Evangelicals and Climate Change

Speaking of climate change, the Washington Post has a very interesting article about the rise of Evangelical activism on climate change issues:

At 8 on a Saturday morning, just as the heat was permeating this sprawling Orlando suburb, Denise Kirsop donned a white plastic moon suit and began sorting through the trash produced by Northland Church.

She and several fellow parishioners picked apart the garbage to analyze exactly how much and what kind of waste their megachurch produces, looking for ways to reduce the congregation's contribution to global warming.

I prayed about it, and God really revealed to me that I had a passion about creation," said Kirsop, who has since traded in her family's sport-utility vehicle for a hybrid Toyota Prius to help cut her greenhouse gas emissions. "Anything that draws me closer to God -- and this does -- increases my faith and helps my work for God."

Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals.

The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves.

"I did sense this is one of these issues where the church could take leadership, like with civil rights," said Northland's senior pastor, Joel C. Hunter. "It's a matter of who speaks for evangelicals: Is it a broad range of voices on a broad range of issues, or a narrow range of voices?"

Hunter has emerged among evangelicals as a pivotal advocate for cutting greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming Earth's climate. A self-deprecating 59-year-old minister who can quote the "Baby Jesus" speech that Will Farrell delivered in the 2006 movie "Talladega Nights" as readily as he can the Bible, Hunter regularly preaches about climate change to 7,000 congregants in five Central Florida sites and to 3,000 more worshipers via the Internet. He even has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to talk about environmental issues.

While he remains in a distinct minority, and a number of others on the Christian right disparage his efforts, Hunter and others like him have begun to reshape the politics around climate change.

. . .

Hunter came to the cause not on his own but rather through a six-year effort by British religious leaders to mobilize their U.S. counterparts on the issue.

"The United States is absolutely key to the question of climate change," said Sir John T. Houghton, a British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical. For nearly a decade, Houghton -- who said he has long sought to "put my science alongside my faith" -- worked to convince Hunter and other American evangelical leaders that their shared beliefs should compel them to focus on global warming.

In 2001, Houghton, a 75-year-old Welshman who has been honored twice by Queen Elizabeth II for his scientific work, walked the grounds of Windsor Castle with Calvin B. DeWitt, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. The two, later joined by the Bishop James Jones of Liverpool, England, started organizing conferences on both sides of the Atlantic to convince U.S. evangelicals that human-generated warming poses a threat to God's creation.

Not long after that, several prominent American environmental leaders and scientists decided that they, too, needed to win over that same group.

Peter A. Seligmann, chief executive of Conservation International, an Arlington-based nonprofit group that seeks to preserve terrestrial and marine biodiversity worldwide, asked himself what sector of society was best positioned to shift U.S. climate policy: "What bloc of people has enormous influence, especially on the Republican Party? That group of people is right-wing Christian evangelicals" -- who made up 24 percent of the U.S. electorate in the 2004 and 2006 elections.

So Seligmann set about wooing church leaders. At the suggestion of former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and his wife, Meredith, who serves on his organization's board, Seligmann flew to Colorado Springs to discuss global warming with Ted Haggard, then president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Haggard proved to be a willing partner until a scandal involving drugs and homosexual activity ended his public career. ("I bet on the wrong horse," Seligmann observed wryly.)

But Seligmann also made savvy choices, such as hiring Ben Campbell -- an evangelical who had worked on agricultural policy for Conservation International in the past -- to reach out to the religious right.

At the same time that Conservation International and other groups such as the Sierra Club were starting to strengthen their ties with religious groups, Houghton was making headway with Protestant leaders including Hunter and NAE lobbyist Richard Cizik.

The support for activism on this issue is now warmly received by all Evangelical leaders:

The "greening" of Hunter and others still elicits scorn from many evangelicals, including Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Prison Fellowship's Charles W. "Chuck" Colson. They question whether humankind really deserves the blame for Earth's recent warming and argue that their battles against abortion and same-sex marriage should take precedence.

Even some of Hunter's own congregants remain skeptical: Glenda Martinet refers to his sermons when she's urging her kids to stop wasting electricity, but her husband, Gary, notes that NASA scientists have detected warming on Mars. "Obviously they must have a bunch of SUVs running around there we can't spot," he joked as he walked into one of Hunter's Saturday-night services.

But the fledgling alliance has begun to reshape attitudes among some evangelical and environmental leaders. Hunter, who helped gather about 4,000 signatures during the 2006 election for an initiative opposing same-sex marriage, talks of moving beyond "below-the-belt issues" such as homosexuality and abortion. And Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope is reaching out to the 40 percent of Sierra Club members who are religiously observant.

