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Greener Pastors

James Dobson takes on environmentalists

When James Dobson gets angry, people notice. And, in early March, the influential chair of Focus on the Family fired off a very angry letter to the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. Tony Perkins of The Family Research Council signed it. So did Gary Bauer. So did 22 other conservative Christian leaders. Their complaint? It seems that Richard Cizik, NAE's vice-president for governmental affairs, had been sounding the alarm on global warming. For years now, Cizik has ruffled feathers by imploring evangelicals to pay more attention to environmental issues--"creation care," as it's called. But the foray into climate change proved a step too far; the letter-writers called it "divisive and dangerous."

Conservative Christian leaders have ample reason to fear the burgeoning green evangelical movement. A focus on the environment might divert attention away from the issues that really matter to them--namely, abortion and gay marriage. Worse, eco-minded Christians might start voting for Democrats. Or thinking like environmentalists. The Dobson letter went into hysterics over a speech Cizik gave at the World Bank last year, in which he said, "I'd like to take on the population issue." Cizik's critics raged: "[H]ow is population control going to be achieved if not by promoting abortion, the distribution of condoms to the young, and even by infanticide in China and elsewhere?" (Cizik says he was misunderstood, and was merely referring to birth control.)

For all its viciousness, however, the Dobson letter has so far proved something of a damp squib. The NAE's board replied that they stand by Cizik and his work. The organization, which represents some 45,000 churches and 30 million evangelicals, also reaffirmed its commitment to "creation care." Dobson's attack has garnered frowns from fellow evangelicals, many of whom refused to sign the letter. (One of them told me it was "really very vile, not something we expect from brothers and sisters in the faith.") So far, so good for those who think that the Lord's work entails more than obsessing about whether teenagers are having sex.

But it would be a mistake to assume that the green evangelical movement has won a decisive victory--especially on global warming. Despite its support for "creation care" and Cizik's work, the NAE still refuses to take an official stance on climate change. A few NAE board members are reportedly at work on a second letter criticizing Cizik's activism. Beyond that, religious leaders who are trying to make climate change an issue still face daunting roadblocks, including a knee-jerk hostility among many evangelicals toward scientists and environmentalists. But the biggest hurdle of all could be the evangelical community's longstanding alliance with the Republican Party--ties that even its green-minded leaders are loath to break.

Cizik's awakening came about in 2002, when Jim Ball, the executive director for the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), dragged him to a conference at Oxford. There, he heard a presentation by Sir John Houghton, an evangelical scientist and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As he listened to Houghton rattle off evidence on melting ice caps and increased droughts, Cizik quickly realized that global warming was a serious threat--an experience he has called "not unlike my conversion to Christ."

Like many evangelicals now pushing for action on climate change, Cizik remains a staunch conservative, firmly opposed to abortion and gay marriage. He bristles at criticism by Dobson and Perkins that he's trying to divert attention from red-meat issues. "It's not a zero-sum game," he contends. "I actually think evangelical successes in non-traditional areas--such as trafficking and AIDS--have strengthened our hand on domestic policy and will continue to do so." But he also believes that the Bible impels Christians to care for the planet and help the poor, who will be disproportionately affected by warming.

To that end, Cizik has teamed up with the EEN to raise awareness about the issue. He helped the NAE draft a platform--adopted in October of 2004--that included an environmental plank. "Because clean air, pure water and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order," it read, "government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation." Meanwhile, Cizik was involved in the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), which drafted an even stronger statement in February 2006 declaring climate change "a real problem [that] ought to matter to us as Christians" and calling for mandatory caps on carbon emissions. Although both Cizik and then-NAE President Ted Haggard were pressured not to sign the document, it did garner signatures from 86 influential evangelical leaders, including the Reverend Rick Warren, author of the bestseller The Purpose Driven Life.

Of course, the best way to combat gathering consternation over climate change is to insist that it's not a problem, and, for that, Cizik's opponents have generally turned to the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance (ISA), led by E. Calvin Beisner. "Dobson and the others won't talk about global warming themselves, they'll just refer to Cal Beisner," says Calvin DeWitt, a leading green evangelical. Beisner has been attacking the mainstream scientific consensus on climate change since he first started delving into the issue in 1989. "As a former journalist," he says, "I've been trained to approach everything with some healthy skepticism."

In July of 2006, the ISA put out "A Call to Truth," criticizing the ECI for accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. The statement garnered more than 150 signatures, although Ball isn't impressed by the list: "We went after senior respected leaders, they have a bunch of associate professors"--as well as a number of well-known climate cranks. (Eight of the signers came from organizations that have received over $2.3 million from ExxonMobil, which has waged a long disinformation campaign on climate change.) The ISA document does contain a number of footnotes, but relies on the work of marginalized skeptics such as MIT's Richard Lindzen, whose theory that the earth may cool in the near future has been discredited, and Patrick Michaels, a Cato researcher with a long history of distorting climate facts.

In addition to attacking the science behind climate change, Beisner has tried to marshal theological arguments to counter the emerging doctrine of "creation care." He cites, for instance, Genesis 8:21, when, after the great flood, God told Noah, "I will never again curse the ground because of man." "That," says Beisner, "does suggest that I ought to treat with major skepticism claims that we can bring the whole thing to a crashing halt." ("That's debatable," says David Gushee, an ethics professor at Union University who has clashed with Beisner before. "It says that God won't send a flood, not that we could never create our own.") And, since the ECI has impressed people with its argument that climate change could hurt the poor, Beisner has adopted a similar note, insisting that strategies to mitigate global warming will hamper development and condemn millions of people to extreme poverty. "I think that's unconscionable," he says, with conviction in his voice.

