The Good Fight
Evangelical environmentalists are getting serious. Now if only they could all get along.
Good news on the climate front can be hard to come by—in Cancun or on Capitol Hill. So here's something: At least we know, as of last week, that John Shimkus of Illinois won't be chairman of the powerful House energy and commerce committee. At a subcommittee hearing last year the GOP congressman— a contender for the gavel that will now go to Michigan Republican Fred Upton— invoked the Bible to justify a do-nothing approach to climate change. "Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood," the congressman intoned.
Shimkus's theology "doesn't hold water," says Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good and former top lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. "Let's be clear," he told me, "the idea that we can't irreparably damage this planet by our actions runs contrary to all that's taught in the scriptures."
Cizik, a prominent advocate for climate action, spoke with me as he returned from the U.N. conference in Cancun. At the forefront of a growing evangelical "creation care" movement, he was instrumental in launching the Evangelical Climate Initiative, which turned a lot of heads in February 2006. Originally signed by 86 evangelical leaders—the tally is now more than 350—the ECI states that human-caused climate change is real, that the impact will be felt disproportionately by the world's poor, and that Christians are called to take action. Pushback was fierce, and it still is. (In late 2008, Cizik's more conservative brethren used his climate advocacy, along with his shifting position on same-sex unions, to have him ousted from the NAE.)
The creation-care movement now finds itself at a critical juncture, thanks to the political misfortunes of climate legislation and congressional Democrats. With Republican gains in the House and Senate and the rise of the Tea Party, evangelical environmentalists are quietly taking sides over how aggressively, and in what ways, to push for action. Unlike its secular counterpart, the evangelical environmental movement may have real influence over conservative Republicans. But the evangelical community is far from monolithic, and some creation-care advocates are clearly wary of rocking the GOP boat. Others, like Cizik, say bring it on.
"We have to get serious, as the evangelical creation care movement, and be as committed to the political process as our opponents are," Cizik told me. His New Evangelical Partnership has formed a 501(c)4 action fund and will work to "persuade members of Congress that they will pay a price for the positions they take," Cizik said. Evangelical environmentalists with bite.
Of course, the phrase "evangelical environmentalist" still has an oxymoronic ring to it—and turning the conservative evangelical community into a force for climate action is no small challenge. "The term 'environmentalist' is as toxic among evangelicals as the term 'evangelical' is among non-evangelicals," says Jonathan Merritt, the 29-year-old who in 2008 founded the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative and earlier this year published his first book, Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet. For evangelicals, especially older and more conservative types, environmentalism smacks of tree-hugging, earth worship, or worse, Al Gore (who, as it happens, was raised an evangelical).
In a Pew Research Center survey released in October, only 16 percent of regular churchgoing white evangelicals said climate change is a "very serious" problem. (Overall, 31 percent of Americans said the same; you decide which figure is more depressing.) To some observers, such numbers indicate that the Evangelical Climate Initiative didn't live up to its promise. It got the community's attention (as the intense pushback suggests), but did it change very many minds? "Maybe not as many as some people hoped," says John Green, an expert on evangelical politics who advises the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
In fact, the ECI itself has become a point of contention within the creation-care ranks. "We failed to do the hard work of winning over the hearts and minds of the average everyday Christian," Merritt told me. "There are a lot of us out here who'd love to flip the switch and get evangelicals on board. The reality is, it's not going to happen that quickly. It's a big ship, and it takes a long time to turn that ship, and it has to be done in a proper way."
Proper, for Merritt and other creation-care activists, means keeping it biblical and grass roots—with a particular emphasis on younger evangelicals. In addition to Merritt's, at least two other books by young evangelical climate advocates have appeared since 2009. One of them, Green Revolution, is by Ben Lowe, an infectiously positive 26-year-old graduate of Wheaton College who just ran for Congress as a Democrat in suburban Chicago (and, yes, lost badly). Another, A Climate For Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, is by husband-and-wife team Andrew Farley and Katharine Hayhoe, both 38 and professors at Texas Tech University. He's a conservative pastor; she's a respected climate scientist who has contributed to the IPCC.
There's also an emerging evangelical student movement, best represented by the campus network Renewal and nurtured for years by Restoring Eden, a group founded by evangelical pastor Peter Illyn. By his own account, Illyn brings "a slightly different, West Coast, emergent/evangelical church perspective." Illyn recruits at Christian rock festivals and puts out bumper stickers like "Your soul needs the wild (Luke 5:26)" and, my favorite, "God's original plan was to hang out in a garden with naked vegetarians."
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."
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.