Should we try to leverage religious beliefs in environmental messaging?

by | Jan 11, 2018

In our recent Eco Pulse special report, United We Understand, we delved into attitudinal drivers and phrases that sparked both agreement and dissension among Americans. A couple of findings caught my eye and got me thinking about the relationship between religious beliefs and environmental attitudes and behaviors.

First, I noticed the weak affinity for the phrase “environmental stewardship.” While not overtly negative, reaction to the phrase was more neutral (40%), and there was a distinct age divide. We also found three distinct environmental views in our study – two of which closely relate to differing theological viewpoints regarding humans and their relationship with the earth.

“Stewardship” was a turn-off to those less engaged in sustainable behaviors and (possibly) organized religion.

The word “stewardship” carries behavioral connotations. To be a good steward means to actively protect or manage something, be it time, money or the environment. Affinity for this word strongly correlated with self-reported behaviors – 63% of people with high activity counts rated it positively, compared to only 31% of those with few self-reported green behaviors.

Sustainable behaviors generally increase with age. Our Millennial Pulse study found that Millennials, while very attitudinally engaged in protecting the environment, are more likely to act on these beliefs through conscious consumerism – buying from environmentally responsible brands – than by engaging in environmentally responsible behaviors. Only 48% of Millennials rated the phrase “environmental stewardship” positively, compared to 59% of Seniors.

“Stewardship” can also carry religious connotations. Christian churches in the U.S. sponsor annual “stewardship campaigns” to encourage making both behavioral (time) and financial commitments for the coming year. It’s possible that thoughts of religious obligation or commitment could have also reduced affinity for “environmental stewardship,” particularly among Millennials, for the reasons noted below.

Specific mention of God was divisive along generational lines.

We saw a similar age-related response pattern when we asked participants to rate their agreement with the statement, “Because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it.” Agreement increased significantly with age: while the majority of survey respondents agreed with this statement (57%), only 50% of Millennials did so (compared to 63% of Boomers and 64% of Seniors). Millennials are, as an age cohort, less engaged in organized religion. The 2017 Pew Research Religious Landscape Study found that religion is very important to only 38% of younger Millennials and 44% of older Millennials, compared to 53% of Gen X, 59% of Boomers and 70% of Silent/Greatest Generations. In addition, only 28% of Millennials regularly attend religious services.

The theology of environmentalism.

According to the Religious Landscape Study, the majority of the world’s population claims a religious affiliation, with the largest groups being Christian (31.2%) or Muslim (24.1%), along with an additional .2% who are Jewish – all of whom share the first five books of Moses, or the Pentateuch, as holy scripture.

In our recent Eco Pulse study, we found three distinct environmental value systems, one of which closely aligns with older interpretations of Genesis 1:26, part of the “creation story” shared by these three religions. Here is one of the oldest (King James Version) English translations of Genesis 1:26:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Human-centric mindset

This way of thinking about the world, which places mankind as “ruler” over the earth, is widely shared by Christian Evangelicals and aligns strongly with the “Human-centric” environmental value system held by 42% of our Eco Pulse study respondents. Human-centrics were significantly more likely to agree with statements like “people’s only responsibility to nature is to make it serve their own best interests” and “if there is no economic, aesthetic or other human use for a species, then there is no reason to worry much about it becoming extinct.”

Earth-centric mindset

In contrast, 28% of respondents fell into an environmental value group we termed “Earth-centric,” who value the earth for the earth’s sake – not for the value it provides humans. They agreed strongly that “we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it” and “other species have as much right to be on this earth as we do – just because we are smarter than other animals doesn’t make us better.” This way of thinking aligns with a more modern interpretation (The Message) of Genesis 1:26:

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”

What does this mean for environmental messaging?

With only 16% of the world’s population considering themselves to be completely unaffiliated with any religious tradition or denomination, it would seem that referencing the responsibility of religious believers to protect the earth would be a relatively safe messaging choice. But given what we’re seeing in our research, and in light of the subtle but important nuances in interpretation of even the shared Islamic, Judeo-Christian holy text, it’s likely that communicators should tread carefully on this messaging path.

Recent research in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing by Kathryn Johnson, Richie Liu,, offers an alternative (and potentially more effective) strategy. This study finds that people are less likely to feel a connectedness with nature when reminded of the attributes of an authoritarian or loving, person-like God. The researchers theorize that those concepts trigger more traditional (hierarchical) thinking about nature being created merely for the use of humans. This study found that a more limitless, abstract or mystical conception of God – particularly utilizing messaging that leverages our connectedness to nature and images that inspire awe can be much more effective in eliciting appreciation for and protection of the earth.

