major bearing on the issues of our contemporary life.” The Cornwall Alliance loves to banter about that term: “Christian Worldview.” But, as I’ve studied their theology, I have concluded that their definition of “Christian Worldview” is a syncretism of biblical theology and American free-market capitalism.

They state,
“A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement.” (p. 9 of A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor)
In other words, they believe that the best way to improve the environment is through economic means. The main way to be good stewards of God’s creation is for more humans to participate in free-market capitalism. The Cornwall Alliance believes that the worst thing for third-world countries is the current battle against global warming. The best thing to do for the world’s poor, according to them, is to have them develop capitalist free markets. The main way that they can do this is through the burning of fossil fuels so that they can have the electricity to grow in affluence, technology, and capital. So, for the Cornwall Alliance, it's an either/or proposition: either follow the folly of ending global warming (since humans are not really at fault and the temperature of the world is cyclical) or care for the poor. It's that simple. The opportunity costs involved in reducing man-made emissions is too great.
“Overall economic policy toward the poor should focus on promoting economic development, including making low-cost energy available, through which they can lift themselves out of poverty. It should not focus on wealth redistribution, which fosters dependency and slows development.” (p. 4)

Cornwall Alliance points to data that shows that as a nation’s technology rises, so does its pollution. But as the nation gets wealthier, the pollution issue is always handled.
“Historical data show that as societies move from subsistence agriculture to low-tech industry, pollution emissions rise—yet the benefits to health and longevity outweigh the risks posed by the pollution, as demonstrated by rising life expectancy and standard of living during that period. Soon, however, the added wealth and higher technological levels brought on by economic development enable the society to afford to reduce pollution emissions even while attaining still higher standards of living.” (p. 10)

The assumption of the Cornwall Alliance is that laissez-faire capitalism will ultimately benefit the environment when left to its own devices. They actually believe that “the invisible hand” in which they have so much faith (i.e., the self-regulation of the marketplace because of the mixture of self-interest, competition, and supply and demand) will also take care of the environment. This is such a fallacious premise that it’s laughable. It is only when the people, represented by government, regulates polluters that the environment is cared for. The anti-regulation agenda of Cornwall Alliance is as much a “Reagan Worldview” as it is a “Christian Worldview.”

The Cornwall Alliance states several things toward which they “aspire.” Let’s take a look at some of these aspirations (p. 14 of A Renewed Call to Truth).

We aspire to a world in which human beings care wisely and humbly for all creatures, first and foremost for their fellow human beings, recognizing their proper place in the created order.
As we already discussed, this is a truncated understanding of the imago Dei, reducing it to merely dominion over the rest of creation. This kind of theology all too easily leads to the exploitation of the environment and the animal world for our own selfish desires.

We aspire to a world in which objective moral principles—not personal prejudices—guide moral action.
Yes, that would be great, if any of us were capable of this. My point here is this: the Cornwall Alliance is just as guilty of allowing personal prejudices to guide their moral action.

We aspire to a world in which right reason (including sound theology and the careful use of scientific and economic analysis) guides the stewardship of human and ecological relationships. Abusing the creation is sin—an offense against the Creator. But abuse of creation must be defined by Biblical law, not by shifting, subjective personal or societal preferences.
Yes, that is definitely the goal. And I thank God that they recognize that abusing the creation is sin. But my point is this: The Cornwall Alliance’s interpretation of “Biblical law” has been proven to be very “subjective.”

We aspire to a world in which liberty as a condition of moral action is preferred over government-initiated management of the environment as a means to common goals.
This sounds to me like it could be a motto written on a sign at one of this summer’s Tea Parties. Libertarians prefer “liberty” over “government-initiated management.” This is certainly a legitimate political point-of-view, but it is not something that can legitimately be central to THE Christian Worldview.

We aspire to a world in which the relationships between stewardship and private property are fully appreciated, allowing people’s natural incentive to care for their own property to reduce the need for collective ownership and control of resources and enterprises, and in which collective action, when deemed necessary, takes place at the most local level possible.
Again, I have to ask this question: Does this sound like American ideology or Christian doctrine? The Bible is not a book concerned primarily with private property rights. It is not a capitalist manifesto against communal ownership of resources. In fact, the ancient Israelites had a very communal understanding of ownership, and the Year of Jubilee was instituted by God to guarantee that market-induced sin could only go on for 50 years. The early Christians were not so concerned with private property rights. “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4:34-35). This passage from the New Testament, when read in juxtaposition with the Cornwall Alliance’s position against “wealth redistribution,” is striking. I’m not saying that the Cornwall Alliance cannot take this position; I’m just saying that this is more ideological than theological, and we should say so.

We aspire to a world in which widespread economic freedom—which is integral to private, market economies—makes sound ecological stewardship possible for ever greater numbers.
I agree with this statement on its face. However, the “possibility” of sound ecological stewardship is most often not accomplished through the good-hearted work of free-market capitalists. It most often must be imposed upon them by governments that have a greater stake in the “external costs” of their doing business. In economics, an external cost is the impact on a party that is not directly involved in a transaction. The primary parties in the transaction do not feel this harmful cost, and so the prices do not reflect these costs in its production or consumption. Pollution is a harmful external cost, and the marketplace has no way of self-regulating something that is external to transactions.

We aspire to a world in which advancements in agriculture, industry, and commerce not only minimize pollution and transform most waste products into efficiently used resources, but also improve the material conditions of life for people everywhere.
This final statement is one that we can all affirm. This is the world that all evangelicals should aspire toward.

Other posts of interest on "Global Warming:"
Evangelicals Divided Over Climate Change
Do All Evangelicals Hold to a Conservative Political Viewpoint on Economics?
Fundamentalist Suspicion Toward the Scientific Community Dies Hard
Things We Can Affirm in Cornwall Alliance's Declaration
Imago Dei is More than "Dominion"
Cornwall Alliance's Denial of the Power of the Fall


Ted M. Gossard said...

Excellent series, Bob. Thanks!!

Ron Henzel said...

Geologist Dr. David Gee, chair of the science committee of the 2008 International Geological Congress and author of 130 plus peer reviewed papers said, "For how many years must the planet cool before we begin to understand that the planet is not warming? For how many years must cooling go on?" (Dr. Gee is currently at Uppsala University in Sweden.)

These and many, many quotes from scientists engaged in the climate debate can be read in the "U. S. Senate Minority Report: More Than 700 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims Scientists Continue to Debunk 'Consensus' in 2008 &

Even the most committed global warming kool aid pushers are now reduced to urging cap-and-trade policies as a form of "risk management" because the science has become so unsettled and questionable.

Bob Robinson said...

In this series of posts, I purposely did not get into the "he said, but he said" arguments that so confuse the issue.

I am not a scientist, and wouldn't pretend to understand the data that these scientists are studying. I know that the predominant scientific consensus is in the camp that believes in Anthropocentric Global Warming. But I also know that there are quite a number of scientists that disagree with them.

What this series of posts is dealing with is much more narrow in scope: Does the theology of the Cornwall Alliance stand up to scrutiny? I might not be a scientist, but I am a theologian.

And I think that their theology has some serious flaws. If this is true of their theological conclusions, then I have to wonder about their scientific and economic conclusions as well. I really have no way of knowing that, since science and economics are not my specialties. But from a theological standpoint, they are flawed.

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rick said...

Sad to see so many "believers" deceived by the great God "mammon". I very much appreciate your critique of the Cornwall Alliance. When will Gods people wake up to see that the great idol of America is the dividend, for which we build our "retirement" at the expense of the rest of the world.