The evangelical awakening to climate change is still a work in progress, but as the politically powerful movement becomes more active in environmentalism, political leaders will have to take notice or risk losing their jobs, a prominent evangelical leader said Tuesday.
Since President Bush’s re-election in 2004, a movement called “creation care,” which asserts that Christians are the stewards of God’s creation, has rapidly been been gathering momentum, said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, or NAE.
“What is really happening is that American evangelicals are becoming, well, green, if you will,” Cizik said in an interview with MSNBC-TV’s Joe Scarborough.
The American evangelical community is in the midst of a wrenching shift in thinking on the environment. As recently as this spring, politically influential evangelicals were locked in a showdown over climate change, when 25 conservative evangelical leaders demanded that the NAE fire Cizik for his environmental advocacy.
The association’s refusal — rebuffing such influential conservative figures as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council — marked a turning point for green evangelicals, emboldening them to take creation care into the political arena.
“This is going to be an issue which evangelicals are going to look at when they cast their ballots,” Cizik said.
“I think it should be on par with all the other issues,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, he said. “When you think about it ... hundreds of millions of people around the globe are already being impacted by climate change.”
‘New day’ as conservative elders fade
For most of the movement’s history, American evangelicals as a rule steered clear of politics, heeding leaders who preached against risking contamination by secular culture.
But in the 1970s, a generation of deeply conservative activists attracted by the open courting of Ronald Reagan, who was preparing his successful run for president, broke with tradition and began talking about reforming that secular culture. That movement provided the foundation for the rise to prominence of conservative political pastors like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson and a coalition of dissidents who seized control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s.
Those conservative evangelical leaders largely rejected the environmental movement, both because of its liberal heritage and because of the biblical injunction that Christians should worship the creator, not his creation. With their focus on conservative social issues like abortion, they kept environmentalism marginalized as an evangelical issue.
In a sermon shortly before his death in May, Falwell criticized “naive Christian leaders” for being “duped” by environmentalism, which he told his congregation at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., was “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus” from evangelism.
Since the re-election of President Bush in 2004, however, and especially in the past two years — as awareness of climate change and disenchantment with the war in Iraq have crystallized — moderate and liberal evangelicals have been willing to step out of the shadows and confront the conservative leaders most Americans identify with evangelicalism.
Majority of evangelicals back action
In a poll last month by Ellison Research, 70 percent of self-described evangelicals said they believed global warming would have an impact on future generations, and 64 percent said action should begin immediately.
More than half — 54 percent — said they would be more likely to support candidates who worked to curb global warming.
“We’re putting it in a biblical context,” Cizik said. “We’re saying whatever the past was, it’s a new day. It’s the 21st century, and we are the new evangelicals, and we have a broad agenda. And caring for the Earth is one of those things.”
Climate change has emerged as a significant issue in the presidential campaign, and many of the candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, have sought to seize the environmentalist mantle. But only Republican former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas — otherwise considered among the more conservative candidates in the race — has explicitly aligned himself with the creation care movement.
“My own personal faith reminds me that ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ and that we are not its owners; merely its caretakers,” Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, wrote in his 2007 autobiography, “From Hope to Higher Ground.”
As Huckabee has won favor among evangelicals in Iowa, where he has risen to second in recent Republican polls and assuaged some evangelicals’ concerns that he cannot win, he has begun picking up endorsements from evangelicals who stress his environmental position.
“I would suggest that as stewards of God resources, there needs to be a fresh look at this issue,” Rick Scarborough, head of Vision America, a prominent conservative evangelical group, wrote Thursday. “... Huckabee is forcing Republicans to discuss this issue, and that is healthy.”
Randy Thomas, vice president of Exodus International, an evangelical ministry, wrote last month that, as a private citizen, “I have decided to vote for Huckabee. Yes, it is because he is unabashedly Christian, but it is also that he does care for the environment (in a balanced way … not the “new religion” kind of way).”
And also last month, Don Bosch, an environmental scientist and founder of the Evangelical Ecologist Web site, posted a prominent endorsement of Huckabee.
EPA, evangelicals join forces
Cizik was in Minnesota on Tuesday to publicize the NEA’s partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star for Congregations program, which seeks to persuade churches to become more energy-efficient.
“We are asking all 45,000 churches associated with NAE to, if you will, go green,” he said.
Cizik cited EPA statistics projecting that if all of the estimated 300,000 houses of worship in the United States — “that’s Protestant, Catholic, Muslim mosques, everybody” — were to sign on, “we would save $200 million annually” for core ministerial purposes.
The issue remains contentious among evangelicals, however, and a debate over climate change at the Values Voters Summit last month in Washington demonstrated that divisions are still deep.
“Climate change threatens human lives, and the environment is clearly on the mainstream of the evangelical agenda,” the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of the liberal evangelical group Sojourners/Call to Renewal, told the assembly.
The Rev. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, countered with the conservative evangelical philosophy that God created the world to support humanity, saying: “The Bible says the Earth is for human betterment.”
But “why shouldn’t the churches be leading this?” Cizik asked. “Of course they should be, because that’s God’s mandate to us. ... God said in his own word in Genesis 2:15, ‘Care and protect it.’
“And have we been doing that? I don’t think so.”
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