Your messaging strategy should be built based upon your specific target audience. Referencing the responsibility of “being a good steward of God’s creation” can be very effective in communications aimed at an older (Boomer and up) target audience. But the most broadly effective “religious” messaging approach (less fraught with theological and generational barriers) is most likely one that doesn’t focus on the Creator, but rather, the creation – conveying reverence for the Earth, with all of its beauty and diversity, and our interdependence with it.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.


  1. This is from a non-educated “left-field” lurker none-the-less this idea is not from “left-field”. I’ve never let formal education get in the way of my learning — so says my friend Langhorne.

    Stay away from religion or Intelligent Design – present data/information to allow others to make their own decision to agree with you – mission accomplished! Next Customer Please! Community College Arguing 101 class – you rarely force people to your side, they might decide on their own to come to your side or just to shut you up.

    This thing we humans live upon, whether called “Mother, Gaia, Pachamama, 3rd rock from the Sun”, does not care if Lat/long (64.5011° N, 165.4064° W) (Nome Alaska) celebrates its 167th annual Cherry Blossom festival on December 1st. This rock does not care whether Humans or Lazuli Buntings attend the event. This rock does not care if there is no coal, gas, water, trees or politicians hanging on with gravity assist. This rock/earth will exist until a really big asteroid totally disintegrates the earth or a Black Hole finds Earth. This rock did not care about Fred’s Dino-the-dinosaur and will care about old man Tim D from Nashua, NH US of A.

    Everyone is a human, not all humans are Judo-Christians, Muslims, Wicca, Zoroaster … . However I believe that all humans care their offspring either “do-better” or “at least as good” . Granted offspring are merely a byproduct of having good/bad sex – some offspring will be sociopaths or work in Washington DC.

    Back in the 70’s I would tie back my hair in a ponytail, look into the hazy eyes of hippie girls to say “Do you care if your children have clean air and gasoline(fuel) to power their VW Kombi bus? Grandchildren, Great-Grandchildren?… (you get the idea of 7…n generations). Don’t arm twist – let them think about it at 5:43 in the morning and make THEIR decision. Dang! they are smart.

    Stay away from 3rd rail topics even if religion is very important to your audience. Acknowledge their position then start talking about deferred externalities, tragedy of the commons, playing/sharing/cleaning up nicely in the sandbox. Do not use the eye-rolling term Stewardship -even the word Sustainability can cause people to look for the red EXIT sign.

    Use what we need today without impacting future generations’ needs. That’s my truth so I don’t have to remember anything. Tim,.,

  2. Thank you for the article and research. It supports what I have experienced in Asheville NC. We are a mix of Billy Graham, Rolling Stones and Tree Huggers. In 2011 I worked with Asheville Buncombe Christian Collation Ministry (ABCCM) to create a Stewardship Environmental Program that involved weatherizing churches as well as individual homes. Interestly, the members supported financially the improvements of the churches but would not pay $200 to improve their own home.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Courtnay Hamachek

VP Operations

Courtnay oversees our day-to-day operations to keep us running smoothly and support our growth. She establishes project management systems and processes to help our teams anticipate bottlenecks, prevent process issues, and keep projects on time and on target. Courtnay has built extensive experience over 25 years in all aspects of marketing, from account services and project management to design and production.

Aaron Crecy

Digital Marketing Director

Aaron is responsible for planning, executing and measuring digital marketing strategies for Shelton Group and our clients, with an emphasis on inbound, content, SEO, social media, email and paid initiatives. He constantly researches and explores new tactics and strategies to improve digital campaign performance and results.

Aaron brings to the table more than 20 years of marketing leadership experience with premium consumer-facing brands. He came to Shelton Group by way of Malibu Boats, where, as Director of Global Marketing, he oversaw strategic marketing planning and execution for multiple product lines, with specific emphasis on social media and digital. Prior to that, he served as CMO for a leading daily fantasy sports operator, guiding it from startup to the industry’s third-ranked site.

Scot Case

Senior Consultant

A sustainability strategy consultant since 1993, Scot has served as non-profit leader, as a partner in an environmental marketing firm that he grew and sold, and as an executive in a multi-billion-dollar, international company. He has published dozens of articles and case studies, was co-author of the original “Sins of Greenwashing” study, testified before Congress, and been quoted on NPR, Good Morning America, CNN, The New York Times, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal. Scot was also highlighted in an Emmy award-winning documentary on sustainable purchasing.

Casey Ward

VP Account Services

Casey manages our relationships, growth and development with a specific group of clients that includes Environmental Defense Fund, Cotton LEADS and CertainTeed Insulation. She provides leadership and support for the account team members who manage the day-to-day processes for these clients. She contributes to strategic direction for each client and guides our creative efforts to ensure everything we do builds toward meeting – or exceeding – the client’s goals. Her ability to simultaneously see the big picture and pay close attention to the details helps her champion her clients’ needs and identify new growth opportunities for them.