So who's winning this battle? Both sides, as one would expect, claim success in shifting the momentum their way. A February 2006 poll funded by the EEN found that 70 percent of evangelicals thought global warming was a serious threat, and 51 percent said the United States should take steps to address it, even at high economic cost. But it is unclear whether many evangelicals would get behind mandatory emissions caps--especially if critics could persuade them that, say, rising energy prices would harm the poor. (As well, most evangelical leaders say they won't support climate legislation that would harm the economy.)

The leadership, meanwhile, is still all over the map. The Southern Baptist Convention, which represents some 16 million members and is a Republican stronghold, rejected the ECI and put out its own resolution in 2006 warning members not to align with "extreme environmental groups" or support solutions based on "questionable science." Even some of the ECI's signatories are approaching the issue cautiously. Robert Yarbrough, chair of the New Testament department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has said that he signed the ECI because he viewed it "as raising cautionary flags rather than making sweeping, definite, quantified pronouncements."

In the past, the green evangelical movement has been handicapped, to some extent, by keeping its distance from scientists, who face a high degree of distrust in the religious community due to the battles over evolution. "I don't go out to speak about science," Cizik says. "I go out to speak about our biblical mandate." The ECI statement, for instance, included just one quantifiable empirical claim--that global warming was mostly due to human activity--and largely dealt with theology and morality. None of the signatories had any discernable scientific expertise. "Our plan was not to be writing a scientific document," says Gushee, who drafted the ECI. That makes the movement vulnerable to junk scientists like those in Beisner's camp, who can throw out a lot of misleading facts in order to sway people. (By some accounts, that's how Beisner convinced Bishop Wellington Boone to remove his name from the ECI.)

Much of that has been changing, however. The most interesting developments have come out of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, founded in 1979 by DeWitt, who, as an evangelical biologist, wanted to counteract what he saw as a "me-first strain of theology" in Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority movement. The institute has trained about 100 scientists and placed them in some 60 evangelical colleges around the country. There, scientists have been able discuss environmental issues in language that doesn't offend their students. Those translation skills have proved crucial. "I've learned the hard way that, for instance, you can't use the term 'biodiversity' in certain evangelical communities, because they see that as code for same-sex marriage," DeWitt says. And, while many secular scientists would disagree with some of what's taught at the Au Sable Institute--intelligent design, say--the center has helped improve scientific literacy in the evangelical world. "The instinctive view that scientists are trying to rob people of their faith is fading," says Gushee.

Moreover, evangelical climate scientists like Sir John Houghton have become trusted voices. "Houghton has been a key figure," says DeWitt. "His lectures to evangelical leaders have been extremely effective in assuring them that this is what the science was telling us." And, last year, Cizik helped organize a meeting between 14 scientists and 14 evangelical leaders to put out a statement on global warming and educate the flock on what they can do in their personal lives to reduce emissions. (The ECI, for instance, has launched its own carbon offset program,

Green evangelical leaders are also working to overcome "the general stereotypes of environmentalists that have been perpetuated by Rush Limbaugh and others," as Cizik puts it. "There's this belief that all environmentalists love big government and population planning." Evangelical leaders are trying to change that perception--as DeWitt notes, "The divide is wider than it should be; 40 percent of Sierra Club members are regular churchgoers"--but they're not there yet. "We aren't working with them at this point," Cizik says, although he won't rule it out. "After all, we've collaborated with feminists on trafficking bills and the ACLU on the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act." Eventually, that sort of collaboration will prove necessary to get effective climate legislation passed. Environmental groups, for their part, appreciate what green evangelicals have been doing. "They've been able to reach people we haven't been able to, and that's tremendously helpful," says Tim Greeff, who helps run the Climate Center at the Natural Resource Defense Council. Retorts Cizik, "That's nice, although they should applaud quietly." He's half-joking.

The green evangelical movement's biggest weakness, however, may be its continued allegiance to the GOP, whose record on environmental issues remains appalling. Every leader I talked to insisted that they can turn the Republicans around. "I've heard many pastors say that the 2006 election is the last time we'll have to choose between abortion and caring for creation," says DeWitt. But that seems unduly optimistic. A recent National Journal poll found that only 13 percent of Republicans in Congress are even convinced that humans are causing global warming. When I mentioned this poll to Cizik, he was taken aback, but still maintains that it's more viable to try to convert the Republican Party on this issue than to start defecting to Democrats. (The EEN has worked with Joe Lieberman's office on climate change policy, but such efforts appear to be rather scattered.)

It remains to be seen whether that strategy will work. Ball insists that the problem is that the GOP simply "isn't hearing things yet--we're hoping to educate them." But Republican opposition to environmentalism likely has less to do with a lack of education and more to do with the fact that they're in hock to powerful industry lobbyists, many of whom still oppose strong emissions caps. Cizik admits that it's unclear what would happen if the Republican Party were forced to choose between two influential parts of their base. "Evangelicals have often gotten the short shrift in this alliance, but there haven't been many cases where there's open disagreement," he says and then pauses. "We'll see about that."

Little wonder some observers still have doubts. "Anything's possible," says Greeff. "But, if this movement is going to have an impact on the Republican Party, the pressure will have to come from the far-right elements that they really listen to." And, as Dobson and Perkins have shown, the far-right elements don't plan on twisting arms on climate change anytime soon. Nevertheless, Cizik remains undaunted, and, while he concedes that much work remains, he notes--rightfully--how much genuine progress has been made over the last four years. "There's not going to be any retreat," he declares as we wrap up our talk. "This issue has legs."