Evangelical environmentalists are getting serious. Now if only they could all get along.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Dec. 13 2010 10:15 AM

The Good Fight

Evangelical environmentalists are getting serious. Now if only they could all get along.

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But perhaps foremost among creation care activists, and far more traditional in style that Illyn, is Rev. Jim Ball, who heads up climate advocacy for the influential Evangelical Environmental Network  and served as the Evangelical Climate Initiative's key organizer and spokesman. Ball is a serious guy, with a Ph.D. in theological ethics from Drew University and a résumé that includes the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he worked as climate change policy coordinator in the late 1990s. He joined EEN in 1999, and in 2002 he launched the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign, which landed him on Good Morning America. This month he released his own book, Global Warming and the Risen Lord: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change, and is preparing to take it on the road.

Ball is adamant that the ECI has been a success. When I told him that some creation-care advocates feel the 2006 initiative was "grasstops"-driven rather than grass roots, and that it got out too far ahead of the community, he laughed. "Are you kidding?" he asked. "What the heck are leaders for?! Are they just supposed to be cheerleaders who just get out in front of where the community is going? Or are they supposed to help the community understand where they should be going?"

But Ball understands the need for a grass-roots approach. This is where theology comes in—not the Shimkus kind, but the legitimate creation-care kind. "You start bringing in those core biblical teachings," Ball says, "and have folks understand that this is really deeply related to who we are as Christians in the 21st century."

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For Ball, creation care is about love, not fear, and his book is deeply concerned with the impacts of global warming on the poor. "We're supposed to love our neighbors," he says."This is a spiritual challenge. It is the faith of folks, it is people's values and what they think is ultimately meaningful in life, that is going to propel people forward to lead on this issue for the rest of their lives—which is the kind of fight we're in."

Ball's stridency makes some of his creation-care brethren uncomfortable. Quite frankly, they'd rather not couch it as a "fight" at all. Jim Jewell, former chief-of-staff to Chuck Colson and now co-founder of Flourish, an organization focused on grass-roots creation-care outreach, worries that the movement has strayed too far left. "The progressive DNA of groups such as EEN makes it difficult for them to make inroads in the conservative core of the evangelical community," he wrote in an e-mail. Rather than fight, Jewell prefers to quietly cultivate conservative support. He argues that the creation care movement needs to "decouple climate and energy policy from the progressive Democrats and work with both sides of the aisle."

Is there any hope of such bipartisan climate policy in the next Congress? Jewell doesn't make predictions, but he did tell me that "a conservative leader like Lindsey Graham who takes action on climate shouldn't be hung out to dry the next time around."

If there is a next time around, Richard Cizik knows how tough the political fight—and he calls it a fight—will be. "I've been a part of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party for 30 years. I know conservatives. I know how they think. I know what they're going to say before they say it," he told me. "The pressure to conform is very great."

Wen Stephenson, a writer in Boston, is former editor of TheAtlantic.com and of the Boston Globe's "Ideas" section. Most recently he was the senior producer of NPR's On Point.