Read it all here.

It is interesting that the British leaders who made the outreach to Joel Hunter and other Evangelicals are Anglican religious leaders. I think that one of the more interesting aspects of this story is that environmental groups like Sierra Club are themselves changing their attitudes about religion. This is a positive development, but should not be a surprise. The southwest regional office for the Sierra Club is headed by an active member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. His wife, a longtime member of the national board of the Sierra Club is our Junior Warden (Episcopal Speak for a leader of our church council).


Anonymous said…
Hi Chuck,

I would be interested to hear more about what you and others in your congregation think about tackling climate change.

I have been a member of an Episcopal church in California for the past decade or so. Before that, I grew up in rural Britain, attending Church in Wales and Church of England services from birth, and I must admit the idea of caring for the Earth seems totally natural to me.

I also read Engineering Science at Jesus College, Oxford, where Sir John Houghton is an Honorary Fellow. Perhaps you (or someone in your church) might be interested in a service the BBC broadcast from Oxford on 'A Christian Response to Climate Change' earlier this year.

(I wrote that post for my priest in California.)

You can find the same information (direct audio links and a transcript of the service) via this page too.
Chuck Blanchard said…

Thanks for the comment. I like your site and will add it to my reader. I post quite a bit on cliamte change (which I view as a moral and theological issue). thanks for the links as well.

My own congregation is pretty committed to action on cliamte change. Our priest, Nicholas Knisely blogs about it quite a bit. My own view is that some type of carbon tax would be necessary to force change.
Anonymous said…
The Washington Post actually understates evangelical movement on creation care and climate

The article is a welcome look at Rev. Joel Hunter and his role in the growing consensus among evangelicals that Christian faithfulness must include responsible stewardship and protection of God's creation. But Eilperin's effort to tell a compelling story and to outline evangelical creation care quickly, leaves the impression that Rev. Hunter is walking this road alone, and that he's followig only British religious leaders.

In fact, Hunter became involved in climate policy as a signatory of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a group of now 106 senior evangelical leaders who as a result of their commitment to Jesus Christ are calling for sound climate policy that will express a concern for the health and well being of our families today and for many generations. Here is the ECI statement that has captured this sentiment and was signed by 106 leaders.

(The public relations firm I head, Rooftop MediaWorks, is a partner with the Evangelical Climate Initiative and has handled the groups communications campaign.)

I regret that the article did not mention that the signatories of the ECI included perhaps the best known evangelical pastor in America, Rick Warren (Saddleback), as well as megachurch pastor Bill Hybels (Willowcreek), the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, the presidents of many Christian colleges and evangelical relief and development organizations, and several denominational leaders (here is a complete list of ECI Signatories).

Because the article is anecdotal, I've already seen blog responses that call this an indication of thin evangelical support for Christian action on climate and creation care. That impression is wrong. A national Ellison Research poll of evangelicals to be released next month (the top line results of which were part of a testimony by Jim Ball, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, before the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee in June), showed that 70% of the evangelical population believes global warming will pose a serious threat to future generations, and 64% believe action should be taken immediately to curb global warming.

The Washington Post's coverage of evangelical movement on environmental issues may reveal its sympathy for the cause. But the Juliet Eilperin article actually understated the extent and momentum of evangelical action on climate and creation care. Today, evangelical leaders and the community are embracing biblically based creation care without abandoning their worldview and speaking on environmental issues with a unique evangelical voice.

Jim Jewell
Chuck Blanchard said…

Thi is very useful information. Thanks!

Hi. I haven't commented here for a while, but I'm glad to see you're still going strong. I'm going to add "A Guy ..." to my Google Reader.

I do need to clarify something important about "Creation Care" and environmentalism.

While the planet needs all the help it can get in the fight against global warming, there is a marked difference in focus between the two philosophies. Environmentalism focuses, obviously, on the environment, with no particular philosophical axe to grind; it's religion-neutral. I think it's the position you, yourself, espouse.

Creation Care, on the other hand, stands in danger of becoming primarily a movement for spreading fundamentalist theology, and only secondarily for protecting the environment. Population control, for example, is viewed in markedly different ways by environmentalists and Creation-Carers. And the philosophy of the latter is antithetical to everything we know about protecting the Earth.

If you can stand to listen to an atheist podcast, you might enjoy hearing a long-time environmental activist discuss this issue with our panel. Be warned in advance: you will definitely disagree with some of the attitudes (it's an atheist podcast, after all) and the language can get pretty strong. So don't listen with your kids. But I think you might learn some interesting -- and scary -- facts. Stick around, too, for our guest's discussion of Ethanol and the Big Corn lobby.

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